The horrible costs of “democracy”
How many thousands have died or been maimed, how many hundreds of billions of dollars have been wasted, and how many authoritarian but non-threatening governments have been transformed into anti-Western jihadist tyrannies, because of an incorrect word?
Subject: Why it is important to stand up for truth, however pedantic it might seem
Ever since the famous purple finger voting escapades in Iraq (discussed here, here, here, here, here, and here) a thought has been nagging at me. For most of my life, I heard people say democracy when they really meant constitutional republic. Occasionally, I or someone else would correct them, but I generally thought that democracy was just shorthand for a government like ours, with separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, a populace that is nearly unanimous in supporting the political form of the republic, etc., and it seemed pedantic to make a fuss about it, because these people could not possibly mean nothing more than universal suffrage when they said democracy, right?
But then I saw the neocon nabobs celebrating every Muslim election that we had brought upon the world, including the recent Arab Spring elections, and it occurred to me that these buffoons really do think that universal suffrage is the Alpha and Omega of political life. Who knows how many millions will die as a result. Perhaps it really is important to argue terminology, because we cannot assume that there is no conceptual problem underlying the confused terminology.
What you’ve just said is so important and you’ve stated it so clearly.
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I would add this. If a more accurate term, such as “constitutional republic,” had been insisted on at the time, the entire Democracy Project would have instantly collapsed, because none of the democracy enthusiasts could have plausibly claimed that a single election (or the adoption of a constitution enshrining sharia as the supreme law of the land) had turned Iraq into what we mean by a constitutional republic. The only way this fraudulent and delusional exercise was at all sustainable was by obsessively and mindlessly calling our goal “democracy,” because that enabled the democracy promoters to pretend, part of the time, that a mere election meant that Iraq had become a constitutional republic in our meaning of the term, and to assert, the rest of the time, that “democracy,” i.e. universal suffrage, really is the highest and sufficient good.
Indeed, the latter belief has worked its effects, because, as we’ve discussed before, a very large part of both the elite and the ordinary people in this country now actually believe that all a country needs to be good, is to have universal suffrage. If a country has universal suffrage, and it stones women for adultery, persecutes Christians, and says that all who insult Islam must die, and then those things are ok by us, because that country is a democracy.
Thus, beyond the specific harms I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, the deaths and maimings of American soldiers, the colossal waste of expenditures, the transformation of non-threatening Muslim countries into our jihadist mortal enemies, there is a much larger and more lasting harm: the destruction of the American people’s ability to understand, discuss, and preserve our form of government. And all this has resulted from the seemingly petty error of calling what we believe in, “democracy”—“democracy” without any qualifications.
And, more than anyone else, it was the neoconservatives and George W. Bush who wreaked this disastrous deformation of the American mind.
Jim Kalb writes:
I don’t think it’s a mistake about a word, it’s a different theory of government. Democracy is truly the standard, but it’s assumed that democracy means that something like what we have here in the West will win by acclamation because all human beings want freedom and consumer goods.
The basic issue from the liberal standpoint is that there’s no such thing as authority, because there are no higher principles that oblige anyone, there’s just the will of individuals. That creates an obvious problem for legitimate government. So what do you do?
There are two possibilities:
1. You set up a neutral nonpolitical structure of universal human rights, transnational bureaucracies, and regulated global markets that gets rid of all other more local, traditional, and particularistic structures and gives everybody what he wants, as much and as equally as possible. That’s PC liberalism.
2. To the extent you have to have force behind the whole thing, for example to suppress non-PC tendencies and get rid of vestiges of the past, you make that force (a.k.a. government) the vehicle of the will of each individual. That means you have universal suffrage. If someone doesn’t get to vote that’s a political and moral catastrophe that makes the whole system illegitimate.
In general, the Left is the party of control by expert bureaucratic systems, so they put greater emphasis the first principle, PC liberalism. The Right—i.e., the neocons—are the party of particular vitalist action so they put more emphasis on the second principle, the will of every individual. Still, both buy into both principles. So it’s not a constitutional republic we’re looking for, it’s liberal democracy, where “liberal” means PC managerial society and “democracy” means that everybody votes to approve it and is ready if need be to fight for it.
For the system to work, PC liberalism and the will of every individual have to be identical. And they are. People who don’t vote PC liberal—bigots, birthers, fundies, homophobes, constitutional republic fans, etc.—are obviously pathological racists. You don’t have to take their views into account because they don’t count as the legitimate views of legitimate human beings. You somehow get them out of the process so that liberal democracy can function normally.
Also, you don’t assume that pathological views are going to prevail in oppressed countries like Egypt. The combination of PC liberalism and democracy is the only possible alternative to oppression, since anything else would involve the illegitimate domination of some people by others. It follows that the broad masses, taught by their experience of oppression, can be counted on to want it. It would be racist to assume otherwise. In essence, it would be a claim that the broad masses (unlike us) aren’t really human, since they would be rejecting what all human beings want.
