An Urban's Rural View

Can Democracies Compete?

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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Locks are among U.S. transportation infrastructure categories overdue for needed updates. If the politicians don't work out their differences, a lot of badly needed roads, bridges, broadband networks and other infrastructure will go unbuilt or unrepaired. (Getty Images)

President Joe Biden speaks often of the need to demonstrate that democracies can compete with autocracies in the 21st century. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill the Senate recently passed with bipartisan support seems like encouraging evidence that they can.

Yet for all the back patting over senators' willingness to compromise, two discouraging facts about the bill stand out. The first is how many years it took for even one house of Congress to finally pass a big infrastructure measure. The second is the very real possibility that the measure will die in the other.

In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on a $1 trillion infrastructure pledge. During his presidency he frequently declared "infrastructure weeks," though these were mostly attempts to divert attention from his political problems.

Congressmen of both parties have long supported the idea of a big bill -- in the abstract. There was never any consensus on details, like how much money to spend, what exactly to spend it on and how to finance the spending. Nobody seemed inclined to compromise on these details. As a result, there was no big bill.

In 2020, Joe Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion infrastructure pledge. This could easily have been the beginning of more of the same. Instead, the two parties negotiated for a few months and finally reached a $1.2 trillion compromise on the Biden proposal that got 19 Republican senators' votes along with 50 Democrats. It was applauded by both the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.

Former president Trump blasted the bill, but even Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell voted for it. He told the Wall Street Journal infrastructure is "popular" and "desperately needed." (…)

That's true, and it makes you wonder why it took years for a compromise to be reached -- and why, even now, there's no assurance the compromise measure or anything of similar size will become law.

For the bill now goes to the House, where progressive Democrats plan to hold it hostage, refusing to support it unless a separate $3.5 trillion spending bill is passed. Pessimists fear they are seriously prepared to see infrastructure bill go down in flames if they don't get what they want.

To complicate matters, some moderate Democrats are saying they won't support the spending bill until the infrastructure bill is enacted. Swing Democratic senators think the spending bill is too big.

The Democrats may find a way to work out their differences. Still, there's a real danger they won't, in which case a lot of badly needed roads, bridges, broadband networks and other infrastructure will go unbuilt or unrepaired.

Autocracies avoid these sorts of problems. I learned this in the early 1980s on a reporting trip to South Korea, which at the time was a military dictatorship.

A law professor who had served as Korea's ambassador in Washington told me how surprised he was when he returned to Seoul to find his house no longer existed. The government had torn it down in the process of building a road. No one had even informed him.

In this century, autocratic China has dazzled the world with how fast it can build everything from roads and bridges to high-speed rail. There are no legislators or regulators to delay projects the leadership wants built. It helps that the government owns all the land.

So, can democracies compete? President Biden and China's president Xi Jinping have apparently discussed this question. "When he called to congratulate me, we had a two-hour discussion," Biden said. "He's deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world. He and others -- autocrats -- think that democracy can't compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus." (…)

If building things fast is the definition of competing, Xi might be right. It's not that the U.S. can't do it. It's just that it only happens in emergencies. The latest U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford, took eight years to build. During the four years of World War II, the U.S. built 28 carriers.

In more normal times, getting consensus to build can take years, and even then there are often regulatory hurdles to leap. The founding fathers deserve part of the blame for this. They feared both concentrations of political power and mob rule. The system they designed was intended to temper political passions with careful consideration. In other words, to slow things down.

It's gotten worse in recent decades, though. The rest of the world has noticed. In the Pew Research Center's most recent survey of public opinion in 16 countries, 45% thought the U.S. political system isn't working well. Asked if democracy in the U.S. was a good example for other countries to follow, 57% said it used to be but has not been in recent years, while 23% said it never was. (…)

Winston Churchill was probably right when he said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. But that doesn't mean democracy will prevail in what President Biden calls "a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century." (…)

Democracy has many advantages (and disadvantages) that have nothing to do with geopolitical competitiveness. But Americans expect their country to be competitive. If we want to be No. 1, we need to find a faster way to build desperately needed, popular infrastructure.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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