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Making Democracy Safe

April 29, 2011

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.

So, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that democracy is just democracy, but liberalization is a process. It really becomes a question of Liberal Democracy vs. Illiberal Democracy, then.

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.

  1. You make a good point, and I’m a fan of that book as well. Just to tack onto your points, I’d also point out that Zakaria very rightly notes the importance of a Constitution in guaranteeing liberal freedoms, essentially ensuring that the democracy protects itself from itself.

    Consequently, in many ways, a well functioning democracy requires anti-democratic characters (i.e. it takes an overwhelming majority [or “supermajority”] to amend the constitution).

    Even democracies tend to be not actual democracies — they are democratic republics, which is a major distinction. Having someone represent yourself is in many important ways different from representing yourself.

    One of the most important lessons the US ought heed for its foreign policy in the MENA region is that revolutions don’t necessarily yield democracy, and democracy in and of itself isn’t necessarily good. Moreover, as Henry Kissinger has noted, the leading revolutionaries of a revolution typically never survive it (i.e. Egypt’s military now rules the state [again!]). Thus, US foreign policy in that region, for the time being, shouldn’t expect to be too based in ideals–it instead needs to be more reactionary and limited, because whatever is in motion is much too large for the US to control exclusively.

    • You bring up some great points. I’m particularly glad you mentioned the importance of constitutions, as well as inherently–even intentionally–undemocratic protections.

      Over the past few days, I’ve been working on wrapping my mind around the 2009 Honduras coup situation. Basically, a democratically elected president started taking strides to amend the constitution to provide more power to the executive (similar to what Hugo Chavez has done in Venezuela). After challenging congress and just straight ignoring the judiciary, the Supreme Court finally ordered the military to arrest him. He ended up fleeing the country, rather than being imprisoned, and a little while later (I can’t remember how long, but we’re talking a matter of probably a few months) the congress elected a new president.

      I haven’t read enough about that situation yet to fully develop and informed opinion, although my most recent post discusses the price paid by journalists). But on the surface, it seems to me that this was a pretty reasonable response.

      Other than Costa Rica, I can’t think of a single country in Latin America with a government institution stronger than the military. With the most recent coup in Honduras, at least the military worked quickly to restore democratic institutions.

      Good stuff. Thanks for your comments!

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