Making Democracy Safe
In his book The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, political analyst Fareed Zakaria argues that democracy is not always a good thing. His basic premise is not a treatise against democracy; rather, it’s a discussion of the idea that it’s possible to have too much democracy.
I got to thinking about this the other night as I was watching former senator Rick Santorum discuss his platform on U.S. foreign policy. While I’m not trying to endorse him or any other candidate for either party, I was really intrigued by his statements regarding the current trend of popular uprisings in the Middle East and northern Africa.
In a nutshell, Senator Santorum posited that the goal of U.S. foreign policy should be the spread of freedom, not democracy. He explained that sometimes we encourage our friends and allies to move gradually toward democracy, promoting liberty above all, until the conditions are right for democracy to uphold freedom.
This resonates with something Davidson College associate professor of political science Russell Crandall said in a recent essay entitled “The Post-American Hemisphere: Power and Politics in an Autonomous Latin America”, published by Foreign Affairs magazine:
Yet the region struggled to convert democratic practices, such as open elections, into lasting democratic institutions, such as independent judiciaries.
Dr. Crandall was describing some of the challenges faced by many Latin American countries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as they struggled to overcome the legacy of military dictatorships, seeking justice for decades of repression and human rights violations.
In some cases, the journey down the road to democracy has taken a sharp Left at the fork, leading to the rise of democratic populists such as Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales, and Rafael Correa. All of these leaders were democratically elected while running on platforms that seemed… less than democratic. Sometimes, democracy can lead to its own undoing.
I’ve often explained to high school students that democratization is a process. I’ve explained that even in the US, this bastion of liberty, we’ve had to critique and improve upon our democracy several times–as in, twenty-seven times–to make it more… well, democratic.
Because frankly, an America without the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments would seem positively un-American.
And yet, none of these amendments to the U.S. Constitution would have been passed had it not been for the gradual liberalization of our society. Attitudes changed as the people began to question the social order, learning to value liberty over racial and physiological differences.
This all seems to indicate that democracy is really just a set of principles, guidelines, and practices; liberalization, however, is the prevailing attitude that drives those practices. And if democratic institutions are not founded on liberalization, then democratic practices can easily lead to the dismantling of those same democratic institutions.
Once the attitudes of the general public and those who govern them have been liberalized–meaning that they value liberty over power, ego, and wealth–the democratic institutions can be put in place to protect freedom by way of democracy.
Mr. Zakaria said it best:
Eighty years ago, Woodrow Wilson took America into the twentieth century with a challenge to make the world safe for democracy. As we enter the twenty-first century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.
Therefore, democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. Democracy means nothing if it fails to protect freedom.
This bears consideration as the U.S. decides how to move forward in light of the popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and northern Africa.