Democracy, or Something Like It

So, today, in my class on developing countries, someone asked if a country needs to have human rights in order to be considered a democracy. My initial response was to be a scathingly sarcastic bastard (e.g. “How democratic is torture, death squads, paramilitary groups running around effectively doing the government’s dirty work, etc.”), but I decided to sit back and listen. The professor’s reply, rather than an unequivocal “of course,” or even the more guarded “ideally, yes” (which allows human-rights-abusing regimes that the U.S. is supporting or has supported some wiggle room—and what I expected him to say in some form), was instead a silence for a few seconds, followed by “ummm, lets see what the book has to say.”

I didn’t actually hear what he said after that, as I was simply too enraged by the original question (which didn’t seem like it was a rhetorical/leading question—that is, the question appeared to be asked honestly, rather than as a lead in to a mini-tirade on how quite a few “democracies” aren’t) and the professor’s total inability to answer the question simply and succinctly. As I write this now, I think the professor (who was an election monitor in Indonesia, BTW) might have simply been caught unawares by the question, which caused an internal, cognitive dissonance-style conflict in his head about the massive gulf between the normative and the empirical, and that’s why he didn’t directly answer the question. Alternatively, he could’ve been shocked that somebody would bother to ask the question, as I was, on something so seemingly obvious (that democracy is the barest minimum of the political side of human rights), and was rattled that the question came from someone in the U.S. military (ROTC program)—when the guys with guns don’t get the connection between democracy and human rights, you’ve got a serious problem.

At the time, however, I was still going over in my mind the fact that the United States (and indeed nowhere in earth) is there literal democracy. There are no democracies in the world because there is nowhere where everyone decides every issue through voting. Switzerland comes closest among the industrialized societies, I think, but much of what is termed “democracy” is actually a form of democratic oligarchy, aka a “republic.” The U.S. is now, and always has been, a republic. It has gotten more democratic over time (Senators are directly electable by the public, for example, and there are a lot of referrenda floating around—mainly in those issues where the politicians don’t want to touch for fear of loosing the next election: immigration, school taxes, etc.) There hasn’t ever been a national referenda in the U.S. to my knowledge, and that means there has never been national democracy in the U.S. Period. Now, many people on the right also believe that the U.S. should remain a republic, but shouldn’t kid itself that it’s a democracy—“don’t get people’s hopes up or pretend that you’re more moral than you really are” is the idea. I don’t believe the U.S. is a democracy either, but I at least think that the U.S. should become a true democracy; that the U.S. should actually be what it claims to be (well, actually, I believe we should be even more free than we claim to be, but that’s another rant :-)).

A related thought bouncing around in my head at the time was the ideological reasons why the word “democracy” is misused. Socialists believe that democracy should extend to the economic realm (that is, equality of economic power is a part of equality of political power), neoliberal economists following Friedman’s writings on the subject (which said that free-market capitalism—and thus economic inequality—is a pre-condition of political equality) have tended to simply use “democracy” interchangeably with “free-market capitalism,” and members of the military/intelligence establishment have used the term to mean whoever the U.S. is militariliy supporting this second (thus, South Africa was part of the “democratic free world” under apartheid, but is part of the “third world” today).

Anyhow, that was my (earliest) morning class today. Pity me for having to wake up to that (or whatever). 😉