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Downloading Democracy

Downloading Democracy

Mini Teaser: History tells us that democracy should not be taken lightly. Without the proper cultural foundations, in can be a messy business indeed.

by Author(s): Robert Conquest

The common addiction to general words or concepts tends toproduce mind blockers or reality distorters. As Clive James has putit, "verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly andcontinuously seen by its possessors, is an unbeatable way ofblurring reality until nothing can be seen at all."

"Democracy" is high on the list of blur-begetters--not a weaselword so much as a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word. Theconception is, of course, Greek. It was a matter of the free voteby the public (though confined to males and citizens). Pericles,praising the Athenian system, is especially proud of the fact thatpolicies are argued about and debated before being put into action,thus, he says, "avoiding the worst thing in the world", which is torush into action without considering the consequences. And, indeed,the Athenians did discuss and debate, often sensibly.

Its faults are almost as obvious as its virtues. And examplesare many--for instance, the sentencing of Socrates, who lost votesbecause of his politically incorrect speech in his own defense. Orthe Athenian assembly voting for the death of all the adult malesand the enslavement of all the women and children of Mytilene, thenregretting the decision and sending a second boat to intercept,just in time, the boat carrying the order. Democracy had the evenmore grievous result of procuring the ruin of Athens, by voting forthe disastrous and pointless expedition to Syracuse against theadvice of the more sensible, on being bamboozled by the attractivepromises of the destructive demagogue Alcibiades.

Even in failure, the thought-fires it set off went on burning.But the views it posed did not really return to Europe andelsewhere until a quarter of a millennium ago. Thus it was not itsexample but its theory that hit the inexperienced thinkers of theEuropean Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the inheritance was lessabout the Periclean need for debate than about the need to harnessthe people (to a succession of rulers). And though the broaderforces of real consensual rule began to penetrate, from England andelsewhere (such as the early New England town meetings or those ofSwiss rural cantons), they had to compete in the struggle for thevote with inexperienced populations and "philosophical" elites.

The revival of the concept of democracy on the Europeancontinent saw this huge stress on the demos, the people. They couldnot in fact match the direct participation of the Athenian demos,but they could be "represented" by any revolutionary regimeclaiming to do so--often concerned, above all, to repress "enemiesof the people." Also, the people, or those of military age, couldbe conscripted in bulk--the levŽe en masse that long defeated moreconventional armies. As the 19th century continued, the peoplecould be polled in plebiscites and thus democraticallyauthenticated. Napoleon III, of course, relied on this, and it isclear that he actually had high majority support. In any case, thenew orders, democratic or not, had to seek or claim authenticationby the people, the masses, the population.

Another aspect of premature "democracy" is the adulation of whatused to be and might still be called "the city mob" (noted byAristotle as ochlocracy). In France, of course, in the 1790s, aspate of ideologues turned to the Paris mob, in riot after riot,until the 18th Brumaire, Napoleon's coup of 1799. The ploy wasthat, as A. E. Housman put it, a capital city with far fewerinhabitants could decide the fate of the country's millions.

That democracy is not the only, or inevitable, criterion ofsocial progress is obvious. If free elections give power to arepression of consensuality, they are worse than useless. We willpresumably not forget that Hitler came to power in 1933 byelection, with mass and militant support. The communist coup inCzechoslovakia in 1948 was effected by constitutional intriguesbacked by "mass demonstrations." We need hardly mention the"peoples' democracies" and the 90 percent votes they alwaysreceived. As to later elections, a few years ago there was a fairlyauthentic one in Algeria. If its results had been honored, it wouldhave replaced the established military rulers with an Islamistpolitical order. This was something like the choice facing Pakistanin 2002. At any rate, it is not a matter on which the simpleconcepts of democracy and free elections provide us with clearcriteria.

"Democracy" is often given as the essential definition ofWestern political culture. At the same time, it is applied to otherareas of the world in a formal and misleading way. So we are toldto regard more or less uncritically the legitimacy of any regime inwhich a majority has thus won an election. But "democracy" did notdevelop or become viable in the West until quite a time after alaw-and-liberty polity had emerged. Habeas corpus, the jury systemand the rule of law were not products of "democracy", but of a longeffort, from medieval times, to curb the power of the Englishexecutive. And democracy can only be seen in any positive orlaudable sense if it emerges from and is an aspect of thelaw-and-liberty tradition.

