Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The Promise and the Perils of Democracy, Part 1

We've witnessed some extraordinary things in the past few weeks!

The people of Ukraine have broken with their despotic past, overruled a return to Soviet-style statism, and held free elections, selecting a true democrat to be that country's leader.

Iraqis, despite deadly threats and deadly acts by insurgents and terrorists, bravely forged ahead with elections in late January.

Saudi Arabia has conducted little-noted municipal elections.

Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, has announced that he now wants to open up his country's life.

A former prime minister was assassinated in Lebanon, uniting Christians and Muslims to demonstrate for freedom and effectively ousting the Syrian-backed government they assume was behind the act. As I write this, thousands of Lebanese demonstrators are clogging the streets of Beirut, demanding that Syria withdraw its military from their country.

Clearly, democracy is on the march!

While this moment is filled with the promise of democracy, there are also perils to be negotiated.

Peril one: The notorious sluggishness of democracy. "It has been said that democracy," Winston Churchill famously noted, "is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Despotic regimes are neat and tidy, controlling everything. They make decisions and those decisions are quickly enacted...or else. (At least until everybody gets sick of the despotic order and opposition reaches a critical mass, bringing about the end of dictatorial rule.)

But democracy is messy. It requires that leaders be persuaders, not tyrants. Democracy entails things like compromise, consensus, committees, redrafts, and accountability. This beautiful frumpiness is why democracies are at an initial disadvantage when attacked or threatened by despots. But this same sluggishness also earns democracies the loyalty of their citizens, meaning that once assaulted, democrats are fierce in fighting for their freedom.

While I believe that democracy in some form is good for every nation, irrespective of culture or background, getting the hang of it can be difficult. The colonies that came to form the United States, for example, were well-suited to democracy. Removed from Great Britain by an ocean, they had voter-installed institutions exercising an amazing degree of sovereignty long before the first cache of tea was dumped into Boston Harbor. But America's initial crack at establishing a framework of national government and law, the Articles of Confederation, was so tilted toward notions of freedom and so heedless of creating a nation that it constrained the development of the country.

If it was difficult for the United States, with its tradition of democratic institutions, to learn to function as a democracy, consider places like Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Egypt, whose citizens have no democratic history at all.

Russia's people and leaders, with their tsarist and Soviet histories, are particularly interesting to consider. When Russians run into patches of economic difficulty, they conclude that something is inherently wrong with people having freedom. Their inclination is to give more authority to the government. Many Russians seem willing to give up their freedom, pining nostalgically for the clarity of dictatorship. Vladimir Putin, Russian president, is happy to acquiesce to these impulses.

The messiness of democracy is apt to come as a real shock to people unaccustomed to it. Like recovering alcoholics, folks in newly-emerging democracies are likely to backslide occasionally, embracing authoritarianism for a season or two.

Our appreciation of freedom's global march is warranted. But we might want to keep the champagne on ice a little while longer. There's a lot of hard work to be done before these democracies take hold.

UPDATE: Thanks to Adrian Warnock for linking to this piece.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to John Schroeder for linking to this piece as well.


Alex said...

Isn't democracy in principle an extension of God's teachings???

John Schroeder said...

I am truly hopeful for these poeple. Democracy can only improve peoples lives. We live in a time when that should be more obvious than any other time in history. See my full post on the subject here.