Probably the single biggest surprise to come out of this year's Lowy poll was about Australians' apparently casual attitude to democracy — just 60% of Australians said democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, and among 18 to 29 year olds it was 39%. This result has inspired an awful lot of commentary about the fragility of our democracy; this essay in The Monthly is a recent example (though the accompanying photo is so whimsical and charming that it made me instantly optimistic about Australian democracy).
I had a the feeling from the beginning that much of this commentary was overwrought, but I could never quite articulate why, until yesterday, when I stumbled on a passage in Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles. Maybe we really are fed up with democracy, but then again, we always have been:
It is well documented that the publics of the Western democracies do not generally believe in many of the practical constitutional underpinnings of the parliamentary states. For example, the publics in the United States and United Kingdom do not believe in an adversarial political system ("Why can't the politicians put partisan differences aside and do what's best for the country?"); they do not believe in the protection of criminal rights ("If he's not guilty, why do you think he was arrested and indicted? A criminal should not go free on 'technical' grounds"); they do not believe in the adversarial role of lawyers ("If we could just sit down without the lawyers, we could sort out our differences. A lawyer only wants you to hear his side of the story") and cannot bring themselves to believe that an ethical attorney would defend a client he believed to be guilty or take a position on a legal question solely because it was in his client's interests to do so. Americans, by significant majorities, believe there should be prayers in the public schools, that news reporters should be forced to reveal their sources when presented with a subpoena, that a refusal to testify on one's own behalf is tantamount to a confession of guilt, and that politicians generally - though not, it should be noted, one's own congressman - are professional liars and that federal judges should not have life tenure - all attitudes that are considerably at variance with the constitutional operation of the system that, taken as a whole, Americans revere.