Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not all democracies are equal

One of the defining myths of the second half of the 20th century, and the start of the 21st, is that by slapping the label "Democratic" on a system of government, it magically becomes good.

It's part of the lazy thinking that judges books by their cover, the self-satisfied idea that because we live in a democracy we can do no wrong, and of course it is cynically encouraged by the Bad Guys who know damn well that democracy just means you get to vote, not what happens either before or after the vote. People voted for the late, unlamented Saddam Hussein, and by memory he won 98% of the popular vote.

Saddam was a strong man who didn't feel the need to be subtle in his stealing of elections. In the West, we have a long tradition of quietly subverting the popular vote, from gerrymanders to super-delegates to outright ballot-stuffing. As Boss Tweed said, "I don't care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating." Or for that matter, counting the votes. And if that fails, well, it's nice to have some friendly Supreme Court judges rule against the need to actually bother counting the votes. (In the words of Justice Scalia, counting the votes fairly and carefully would threaten "irreparable harm" to Bush "by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election." Got that? Actually having a fair election is a Bad Thing, because that would challenge Bush's public claim that he won in a fair election.)

But generally, despite the flaws, Western post-WW2 democracy manages to mostly be good, at least compared to dictatorships and faux-democracies in the developing world. More or less -- mostly more, with occasional less.

But the illusion that democracy implies goodness is dangerous. Over in Iraq, one of the former members of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), John Agresto, was tasked with rebuilding the country's education system. (Sadly, the CPA neglected to actually give him any money to do it with.) Agresto bitterly wrote:

America's been so successful at being a free and permanent democracy that we think democracy is the natural way to rule--just let people go and there you have it: Democracy. But all the ingredients that make it good and free--limited government, separation of powers, checks and balances, calendared elections, staggered elections, plurality selection, differing terms of office, federalism with national supremacy, the development of a civic spirit and civic responsibility, and above all, the breaking and moderating of factions--all this we forgot about. We act is if the aim is "democracy" simply and not a mild and moderate democracy. Therefore...we seek out the loudest and most virulent factions and empower them...

We, as a country, don't have a clue as to what has made our own country work, and so we spread the gospel of democracy-at-all-costs abroad. Until this country can find a Madison, it would be far better off with just a good ruler.

[Emphasis added.]

1 comment:

Metro said...

I honestly believe that Iraq would have been better off under a system similar to the British Raj or Palestinian Mandate.

"Alright, Saddam's off to the Hague. Now, we're ruling as an Empire. Don't piss us off. You'll get a constitution this year, and local elections in two years after that. Then we'll see.

If you keep electing along tribal or religious lines exclusively then we'll hold off on regional elections for a couple of years."

The problem is that such a system requires long-term commitment, money, and the deliberate avoidance of democracy.

Myself, if I were an Iraqi, I think I'd prefer a different system. I mean, democracy is what got Dubya appointed in 2000, so you can see the problem with that right there.