I don’t know. Suppose that over the last 11 years, every time undefined “democracy” was stated as our goal and ideal, there had been conservatives who had demanded: “What do you mean by democracy? Do you simply mean universal suffrage, or do you mean a constitutional republic with checks and balances, limitations on the power of government, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protections of the human rights of minorities?” Had that question been asked consistently, the democracy promoters could not have said that all they meant was universal suffrage, as the emptiness and inadequacy of that goal would have been obvious; after all, it’s still part of our common wisdom that Hitler came to power under a democratic, parliamentary system. They would have had to answer: “a constitutional republic.” And when they did so, the fact that “democracy,” i.e. a constitutional republic, was not happening and could not happen in these Muslim countries would have become manifest to all, and the Democracy Project would have collapsed.
For the nth time I repeat that Freedom House, which determines whether various countries in the world are Free, Partly Free, or Not Free, and which the neoconservatives have normally treated as their authority on this subject, has consistently designated Iraq as Not Free. Yet the neocons have kept calling Iraq a “democracy.” And no one, other than this blogger, has ever called them on that. And all I’m saying is, if the neocons had been called on it, seriously and consistently, the pretentions of the Democracy Project would have collapsed like a punctured balloon.
But I suppose Mr. Kalb could answer: “WHY weren’t the neocons called on it? WHY weren’t they asked to define what they meant by democracy? They weren’t asked to define what they meant by democracy because the entire American political system already accepts PC liberalism and universal suffrage as the definition of the good, and no longer believes in constitutional republicanism.”
Jim Kalb replies:
I’ll go with the words you put in my mouth.
As GWB noted, everybody wants the same thing. If something else comes up it’s “noise” or “a bump in the road,” no different from lots of things in this country. If Freedom House has an issue with Iraq, that’s a bump in the road. A different view would imply that you have to distinguish human groups by their outlook and tendencies, and you can’t expect anyone who wants to take part in mainstream public discussion to go down that road.
Scott B. writes:
I experienced a realization similar to that of Mr. Coleman as I watched the Fox show The Five, following the consulate attack in Libya. (This online version cuts off abruptly a little before the conversation ends.)
The show’s resident liberal, Bob Beckel, introduces the segment by saying that the victories of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are just an example of how democracy works, after which he attempts to goad the three “conservatives” around the table into saying that they’d have preferred dictatorships to remain in place, instead of the Middle-eastern democracy we see now.
At this point I was fully expecting the response to be something along the line of: “By democracy we don’t, of course, mean crude majoritarianism, but rather constitutional republicanism, with checks and balances to prevent the brutal oppression of minorities by an intolerant majority. Otherwise why would this even be worth fighting for?”
The actual response, for the most part, makes one embarrassed to identify as a conservative. Dana Perino, former press secretary for G.W. Bush, opines that we need to instruct the leaders in Egypt on how to defuse such situations (these being “situations” that weren’t allowed to arise back when “our [SOB]” was in power), and to encourage the populace to concentrate on being more economically productive. Of the two conservatives, when they were confronted with Beckel’s direct “do-you-support-democracy-or-not” challenge, Eric Bolling said: “the Muslim Brotherhood only had 25 percent support, then they won in a run-off…. How about real democracy?”
He might seem here to be criticising as “not real democracy” the wholly legitimate democratic practice of electing a minority government (less than 50 percent of popular support, yet a higher percentage than any competing parties). But as far as I can tell, he was actually saying that it’s not even “real democracy” for a party to receive a quarter of the vote in the first round, then win by an outright majority in the final round (in this case, with significant votes shifting to the Brotherhood from an even-more-extremist salafist party).
Similarly, when Kimberley Guilfoyle, after her rambling Obama-blaming rant, was asked outright by Beckel, “What is your alternative?”, she triumphantly replied: “A new president!” Initially I thought she meant a new president in Egypt, but, after viewing it again, I see she meant Romney becoming the new president. This is therefore just another instance of the mainstream conservative delusion you’ve been chronicling, where the only reason the Arab Spring is failing is because of Obama’s clumsy leadership.
That’s vivid evidence of what we’re talking about. It shows how no mainstream “conservative” will attempt to define “democracy” even when presented with the opportunity and the challenge to do so; and that no mainstream conservative understands, or will say, that Muslim “democracy” (meaning a Muslim constitutional republic with limitations on state power, freedom of speech and religion, protections of minorities, etc.) is an impossibility. They will say that they believe passionately in Muslim democracy, but that Obama just hasn’t gone about it the right way.
So they are without brains. But is their brainlessness the cause of their lack of will to define democracy, or is our mainstream liberal/neocon discourse which prohibits the definition of democracy the cause of their brainlessness?
Scott B. continues:
I think what is wrong is their total inability to respond to Beckel’s challenge by saying: “It’s not really democracy in our sense but only majoritarianism, which is not a good thing.” I put this down to the influence of the neocons’ relentless but always imprecise exalting of “democracy” (as per your original commenter’s email).
This leaves the conservatives desperately grasping for alternative explanations, no matter how preposterous, for why something that they now accept as a self-evident good could have been somehow corrupted in this particular case.
