Your Lying Eyes

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24 March 2008

Democracy Not a Birthright

The Christian Science Monitor has a rather pathetic op-ed by a disillusioned liberal (Tim Hackler) bemoaning the failure of democracy to take root across the globe. Don't get me wrong - he deserves props for recognizing this stubborn fact of life, but he's still trying to vainly have it align with his world view, and it doesn't fit.

The Iraq war is opening many eyes - not just those of conservatives' - by the base nature of its savage conflicts. It's opened his eyes:
I think most of us have moved at least slightly toward Hamilton's darker view of human nature. Can we still believe, for example, that Jeffersonian democracy will one day arrive and then survive throughout Africa and the Middle East? The painful failures of the Iraq war have sowed substantial doubts: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well," wrote Danielle Pletka in The New York Times recently. "I was wrong. There is no freedom gene...."
He takes this insight one step further:
History suggests that culture, not genetics, determines fitness for democracy. And history suggests we can pinpoint what kind of culture is required – a culture of the Enlightenment.
Well, maybe it's just culture and maybe not - the evidence is a little more mixed than he thinks. He's really twisting Occam's razor here:
Here is a thought experiment to put things in perspective. Imagine a map of the world in 1800. Color in all the countries that took part in or were directly influenced by the Enlightenment (let us say, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries). Now jump forward two centuries and color in all the countries with working democracies...It is virtually the same map. And how many countries have a fully functional democracy but were not among, or did not spring from, those 22 countries? Just one – Japan.
Wouldn't it be a lot easier to say "let's look at all the countries with fully functioning democracies - with one exception, they are all Western European or settled by Western Europeans"? Or perhaps he could note that when you look closer at these countries and note which ones have had the least trouble with their democracies over the last 60 years, democracy appears to be generally more stable as you move north (Portugal, Spain, and Greece were all ruled by juntas into the seventies, and Italy turns over her government every two years). Wouldn't that suggest genes could be a factor?

And what does the Enlightenment have to do with it? Sure, the ideals promoted by the America's Founding Father's owed a great deal to John Locke, but the revolution itself was really just an exercise in militant home-rule combined with anti-monarchism. What about Germany, that land of composers, poets, and philosophers? There wan't a trace of functioning democracy there until their nation was nearly wiped off the map 63 years ago. That finally convinced them to try something different. (The same thing happened across the globe in Japan, of course.) Austria - the Austro-Hungarian Empire ring a bell? That was just 90 years ago. France? The home of Mr. Enlightenment himself, J.J. Rousseau - need we go into the bloody details of how democracy fared in that enlightened land?

No, democracy was not the product of the Enlightenment. It was (with the isolated exception of Switzerland and perhaps Iceland) the product of England, nurtured over the course of 500 years under a constitutional monarchy, before it took root firmly in its erstwhile colony across the Atlantic as well as on its own soil in the 18th century. It spread from there across Europe (much like the Industrial Revolution, but much less evenly and firmly), but did not predominate until it was imposed on the razed continent by the victorious Anglosphere powers after WWII (in the West, that is - in the East the other winner imposed its own brand of "democratic" government).

Hackler then reveals the real target of his despondent anger - the true enemy of democracy in the world today - Republicans!
Why do I take a darker view than I did 16 years ago? Today, we have a coarser public discourse and lower standards, and we have suffered the consequences of a political party that quite openly set about to divide Americans into hostile camps because it believed that strategy would give them a narrow electoral advantage. The result is an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to have a mature, adult, logical national debate about important issues.
He has a real knack for spotting a problem and looking at it from exactly the wrong vantage point. There's another significant quality Hackler failed to notice among his list of democracies - they all represent one people under one flag - with one significant exception: Belgium, which is even now considering splitting up. The U.S. now has two significant minorities (one of them growing rapidly) recognized as such by federal law (Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act) - not a pattern conducive to effective democratic government. Granted, today's Republican Party rhetoric is not going to be confused with the Federalist Papers, but is Hackler blind to the growing factionalism at large in the public arena? Was he out of the country during the Jena 6/Columbia Noose farces? Anyway, it's good to see a liberal get hit with a bad case of pessimism (the essence of conservatism), even if he does completely misdiagnose it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

perfect analysis z

March 25, 2008 1:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe Hackler could also add India to the list. It's hardly perfect, but given it's size and history, the system has survived remarkably well. Of course, that further advances your point, ziel, as India's democracy is due to its Anglo-Saxon "heritage".

