OXFORD, Ohio - With political gridlock in Washington and sharp divisions about how to deal with issues like gun control, abortion and healthcare, now is a good time to ask the question: Is democracy working in America?
That was the complicated topic tackled Wednesday night by two nationally known guest speakers at Miami University in Oxford.
As part of Miami's first Janus Forum Lecture, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein and ex-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer debated the topic and answered questions from the audience.
Klein, a liberal leaning author who sometimes guest hosts programs on MSNBC, and Fleischer, who worked for neo-conservative President George W. Bush, differed on whether America's governmental system is healthy and effective.
Fleischer said the peaceful transition of power when the president of one party steps aside for a person elected from another is proof that democracy is alive and well. He cited the disputed presidential election in 2000 between Bush and Al Gore, whose outcome wasn't decided until weeks later by the Supreme Court.
Further, he noted only twice in 236 years of U.S. history have three consecutive presidents each served two terms. It happened currently with Bill Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama; and it happened with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe in 1801-1825.
"The very fact that this occurs so rarely suggests to me our democracy is working," Fleischer told the crowd.
But Klein countered although the United States performs well in handing over the reins of power, and kicking out presidents it dislikes, it is lacking in other important areas.
"This is a great thing we do. It's also somewhat of a low bar to set to say our democracy is working," Klein said. "It doesn't mean or system is working well or will continue to work in the future."
One way to gauge a democracy's vitality, he added, is judging whether it transfers the wishes of its people into law. If that isn't happening, then the system should be modified to ensure that it does.
There is nothing improper about seeking to change how government functions, like amending the Constitution, Klein said. When the nation was founded, women, black people and Native Americans were denied the right to vote, and people didn't directly elect their senators.
"It doesn't accord with the system our Founders set up. We've changed that system over and over again," Klein said.
In some cases, the Founders began the changes themselves, later in life. "They were brilliant men, and they learned," he added.
Fleischer believes the nation seems more polarized now because of advances in communications technology like the 24-hour news cycle on cable TV, the Internet and what he called "the Twitter mentality."
Noting that Obama won reelection with just 51.1 percent of the vote compared to Mitt Romney's 47.2 percent, Fleischer said, "The country is split, and our government reflects the split in the country … the American people keep choosing, of their own free will, a divided government."
Fleischer pointed to a string of legislative accomplishments in the past 20 years that were agreed upon by a president of one party and a Congress controlled by another as evidence government can accomplish important goals, when needed. He cited welfare reform in the 1990s and education reform in the early 2000s as examples.
"People now bemoan the fact that Bush got us into two wars, but Congress approved those wars, overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support," he said.
Politics always has been a rough affair, Fleischer said, and were far nastier in the early 1800s when many candidates routinely accused each other of being monarchists and questioned the legitimacy of their births.
Recalling the 1804 incident in which Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed political rival Alexander Hamilton, Fleischer quipped, "That would be the first but not the last time that a sitting vice president shot someone."
Klein argued that a good measure about whether government is effective is how people feel about the government.
Polls by the Pew Research Center showed about 60 percent of Americans trusted their government throughout most of the 1960s. In the ‘70s, after the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon's resignation, that number slipped to around 30 percent. But it rebounded in subsequent decades to the 40-50 percent range.
Now, however, the number has slipped to an all-time low of 24 percent, Klein said.
Additionally, numerous recent polls show that the Congress is so reviled that it's less popular than Nixon was during the Watergate era, and less popular than items like banks, head lice, colonoscopies and having the U.S. become a Communist nation.
"We are not happy with our system. We are not happy at all," Klein said. "That's
not a safe place to be."
Addressing the crowd of mostly college students, Klein said the great challenge for the next century would be devising ways to improve it.
"We should not be afraid in this country, or at least not overly afraid, of change," he said.
Wednesday's event was the first of a series of lectures on civil affairs. It was sponsored by The Thomas W. Smith Project on Liberty, Democracy and Citizenship; and by The Harry T. Wilks Leadership Institute at Miami University.