American Democracy: Not a World Leader

Representative Tom Lantos has decided to retire because of an esophageal cancer diagnosis. I believe him, although the impending challenge by former state Senator Jackie Speier, who has been an effective legislator and deserves support, might also have had something to do with it.

I have long liked Lantos, who is a Holocaust survivor, and despite his hawkishness, a generally progressive figure. But his retirement statement reflects a real American disease of self-congratulation. Lantos said:

“It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a member of Congress,” Lantos said in a press release. “I will never be able to express fully my profoundly felt gratitude to this great country.”

Only in the United States? Really? Tell that to Leon Blum. Or Bruno Kreisky. Both of these men survived the Holocaust (Blum, at Buchenwald; Kreisky, as a refugee), and later became Prime Minister of their countries. (Kreisky’s anti-Zionism hardly endeared him to the Jewish community or me, but the point remains.).

This reminds me of Joe Lieberman’s self-congratulatory acceptance speech at the 2000 Democratic Convention, where he also said that his story could happen “only in America.” That’s just wrong.

American congratulates itself on its openness, and its ability to serve as an inspiration for other countries, but how much of this is merely public relations? The United States is hardly a world leader in measures of social mobility.

The United States Constitution is nowhere close to the most enlightened or the most progressive in the world; American academics routinely go to other countries to show them how democracy is done, and are just routinely laughed at–not because of the impossibility of democracy, but because of our arrogance that we are somehow in the democratic vanguard. We’re not.

And maybe our foreign policy would be a little more effective if we realized that now and then.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.