Institutions that differ in the United States and the UnitedKingdom have worked (though forms created in other countries thatwere theoretically much the same have often collapsed). That is tosay, at least two formally different sets of institutions havegenerally flourished. It seems that the main thing they share isnot so much the institutions as the habits of mind, which are farmore crucial, and, above all, the acceptance of the traditionalrules of the political game.

More broadly, in the West it has been tradition that has beengenerally determinant of public policy. Habituation is more centralto a viable constitution than any other factor. Even the Western"democracies" are not exactly models of societies generated by theword, the abstract idea. Still they, or some of them, roughlyembody the concept, as we know it, and at least are basicallyconsensual and plural--the product of at best a long evolution.

The countries without at least a particle of that background orevolution cannot be expected to become instant democracies; and ifthey do not live up to it, they will unavoidably be, with theirWestern sponsors, denounced as failures. Democracy in any Westernsense is not easily constructed or imposed. The experience of Haitishould be enough comment.

What we can hope for and work for is the emergence, in formerrogue or ideomaniac states, of a beginning, a minimum. The neworders must be non-militant, non-expansionist, non-fanatical. Andthat goes with, or tends to go with, some level of internaltolerance, of plural order, with some real prospect of settlinginto habit or tradition.

Democracy cannot work without a fair level of political andsocial stability. This implies a certain amount of politicalapathy. Anything resembling fanaticism, a domination of the normalinternal debate by "activists" is plainly to be deplored. Anddemocracy must accept anomalies. As John Paul Jones, the Americannaval hero, sensibly put it in 1775, "True as may be the politicalprinciples for which we are now contending, . . . the shipsthemselves must be ruled under a system of absolute despotism." Thenavy, indeed, is an extreme case; no democratization in any realdegree makes sense, any more than it does in, say, a university, atthe other end of the spectrum.

Democratization of undemocratizable institutions is sometimesdoubtless the expression of a genuine utopian ideal, as when theJacobins by these means destroyed the French navy. But more oftenit is (in the minds of the leading activists, at least) a consciousattempt to ruin the institutions in question, as when theBolsheviks used the idea to destroy the old Russian army. Whenthis, among other things, enabled them to take power themselves,they were the first to insist on a discipline even morevigorous.

In its most important aspect, civic order is that which hascreated a strong state while still maintaining the principle ofconsensus that existed in primitive society. Such an aim involvesthe articulation of a complex political and social order. Thestrains cannot be eliminated but can be continually adjusted.Political civilization is thus not primarily a matter of thegoodwill of leadership or of ideal constitutions. It is, above all,a matter of time in custom.

All the major troubles we have had in the last half century havebeen caused by people who have let politics become a mania. Thepolitician should be a servant and should play a limited role. Forwhat our political culture has stood for (as against the principlesof total theorists and abstractionists) is the view of society as adeveloping and broadening of established liberties andresponsibilities, and the belief, founded on experience, that inpolitical and social matters, long-term predictions, howeverexciting and visionary, seldom work out.

Democracy is almost invariably criticized by revolutionaries forthe blemishes found in any real example, as compared with the grandabstraction of the mere word. Real politics is full of what itwould be charitable to call imperfections. And there are those who,often without knowing it, become apologists and finally accomplicesof the closing of society. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in TheFederalist (No. 1),

"A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious maskof zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbiddingappearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.History will teach us, that the former has been found a much morecertain road to the introduction of despotism, than thelatter."

But with a civic culture it is more clearly a matter of a basison which improvements can be made. For a civic society is a societyin which the various elements can express themselves politically,in which an articulation exists between those elements at thepolitical level: not a perfect social order, which is in any caseunobtainable, but a society that hears, considers and reformsgrievances. It is not necessarily democratic, but it contains thepossibility of democracy.

Essay Types: Essay