The Struggle for Democracy

The Struggle for Democracy

Mini Teaser: The promotion of democracy is the centerpiece of Bush's foreign policy, but the president has yet to define democracy.

by Author(s): Irving Louis Horowitz

President George Bush's promotion of democracy has become the unifying and driving principle of his administration's global foreign policy and the stated objective of the costly and controversial military effort in Iraq. The administration has talked about enfranchising individuals in all corners of the world, admittedly with a growing sense of unease, from Venezuela to Zimbabwe to Palestine.

Enthusiasm for democracy is not limited to the corridors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Many Americans have come to see the spread of democracy around the world as part of their national identity, even though that pursuit has never been the driving force of foreign policy in the past. A zeal for spreading democracy is the emerging zeitgeist of the 21st century, replacing the egalitarian imperative that prevailed in (and convulsed) the later 20th century.

Policy analysts today are less inclined to wander into tactical-strategic muddles in which "good" dictators are supported against bad ones and alliances with enemies of our enemies are promoted. The realpolitik approach has lost currency and is no longer the benchmark against which to measure foreign policy strategies. It is also being aggressively fought as an applied theory and as a cultural force.

And yet there is still no consensus, either within the administration or American society, about what constitutes a democracy. The world's only superpower is rhetorically and militarily promoting a political system that remains undefined--and it is staking its credibility and treasure on that pursuit. Little wonder that the administration's democratic strategy for establishing stability and equity in the Middle East invites confusion, if not outright derision.

Leading political theorists offer competing definitions of democracy--and there is much at risk in the competition. There is an implicit sense that policymakers will be guided and influenced by the most galvanizing definition of democracy. A widely accepted definition could be central to how the administration identifies its policy goals beyond Iraq in coming years. But the administration must be wary of limiting itself to a policy blueprint. It should draw from existing theories and definitions of democracy to guide, but not prescribe, policy.

Without question, the global struggle for leadership in defining democracy is as ideological as it is political or economic. Leading thinkers on democratic theory offer definitions that identify political, cultural and distributive paradigms.

Democracy as a "political thesis" is best and brilliantly distilled by the works of Robert A. Dahl of Yale University. Dahl's intellectual talents match his modesty. In a statement that appears in the Summer 2005 issue of Political Science Quarterly, he richly describes why political institutions are necessary for democracy. Dahl focuses on "effective participation", which puts him in the camp of the Enlightenment vision, in which legislation and education are fused as the source of democratic wisdom. In the classic tradition of the French Enlightenment, Dahl holds that legislation and education are the building blocks for democracy.

Dahl further insists that individual ability and the freedom to change the direction of events through political involvement--without incurring a retaliatory backlash from the state--is critical to democracy. He argues, though, that a democracy goes beyond the freedoms of street mobilization or electoral participation and requires also the building of democratic institutions. What is compelling in Dahl's formulation is its maintenance of democracy as a universal concept, rather than a nationalist belief in special conditions for democracy predicated on racial, religious or local criteria. In contrast, Middle East leaders do not deny or reject the idea of democracy; they simply qualify it with phrases like "Egyptian Democracy" or the "Muslim grounds for equality." Dahl's work goes to the heart of such parochial claims with his counter-claim that culture is a universal frame of reference when it comes to politics.

Depriving democracy of its singularity and insisting upon its conception as one part of a paired hyphen, such as Egyptian, Russian or American democracy, mocks the notion of effective participation and enlightened understanding. It reduces democracy to a special and particular footnote to nationalism.

James Gibson of Washington University in St. Louis follows on the heels of the earlier work of the late Aaron Wildavsky in presenting democracy primarily as a series of cultural factors that filter into the political system. Democracy may appear to be a set of institutions, courts, congresses, laws and a constitution; but those are cultural factors that emerge from actions and attitudes lodged in the hearts and minds of average people. In a nutshell, democracy is an acquired taste, and such inclinations take a long time to develop, especially in places where such traditions have been either submerged or never existed--such as the Third World.

