Last week, I participated in a conference of trans-Atlantic policy makers discussing various issues affecting Europe and North America. The specific policy prescriptions suggested to deal with the fiscal, trade, and social challenges confronting western democracies were considered in the context of what might be politically realistic, a less-than-straightforward calculus in the post-Arab spring and Greek solvency crisis world.

One of the participants made a comment that has stuck with me, not only in terms of its specific relevance to the issues we were discussing, but for its broader application. Referencing the 2013 European elections which, for the first time, will see Europeans directly elect the President of the European Commission, it was suggested that this direct mandate would allow the central European power to act more boldly. I didn't write down his exact words but they were to the effect, "It is not the fact that he or she will have been directly elected, but rather that the people will have someone to blame if things go wrong, that will allow the Commission to act more decisively."

The mandate for bold leadership is increased if followers feel they have someone to blame if things go wrong? Is this perhaps an important insight into the nature of 21st century democracy? It is often said that we do not elect governments but un-elect them. Opposition parties don't win; incumbent parties lose. When things are going wrong, we identify the culprits and throw the bums out.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. We are trying to build a society without any real consensus. Equality is the basis, say those who follow Locke (consciously or not). Freedom trumps it, if you are a friend of Rousseau. Rawls tried to sort through the knot by suggesting reason was the common basis on which we could prioritize our collective choices. I happen to think that justice, Christianly understood, trumps all of the above.

But quite beyond the philosophic and political debates, our leaders are in quite a difficult bind. Whatever choices they make, it is hard for them to convince the public that they have done the right thing because the only measure of right left is whether something works in the short-term. And so we ask our leaders to do the impossible. When they fail, we kick the bums out.

Didn't someone did say that democracy was the worst system, except for all of the rest?