Democracy, or no democracy?

This review of a Romanian film called A Fost sau n-a fost? (Was there or wasn’t there?) in the NYT caught my eye. It’s a comedy about a TV personality who puts on a program to investigate whether the Romanian revolution of 1989 had any on-the-ground effects in his hometown. Was there a revolution, or no revolution? You could ask the same question of New York. In the last quarter of the 18th century, a democratic revolution supposedly happened in America and, presumably, in New York as well. These democratic traditions were further strengthened and evolved over the next two centuries to become the loose grab bag of democratic assumptions that we carry around with us today, a sort of national one-size-fits-all brand.
However, those of us who know even the basics of New York history and political culture understand very well that one size does not fit all. There is a patroon-flavored form of democracy in Albany that many argue works just fine; yet few can argue that it works like the generic brand of American democracy that is assumed to be everywhere inside our borders. (By contrast, the “town-meeting” style of democracy in New England is thought to be “purer” even though it is probably just as old as New York’s form.) This form of government predates the official start of American democracy by 150 years or so and has never died out. Certainly, Albany is not like Washington, not at all.

Likewise, the governor of New York is not just a miniature, less powerful version of the President of the United States. There is an entirely different flavor to the governorship here, where the average citizen still more openly expects and approves of a reformist strongman, a steamroller, an emperor, who scatters his enemies (very often, a conveniently demonized “enemy” in the form of some “boss”) and distributes the spoils to his friends. (The strangest thing is that this was all started by Dewitt Clinton, the father of the Empire State, who was not a Jacksonian.) You can learn a great deal about American history (and I think, destiny) simply by studying New York history, but New York government today remains committed to its own ancient track. “It’s Democracy, Jim, but not as we know it.”

The review of the Romanian movie I mentioned (I’d like to see this one) points out that the revolution that toppled Communism was a triumphant return to the stable, humane “same-old same-old” which had existed in the little village all along — hence the confusion over whether the revolution had happened there, or perhaps, whether the earlier Communist revolution had happened there either.

A thought: If you’re going to attempt a transformative revolution, maybe it will only “take” if it’s home-grown. So often around here we’re always trying to either follow the dictates of an entrenched, far-off Politburo, or import someone else’s “successful” revolution from somewhere else.

2 thoughts on “Democracy, or no democracy?

  1. janinsanfran

    I’m going to have to think hard about that. Places are stuck with their enduring underlying political culture – a worthwhile frame and starting place? Hmmm.

  2. Robinia

    Your last paragraph neatly encapsulates my take on both governmental reform and economic development efforts. It’s just us, so, if we want just-ice, and prosperity, we had best get busy doing it.

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