This shows the power of the prohibition. They could have easily won the exchange with Beckel had they answered the way you were hoping they would:
When we say “democracy,” we don’t just mean elections, we mean a constitutional democratic republic, with checks and balances, restraints on the power of government, protections of individual and minority rights, and so on. But this is not what Egypt has, so we don’t support it. In fact, no Islamic society is capable of constitutional democracy.
But they couldn’t say any of that, because it would be racist and bigoted. It would imply that keeping the Mubarak regime would have been better than “democracy,” which would be anti-liberal and anti-human. Finally, it would mean giving up a partisan argument to use against Obama: that Egypt could have had a real constitutional democracy, if only Obama had been truly devoted to democracy and had given more assistance to the secular liberals. So the conservatives are left with no alternative position to present to Beckel, they are left speechless and incoherent in the face of his challenge.
Think of it. America has this vast, well-funded, powerful conservative movement, and there’s not a single brain in this conservative movement—not a single figure capable of recognizing the paralyzing intellectual confusion in which the conservatives are caught and showing them the way out of it.
Now Jim Kalb (to put words in his mouth again) would say that the problem is not lack of brains, it’s that everyone believes in PC liberalism and will not challenge it. That may be true; it’s probably true. But I am saying that if there were mainstream voices that were ready and able (a) to define our ideal as constitutional liberty and not as crude majoritarianism, and (b) to argue that Islamic societies are inherently incapable of constitututional liberty, and (c) to make those arguments persistently, then America could be led out of this particular morass.
And let us also remember that until around a decade ago, point (a) was the conventional wisdom, and that until around two decades ago, point (b) would not have been considered unsayable.
Scott B. writes:
Perhaps this phenomenon could be called “defining democracy down”
If a society that lacks the will to insist upon traditional values, but attempts to avoid despondency in the face of plummeting standards simply by raising the bar on what constitutes low standards, is guilty of “defining deviance down,” then isn’t a society that yearns to spread democracy, but lacks the will, given the insurmountable odds, to insist upon anything more than a facade of freedom, guilty of “defining democracy down”?
Jim Kalb writes:
The problem goes deep.
Current public discussion excludes appeal to transcendent standards, so they’re treated as nonexistent. Without transcendent standards we’re left with two possibilities: man is determined by subrational and in the end physical forces, or man is determined by arbitrary human choice. Modern natural science, which pretty much defines rationality and reality, supports the first possibility. That’s intolerable, though, so the result is that fanatical commitment to the second becomes a human necessity.
That leads us to the question of whose choice it will be. Is it going to be the triumph of the will of the Leader, or the triumph of the choices of every individual within the limits of a system that promotes the equality of those choices? The former gives us Nazism, which is also intolerable, and the latter gives us PC liberalism.
So the commitment to PC liberalism is absolute based on the most fundamental considerations. It is inconceivable that people other than a few pathological types would want anything else. Selfish minorities might want to distort the rules so they get a special deal, but if you let the people as a whole decide, that factor will drop out and it’s guaranteed you’ll get the right answer. If you don’t get the right answer that means it wasn’t really a free election and you have to do better. The alternative would be to accept that people generally want to be—or want others but somehow not themselves to be—subhuman matter or subhuman slaves of an absolute tyrant.
That would mean the abolition of hope. But without hope meaningful thought and action become impossible, since those things are necessarily directed toward some hoped-for good. The effect is that an absolute joint commitment to Democracy and PC Liberalism is necessary given the nature of modern secular thought. Modern secular thought requires a purely this-worldly hope, which can only take the form of hope for a system in which everybody gets what he wants. PC liberalism is the attempt progressively to approximate such a system, and faith in democracy is faith that such a system is possible because people generally want what is obviously good.
I suppose a possible variation would be a “vanguard of the revolution” theory, in which some small disciplined group pushes society toward the natural situation in which democracy and PC liberalism are 100 percent in sync. I think the failure of Communism together with the self-indulgent habits and attitudes of our ruling elites rule out any strong version of that theory. People do seem to accept it in a weak form. Apart from Western invasions, bombing campaigns, aid to rebels, etc., there’s foreign pressure regarding “human rights,” foreign-funded “civil society” outfits that promote true democracy by telling people what they should think. So from that perspective disputes between liberals and neocons on these issues are disputes over the best way for Western ruling elites to act as the vanguard of the Muslim revolution.
James N. writes:
The thread on democracy vs. constitutional republicanism is fantastic, and Jim Kalb is right, it goes deep—very deep.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 23, 2012 09:02 PM | Send
Just look at the GOP primary process. Almost nobody seems to mind that a system of voting by anybody (except registered Democrats on primary day, and in some states not even that), which results in someone gaining a plurality, in some cases only 29 percent or 30 percent, produces a “winner,” and that “winner” has legitimacy because the process that produced him is “democratic.”
For goodness’ sake, until 1968 for Democrats and 1976 for Republicans, the party nominee had to get 67 percent of the delegates to be nominated! That sensible rule, together with direct appointment or direct district-by-district election of delegates would have prevented what is about to happen to this country.
And many, many otherwise sound Republicans cannot even begin to imagine that there’s a problem with this, because, after all, the process was democratic.