Strengthening American Democracy by Strengthening the Electorate

Ali Zablocki ‘19
Articles Editor Emeritus

China lifted a billion people out of poverty and is experiencing six percent GDP growth on an annual basis. America was once a bastion of innovation and entrepreneurship, a leader in investment banking, and home of the world’s supreme armed forces. Today, America is afflicted by politics more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War, budget cuts to science and education initiatives such as the space program, and crumbling infrastructure. At the same time, problems ranging from terrorism to cyber warfare and climate change to income disparity loom unrelentingly large, and it is unclear how America will confront them. What does all this say about the ideals of individual rights and democracy that America has prided itself on for so long? 


On Friday, March 1, 2018, the Student Legal Forum—one of UVA Law’s oldest student organizations, now celebrating its seventy-second year—hosted General Wesley K. Clark (retired) in a conversation about what many believe to be the greatest single issue facing America today: a dearth of true leadership at a time when our country can no longer avoid addressing these serious problems and when American supremacy cannot be taken for granted as it has been for decades. 

General Clark retired in 2000 as a four-star general after thirty-eight years in the U.S. Army, at which time he turned his skills to investment banking and took a foray into politics as a Democratic Party presidential candidate for the 2004 election. Prior to his retirement from the military, he served as NATO Supreme Allied Commander, during which time he directed NATO’s response in the Kosovo War. General Clark was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Defense Distinguished Service Medal (five awards), Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and honorary knighthoods from the British and Dutch governments. General Clark credits his time in the military, at West Point (where he was valedictorian and studied the Russian language), and Oxford University (which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar) for giving him diverse international experience, but he notes that it was not until he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and had a chance to interact with people all over the country that he truly got to know America politically. However, to quote the General, he is “two years older than Donald Trump and did fight in Vietnam,” and his generation is “about done.” It is up to us to ensure the effectiveness of our country’s leadership and to decide where the country is headed and how we will get there. In a bid to support rising generations, General Clark founded the nonpartisan organization Renew America to diminish partisanship in public discourse.

General Clark believes that in order to strengthen the democracy, we must strengthen the electorate. Specifically, “We must strengthen the way we challenge those running for office.” In order to raise the quality of elected officials and put effective leaders in office, private individuals must ask hard questions about the issues facing the country and accept only thoughtful answers that delve into the complexity of these issues. General Clark acknowledges that obtaining anything but the soundbites to which we are accustomed has become increasingly difficult in the era of television and internet. According to Clark, the press is happy to headline controversy rather than real issues, because that is what sells. Cults of personality drive elections. Candidates today are selected based on their looks, their personal lives, and their overall charisma rather than their hard skills and plans for their time in office. JFK had a beautiful wife and a royal sister-in-law, but as the now-public record shows, he was not terrifically well-prepared to cope with the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, if we could move beyond such superficiality, engage in genuine discussion, and elect politicians whose focus is on achieving the solutions we the people want, progress will come.

General Clark explained that by his analysis, American politics runs on a forty-year cycle, with business-dominated policy eventually ceding to progressive political reforms. For instance, FDR pushed through massive reforms, propelling the country out of the Great Depression, into WWII, and onward to the rise of the military industrial complex––whereby government investment enabled large-scale innovation that spilled over beyond the defense sector (e.g., integrated chips). However, the rise of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economic Thought in the latter half of the 20th century led to business-led policy displacing government regulations and initiatives. Clark identified the Clinton Administration’s authorization of mergers between investment and consumer demand-and-deposit banks as the moment at which the government’s role reached its nadir. By Clark’s calculation, we are now at the end of a such a forty-year cycle of diminishing the role of government. Efficient market theory and the shareholder theory of value reign supreme, even as major issues go unaddressed by big business, and our positions in foreign affairs are messy and often reflect a lack of comprehensive strategy. Now is the time to force candidates to come to terms with the issues the private sector has been unsuccessful in addressing. 

Meanwhile, as America veers toward dystopian ideological posturing and partisanship, a nation on the other side of the world that was the greatest on Earth for millennia vies to reclaim that position. China is the birthplace of silk, gun-powder, and a fierce exam-based educational system. Though socialist, the Chinese government has a meritocratic basis, much like its university system. General Clark recalled how Madeleine Albright once described America as the indispensable nation, one which must be involved in everything. Once upon a time, Great Britain ceded leadership of the world to its best friend, the U.S.; now China is jostling to become the U.S.’s best friend and the next recipient of this title. During the 2008 downturn, China invested heavily in infrastructure and fared better than the U.S.; according to General Clark, this took a toll on China’s view of the U.S. The challenge for the U.S., then, is to prove that the rules made by a group of men over two hundred years ago can solve problems just as effectively or even more so than China’s Communist system.

As our generation rises, there are three lessons General Clark wished to impart to us. First, if the U.S. government and the American people work together, there is nothing we cannot do. History shows that some of America’s greatest achievements have been attained through government intervention; however, equally importantly, there are some issues which may only be thoroughly addressed through broad-ranging government initiative. For instance, a 5G network would be a major advance in the private sector but also raises national security issues more aptly addressed by the government than private business. Similarly, consumer and investor demand might propel some environmental initiatives but not comprehensively enough to avert devastating climate change.

Second, if the people cannot accept the government as an ally and instead vote for the marketplace to determine the American vision, we should not go to war unless it is forced upon us. Military intervention is not necessarily the most effective solution; General Clark noted, with respect to Venezuela, that chopping away at the problem from the edges—working with international organizations and countries such as China and Russia to force relief in, and then supporting interference-free elections rather than taking over the government—likely would be more effective than sending in U.S. troops.

Third, we cannot withdraw from a world of which we are a major power: those outside forces will eventually impact us; therefore, it is essential to use preventive diplomacy, to engage with allies, and to have able leaders. 

Throughout American history, there has been an evolving vision for the U.S. people. During World War II, the dream was for everyone to have the opportunity to become a homeowner; during JFK’s time, it was of Camelot; during the Reagan administration, it was of America as the shining city on a hill. Our generation must generate its own vision of America and work to ensure the officials we elect are capable of implementing it. In order to do so, we must challenge candidates to give us proof of their capabilities before we give them power. In doing so, we have the opportunity to prove once again the superiority of those classic American fundamentals of individual freedom and democracy.