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Monday, March 14, 2011

Does the phrase "Pro-Democracy" turn the American public into suckers?

When one listens to the talking heads on TV or on the Internet, one constantly hears that certain groups or factions are "pro-democracy".  In my last Post, I went into the question of why we all assumed that "Democracy" was a desirable thing. (I think it generally is, but I don't like unexamined assumptions).  Anyway, it occurs to me that perhaps our first question to anyone claiming that they or someone else is "pro-democracy" should be: exactly what do you mean by "democracy"?  It appears to me that, as 21st century Americans, we view "democracy" as meaning a lot more than either the foreigners using the term or Americans in earlier days would have meant.  Indeed, it's not clear that all of us Americans of today have the same definition.

There do seem to be some common elements which most people would seem to agree should be included when discussing the elements of a democratic system of government:

1.  The majority has the right to decide what the government should do, either by a direct vote, or (much more often) by electing representatives who will themselves vote, with the majority (or super-majority) vote of those representatives being controlling.

2.  This right to decide will be determined by a peaceful vote rather than by guns

3.  A large group of "citizens" will have the right to vote (we'll get to some real differences about this later)

4.  The voters will have a meaningful choice between actions and/or candidates.  In practice, this means that there will be, every so often, some turnover of both individual representatives and (probably but not necessarily) of the "party" in power. (I would argue that many modern democracies have had long periods of one party dominance, ie. Mexico and Japan, but that there were still "meaningful" and fair elections in those countries).

5.  There must be general elections at reasonably frequent intervals.

6.  There must be some real control of the government by the elected officials (rather than by an Army)

7.  There should be some limitation on how long a head of the Government should serve.  This is often not formal, and I guess I'm thinking of it more in the negative;  if any one person is the head of a government for more than 20 years, I think it's a sign that it may not be a democracy any more.

8.  The "people" have the right to at least be publicly critical of their Government without penalty. (To what extent one can take to the streets or strike may be up for debate, but I should at least be able to run a newspaper that says terrible things about the Government in power.) This seems to be the first one to go when a democratically elected government turns into something very different;  Venezuela is one example;  Russia another.  Turkey is showing some signs of becoming yet another.

Now, let's look at some things which modern Americans may think of as being essential to "democracy" but which certainly are not  (or have not been)

1.  Universal suffrage.  Certainly not originally the case in the US.  Women?  Slaves?  Property requirements to vote?  Literacy tests? Voting age (used to generally be 21-now generally 18)?  Convicted Felons (not in some states today)?   (My recollection is that, in Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein created a society in which only Veterans could vote.  A form of Democracy?  I believe so.)

2. Protection of any rights of minorities from the possible oppression by the majority (meaning either  just those with fewer votes or of a minority race or religion).

3. Similar to #2-Anything in the Bill of Rights

4. A Constitution

5. A Court system that can act as a check on the other branches.

6. Checks and balances in general

7.  A lack of blatant and open corruption (I should not even have to list this one)

In short, you can have a "Democracy" that elevates one religion over others, and gives a race, an ethnic group and/or a gender no legal rights whatsoever. 

Do the Afghans or the Libyans or whoever have the right to determine that this is the kind of government they want?  Whom am I to say that they do not?  Do we only believe in a people's right to self-determination when they determine they want not just "democracy" but our particular general form of democracy?  I tend to come down on the side of the right to self determination; you may disagree, but I would ask how far you are willing to go to make these other groups act like us.

BUT when Afghans or Libyans or whoever wants the support of my Country because their group is "pro-democracy",  I think we are entitled to look a little more closely at what they are likely to mean by that, because it may not be exactly what we think of as democracy or even as a good idea worthy of our support.

We used to support groups because they were "anti-Communist".  That was often enough, in itself, to get the support of the American Government and/or people?  "Pro-democracy" sounds better to me, but it still does not, even if true,  mean the same thing as "deserving of U.S. Military support". 

That depends on a lot of factors besides just the views of the faction seeking support, including previous U.S. commitments, costs, presence or lack of International support, U.S. strategic and economic interests, and who the other side is.  However, trying to figure out what those seeking our support really stand for is certainly one of the first steps.  Enough

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