Confused About Democracy

by , January 01, 2005

We move into a new year of imperial ambitions. Perhaps it is time to take stock of some of the assumptions that lie behind the imperial enterprise in order to understand why, at least on the basis of its own stated goals, the empire is unlikely to be successful. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start with the most sacred of modern concepts, democracy.

Democracy is the goal, at least in public statements, that justifies any and every form of aggression and supposedly assures that, once it is established in the backward and barbaric regions of the world, peace and docility will reign. The trouble is that most people confuse democracy with the conditions that make democracy, or at least some form of democratic or quasi-democratic governance, possible. This confusion leads to problems.

Strictly speaking, democracy is a method of choosing the rulers in a given society. It implies the consent of the governed, but it doesn’t necessarily imply what manner of rule the rulers will employ, whether it will be cruel or kind, respectful of the rights of individuals or contemptuous of them. It simply means that from time to time the ruled will participate in a process whereby new rulers are chosen or the existing rulers are affirmed in their power.

The ancient Greeks viewed democracy as a less than ideal form of government, a form that would lead inevitably to governance subject to ultimately irresponsible popular passions that could be manipulated by clever demagogues. The founding fathers of the United States, steeped in classical philosophy, for the most part shared this negative view of democracy. They sought to establish a constitutional republic, including a government of strictly limited powers. Part of the price of establishing the constitution was a Bill of Rights, which recognized certain individual rights the government was bound to respect, regardless of the size of the majority that desired to infringe them or the circumstances the rulers believed justified their infringement. These were only a few of the limits on the ability of a majority to impose its will on a polity.

This is not the place to argue whether or not these concerns about pure democracy are justified, only to note that not everybody has had the enthusiasm for democracy as the cure-all for what ails society that our current leaders embrace, at least rhetorically.

Of course, when modern leaders talk about democracy, they generally mean something more than the mere holding of elections. They implicitly include aspects of society that include, for example, the existence of what may be called a civil society, a realm that includes civil treatment of others, even those who disagree about important issues affecting society, and an existence and dignity independent of the government. It tends to include an agreement to abide by the will of the majority on the part of those who lose elections, and an agreement on the part of the winning majority to avoid certain actions against the minority that would violate their rights or lead to their very extinction or too-obvious forms of oppression. Some people even include aspects of what might be called a classically liberal society, with a market economy and a system of property rights that are respected at least most of the time, so long as the owner plays by the government’s rules.

But these attributes of a liberal and civil society are by no means inevitable attributes of a democracy. We may be about to discover this, for the umpteenth time, in Iraq.

It is hardly news that the Iraqi Shi’ites, who comprise some 60-65 percent of the population, are likely to come out ahead if a reasonably honest election takes place Jan. 30. The Shi’ites, of course, were oppressed terribly under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated (and to some extent dominated by a few Sunni tribes in what has become known as the Sunni triangle) government. Once they have power – before a constitution that might limit their power is written – will they choose to be civil to the Sunnis who for so many decades dominated and oppressed them? Or will they take the opportunity, first, to write a constitution that enhances and solidifies their power, and then to take revenge on the Sunnis who were their overlords for so long?

It is almost certain that this prospect to some extent motivates the ongoing Sunni insurgency.

Ayatollah Sistani, who by dint of religious respect still seems to be the most influential political figure among Iraqi Shi’ites, has so far seemed to want to rein in the impulse to seek vengeance against Iraq’s Sunnis. It is difficult to tell, however, whether or not he is biding his time until a Shi’ite-dominated government is established and the sacred tenets of democracy validate whatever oppression against Sunnis the majority deems appropriate.

One sign that he could turn out to be jealous of future Shi’ite power came last year, when he effectively vetoed a provision in the early provisional constitution that would have given the Kurds an effective veto power over the existence of a new national Iraqi government. That might be a signal that he will be patient until the Shi’ites actually have power, but he intends for the Shi’ites to rule with an iron hand once they have power.

Even if Sistani himself prefers a Shi’ite government that not only doesn’t mistreat Sunnis and even respects the rights of all Iraqis (given that the concept of rights, whether it is the case or not, is viewed by many as a quintessentially Western concept that would be viewed as alien by some in the Middle East), one must wonder whether his influence will be sufficient to prevent other Shi’ites, including some with government power, to act oppressively toward Sunnis and Kurds.

In short, we may be in for a “one-person-one-vote-one-time” situation in Iraq. And while there may be consultations and admonitions going on in private, to date there is little evidence that the United States, the United Nations, or any of the outside forces supposedly advising the Iraqis about how to establish a new government are talking about civil liberties, property rights, freedom to do economic transactions that don’t trespass on the rights of others without government guidance or permission, or any of the other aspects of a civil society. Perhaps, given how difficult it will be to pull it off, this is understandable, but all the advisers seem to be concerned about is getting an election done. Even as there seemed to be no planning, even to offer advice, about the occupation that would follow a military invasion, there seems to have been little or no thought given to what kind of government will follow an election.

Perhaps this reflects that most Western government officials do not value or even understand freedom as much as we might hope. There may be a hope that democracy will be followed by respect for all members of society, but hope is about all there is.

This is hardly unique. After the fall of the Soviet Union, most Western leaders were more interested in democracy than in freedom. Not surprisingly, countries such as Russia that focused more on democratic forms than on liberty didn’t do so well and are in danger of reverting to autocracy.

In short, the insight that freedom and the emergence of a civil society are more important than elections and the outward forms of democracy seems not to be widespread. The idea that a country can afford democracy or even representative government only after a civil society characterized by personal freedom, tolerance, and a firm commitment to liberty has been established and become part of the fabric of a society, seems not to have occurred to most so-called experts.

In the coming year, we are likely to see even more imperial failure, occasioned in part by the failure to understand that a decent society consists of more than holding periodic elections, no matter how fair they are.

Read more by Alan Bock