Taiwan and South Korea should also be considered new additions, though they're in the same class as Greece and Portugal.

March 25, 2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

True, and there must be a few more Eastern European countries that are functioning democracies. Poland, for example?

March 26, 2008 12:57 AM  
Blogger Michael Carr - Veritas Literary said...

And there are a few more examples of multi-ethnic democracies, such as Canada and Switzerland, and even the UK (Wales).

March 27, 2008 1:55 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

KingM, yes Canada is a multi-ethnic democracy but Quebec is a constant thorn in the nation's side and the Anglo side has had to effectively buy the French side off to keep the peace.

To me the U.K. as a whole counts as multi-ethnic, but the author chose to highlight Scotland as a separate country, which is not really true. But with only tiny pockets as exceptions, all of the U.K. speaks English and the English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish have very few differences culturally, outside of accents (and even these vary on a north/south and east/west cline, not really so dramatically country-to-country.

March 27, 2008 8:04 PM  
Blogger togo said...

What about Germany, that land of composers, poets, and philosophers? There wan't a trace of functioning democracy there until their nation was nearly wiped off the map 63 years ago.

Putting the whole Weimar Republic question to the side, Imperial Germany had quite a bit of democracy:
What happens when manhood suffrage, a radically egalitarian institution, gets introduced into a deeply hierarchical society? In her sweeping history of Imperial Germany's electoral culture, Anderson shows how the sudden opportunity to "practice" democracy in 1867 opened up a free space in the land of Kaisers, generals, and Junkers. Originally designed to make voters susceptible to manipulation by the authorities, the suffrage's unintended consequence was to enmesh its participants in ever more democratic procedures and practices. The result was the growth of an increasingly democratic culture in the decades before 1914.

Explicit comparisons with Britain, France, and America give us a vivid picture of the coercive pressures--from employers, clergy, and communities--that German voters faced, but also of the legalistic culture that shielded them from the fraud, bribery, and violence so characteristic of other early "franchise regimes." We emerge with a new sense that Germans were in no way less modern in the practice of democratic politics. Anderson, in fact, argues convincingly against the widely accepted notion that it was pre-war Germany's lack of democratic values and experience that ultimately led to Weimar's failure and the Third Reich.
Other indicators of political participation, including membership in political parties and civil society organizations, also rose to very high levels. Some scholars discount Imperial Germany's high rates of voting since the fate of the chancellor was not directly dependent upon it. 28 Yet if elections had truly been seen as meaningless, then German citizens would not have bothered to participate in such droves. And if governments could ignore popular will with impunity, they would hardly have spent increasing time and effort trying to influence the outcome of the voting.

March 28, 2008 2:25 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

ICR - thanks - looks interesting - when I have time I'll have to try to get around the paywalls.

My use of "functioning" democracy was of course intended to exclude the Weimar Republic, but claiming "not a trace" was I guess a bit of an overstatement. Still, one could infer from the Weimar experience that while Germans might have taken part in very real democracy-oriented activity in late 19th century Germany, without an authoritarian presence democracy had no chance at producing anything other than chaos.

March 28, 2008 4:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to have forgotten that medieval Poland contributed to the ideology of democracy. It wasn't just Iceland, Switzerland, and England.

March 31, 2008 11:03 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Well, yes, apparently. But, as with Iceland and Switzerland, it's hard to argue that the Polish Democracy project had much influence over the eventual spread of democracy in in post-war Europe.

April 02, 2008 11:32 PM  

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