Commentary Magazine


Democracy

To the Editor:

Robert Kagan [“Democracies and Double Standards,” August] is dismayed that there is “a new distaste for promoting democracy abroad.” He sides with almost all who write about it these days in assuming that democracy is like pregnancy: either you are democratic or you are not, with no middle ground. Democracy is assumed to have an opposite pole, dictatorship.

In his article, Mr. Kagan cites Samuel P. Huntington as discerning these “hallmarks” of democracy: “the separation of spiritual and temporal authority, pluralism, the rule of law, representative government, and respect for individual rights and liberties.” If this is what Mr. Kagan means by democracy, he might instead have called it constitutional government.

Mr. Kagan admires the Clinton administration for its use of military force to restore a “democratically elected president in Haiti.” What he means by democracy, this suggests, is a system of government defined by elections and the replacement of leaders by majority vote. But to think of government in this way is to reduce all the complexities of political architecture to a single procedure, one that does not explain the historical advance of those countries (mostly West European) now labeled democratic. It does not account for the lead they gained over the rest of the world in the 18th century. Elections came late. And back in the days when Britain was “Great” and “Britannia Ruled the Waves,” the franchise was highly restricted.

By the time Europe reached the universal franchise, which is to say after World War I, all the other elements of constitutional government were in place: in particular, the complex machinery of law. This machinery cannot be replicated today by the mere repetition of the phrase “rule of law.” And it is, to say the least, inadequate to represent all these antecedent developments with the one word “democracy,” implying that if only the final capstone, the universal franchise, were put in place everywhere from Albania to Zambia, we might expect that all the other steps that historically preceded it would appear in due course.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that good government was not adequately described by voting. Nor does voting preempt dictatorship. From Azerbaijan to Benin, from Serbia to Sudan, tyrants have learned how to get themselves elected. It is true that power must be divided and the arbitrary will of the sovereign or president must be checked by a popularly elected chamber. But the claim that this requires universal voting is modern and suspect.

What we now have in the U.S. may be called metastasized democracy. It is also the form that we unthinkingly advocate. The whole idea of qualifications for voting has been discredited by modern-day progressives, which may help explain why democracy is widely seen as a perilous exercise. Perhaps we should recall the shared linguistic root of democrat and demagogue. When democracy is implemented these days, it is always in the extreme form in which we (and Western Europe) now practice it. Is it not the beginning of wisdom to see that the way to start out, as we did, is with democracy of a more restrictive variety?

The problem with our own extreme version is that it gives free rein to the redistributive impulse without first establishing the necessary incentives to produce the goods. It tries to divide the pie before there is a pie to divide. The metastasized democracies in Europe and the U.S. have shown themselves incapable of reining in government spending, for the simple reason that recipient groups have sufficient voting power to ensure that benefits are never reduced.

I would be more willing to join in Mr. Kagan’s lament for democracy if he had argued that it is possible to be a little bit democratic, and that, perhaps, a little is better than going all the way.

Tom Bethell
American Spectator
Washington, D.C.

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Robert Kagan writes:

I thank Tom Bethell for his letter. I fully agree with him that true democracy must be more than elections, but it certainly cannot be less. If Mr. Bethell is arguing that we should not be pressing for elections in some countries because they have not passed through the same centuries-long evolution as the democracies of the West, he is repeating the argument of Jeane Kirkpatrick and others that I addressed in my article. I note again here that the good sense of this argument is challenged by the fact that in the past twenty years successful and evidently stable democracies have sprung up in places where neither history and culture nor economic conditions would seem to provide fertile ground in which democracy could take root.

But why argue about whether other countries are ready for democracy if we do not even like our own democracy? I noted in my article that many conservatives have soured on the idea of supporting democratic governance abroad in large part because they have soured on democracy at home in Bill Clinton’s America. If I am reading him correctly, Mr. Bethell provides more evidence that I was right.

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