Saturday, February 13, 2010

Democracy is Coming: Whom to Believe?

Leonard Cohen
(Image from Wikipedia)

We've heard with some frequency that the US wants to provide security in Afghanistan and stabilize the place to allow some sort of 'democracy' to take root there as it perhaps has in Iraq -- that's part of the rather complex, shifting narrative, anyway -- but how exportable is democracy? Can it take root everywhere? Some say yes, some no. Let's hear from three men who've spoken on the issue of democracy's future in the non-Western world.

First, there's the well-known Francis Fukuyama, in "Is the age of democracy over?," writing for The Spectator (February 10, 2010) and taking a broad view, as one might expect of the intellectual who penned the famous "End of History" thesis back in the heady days of the latter 1980s:
[T]he future of democracy is not so bleak. In the first place, democracy remains, in Amartya Sen's words, the 'default' political condition: 'While democracy is not yet universally practised, nor indeed universally accepted, in the general climate of world opinion democratic governance has achieved the status of being taken to be generally right.' Very few people around the world openly profess to admire Putin's petro-nationalism, or Chavez's '21st-century socialism,' or Ahmedinejad's Islamic Republic.

No important international institution endorses anything but democracy as the basis for just governance. China’s rapid growth incites envy and greed, but its exact model of authoritarian capitalism is not one that is easily described, much less emulated, by other developing countries. Such is the prestige of modern liberal democracy that today's would-be authoritarians all have to stage elections and manipulate the media from behind the scenes to legitimate themselves.
Fukuyama has a point about the 'legitimacy' that democracy grants, for the democratic system means that the people, more or less, grant 'legitimacy' to themselves. But how does one get to democracy from whatever political system a nation finds itself under?

Suggesting one route is Iran expert Reuel Marc Gerecht, in "Iran, Beacon of Liberty?," written for The New York Times (February 10, 2010):
To an extent seen in no other country, Iran’s intellectuals have battled and evolved over these questions [of how to ground democracy in local conditions (i.e., Shiite Islam)]. For a century, the country has been trying to develop constitutional government. For 30 years, dissident clerics and lay intellectuals have struggled to reassert the democratic promise in the revolution.

Especially for religious dissidents, democracy is now seen as a keystone of a more moral order, where the faith can no longer be used to countenance dictatorship. An operating assumption of President Obama's speech to the Islamic world in Cairo last year is that Washington can work with authoritarian regimes against extremism -- that Muslims don't need to be politically free to tame religious militancy. But the evolution of Christianity, which never had Islam's deep fusion of church and state, tells us something different: that it has been the West's political evolution -- from autocracy to democracy -- which has, more than anything, depoliticized Christianity.

The same process is happening to Islam in Iran, but at a much faster pace than anything seen in the West. As a result, millions of Iranians -- the sons and daughters of once faithful revolutionaries -- have secularized. Whereas secularizing Westernized autocracies like the shah's prompted upwellings of religious radicalism, Iran's religious dictatorship has produced a softening secularization that is likely to last, since both nonreligious and faithful Iranians increasingly see representative government as indispensable to their values.
Gerecht would thus seem to side with Fukuyama, namely, that democracy is the default position in our modern world because other systems don't work very well, so nations turn to democracy when all else fails. Democracy allows individuals to work through their differences without violence . . . once that it is established, at any rate.

But is that true? Is democracy the default position? Does it allow for resolution of differences without violence? Consider the words of journalist Lee Smith, writing in The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (2010) about Arab distrust of democracy (quoted in Michael J. Totten):
The assumption that democracy was all a plan to set the Arabs at each other's throats also made sense to many Arabs because it fit the way they see their own societies. For the Americans, democracy meant investing the Arab man, woman, and child with the rights due every human being. From the Arab nationalist perspective, empowering the Arab individual would necessarily come at the expense of the Arab nation. And weakening the unity of the nation would animate the sectarian monster that has stalked the region for a millennium.

Nowhere were these fears stronger than in Damascus. For the Syrian regime, democracy would mean an end to the domestic peace cultivated through coercion and repression since the founding of the modern Syrian state, and the unleashing of violence at unprecedentedly lethal levels. Majority rule, meanwhile, would obviously not only spell the demise of the Alawi regime but also threaten the very existence of the Alawi community. As they watched what was happening in Lebanon and Iraq, it was easy for the Arabs to conclude that if representative government meant brother slaughtering brother, then the Americans could keep their precious democracy to themselves. (p. 199)
One might argue that the Arabs misconstrued America's 'gift of democracy,' but that's precisely Smith's point -- democracy requires a culture of democratic assumptions in order to work. If you fear democracy because it means that some larger group will dominate your group within a culture that sees power as a zero-sum relationship, then you might prefer the possibility of victory offered by armed struggle to the certainty of defeat looming through democracy. If Smith is right, the US has likely been spinning its wheels in its wars of the past decade because for democracy to work, "the heart has got to open in a fundamental way," and that hasn't obviously been happening.

"Democracy is Coming"? Maybe . . . maybe not.

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