Gibson offers a list of elements that comprise a democratic culture: tolerance, or putting up with ideas of others; the legitimacy of democratic institutions, or accepting responsibility undertaken by legal processes; and belief in the equality of all people (which Gibson believes is Islam's big stumbling block). At the heart of Gibson's position is the notion of compromise, or the ability to accept defeat as part of the democratic process.

Gibson believes in the gradual development of democracy, comparing that incremental approach to postponing gratification at the personal level. Democratic rule, he argues, requires that the people grant authority to their ruler. He views the questioning of authority as a means to counter excessive conformity. He sees education as a universal right. It is clear that such a view of democracy is close to the heart of American values--even if our commitment to these goals may unravel in times of tension and conflict.

The notion of culture as central to democracy returns the debate to its 19th-century roots in Kant and Hegel, where one must choose between the free conscience and the well-ordered state. The balancing of rights and obligations becomes the grounds for democracy in a well-ordered state.

In turn, that leads to considerations that go further back than even Kant and Hegel into the less abstract world of Hobbes, Smith and Locke--a world in which democratic values fare less well and specific forms of justice fare better. Older notions were predicated on toleration and laissez faire concepts of law that allowed for a common starting point to all citizens. The more recent visions of the new culturalists are based on some governmental or federal authority that limits excesses of wealth and poverty and at the same time assures common outcomes.

The problem with the cultural vision is that the clarity of the theory becomes badly muddled in its choice of examples. Gibson points to South Africa as an example of a country that evolved democratically as a result of cultural factors. In South Africa, Gibson maintains that demands for social and racial justice led to profound changes in land ownership and job distribution. He fails to explain, though, just how those changes came about as a result of cultural factors. It is also unclear how that kind of redistribution advances the cause of democracy.

Another problem with Gibson's choice of example is that the jury is still out on South Africa. It remains to be seen how enduring the country's democratic progress will be. Will the pluralistic democratic culture prevail, or will it become like Zimbabwe, hostage to demagogic appeals and land expropriations from white settlers? Indeed, will a multicultural, better yet, a multiracial society be feasible or even be tolerated in the new South Africa, or will the minority white population seek asylum elsewhere? Will the economy remain exclusively open to market forces, or will it shut down in favor of controlled economies? And which language and culture is to prevail: those of the native inhabitants or English? Is there room for the first colonialists, the Dutch, in such an open system? In short, will the culture itself remain democratic, or will it yield to authoritarian options in the face of natural and human disasters? It may be asking too much of a single author to answer all of these queries. But if the theory of culture as the wellspring of democracy is to be taken seriously, then there should be enduring examples to point towards.

The third view is that of people like the late John Rawls of Harvard University and the late C. B. Macpherson of the University of Toronto. Both were intelligent advocates of democracy as a form of distributive justice. They argued that the "possessive individualism" of the bourgeoisie is not serviceable in an era of mass society. For them, the moral economy of Locke and Smith requires the augmentation of the political economy of Hobbes (according to Macpherson) and of Rousseau and the general will (according to Rawls). They propose that the social welfare model, or just plain socialist approach, is the bedrock of the democratic vision. It is hard to imagine Rawls accepting a laissez faire, 19th-century version of democracy as anything other than a liberal quagmire that drives the free market back to its competitive roots. That perspective implies a belief in the natural inequality of human beings.

In Rawls's terms, democracy requires a redistribution of public goods: "Arranging for and financing public goods must be taken over by the state, and some binding rule requiring payment must be enforced." Rawls makes this claim repeatedly throughout A Theory of Justice (1971). For Rawls, the state must curb individual avarice or selfish desires by enforcing rules. The state provides the legal machinery that ensures collective agreements, and "firm assurances must be given to all that they will be honored." Collective agreements in the Rawlsian world are much like the social contracts of Rousseau's world: commitments and obligations to provide a platform through which individuals cannot and should not be allowed to fall and a ceiling that makes the wealthy beholden to their moral obligations to society. In this way, democracy secures a just set of relations--an equilibrium assured by the state.

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