by John Chuckman
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Condoleezza Rice wants to bring democracy to the Middle East. Ms. Rice, an expert on what is now an obsolete subject, the Soviet Union, believes this can be done the way the United States brought democracy to Chile or Iran or Afghanistan - that is, by violently overthrowing governments.
Does democracy come from the full belly of a B-52 and the murderous aftermath of coups?
Apparently not. Virtually none of the countries that America's freedom-loving army of enlightenment has bombed and shot-up over the last sixty years is today a democracy.
One is reminded of the claims of Napoleonic France that it was spreading revolutionary principles by conquest. The conquest part was vigorously pursued, but the liberté, egalité, et fraternité part left a little something to be desired.
Ms. Rice displays little understanding of the history of democracy or of the circumstances which make it possible. She is not alone in this. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's efforts on "democracy initiatives" displayed a similar lack of understanding, although it must be said in Ms. Albright's favor, she was less inclined than the ever-hysterical Ms. Rice to classify unprovoked attack by a great power as an initiative for democracy.
Democracy is simply a natural development of a healthy, growing society. Over the long term, it requires no revolution, no coup, and no sacred writ. It grows and blooms as automatically as flower seeds tossed in a good patch of earth, although it is a plant whose maturity is measured in human lifetimes rather than seasons.
The early United States after its revolution was no more a democracy than was the Mother Country. The authority of Britain's monarchy had long been limited by the growing authority of Parliaments. Even that mighty ruler, Elizabeth I, more than a century and a half before George III and the American Revolution, felt the limits of Parliament closing in on her.
George III, despite later American myths, was very much a constitutionally-limited monarch. For some time, up to and during the Revolution, there were many prominent American colonists who felt that the machinations of the British Parliament were thwarting the intentions of the king and endangering the health of the empire. Even at that early time, people understood that elected government was just as capable of bad policy as a royal one or an aristocratic one. Indeed, the genius of the British (unwritten) constitution was seen by most thoughtful American colonists as being in the way it combined the three forms of government to offset each other, the direct origin of the American concept of "checks and balances" by branches of government.
While the British franchise was then highly restricted, it was no less so in the early United States. It is estimated that maybe 1% of the population could vote in early Virginia with all the restrictions of age, sex, race, and ownership of property. That's actually roughly comparable to the percentage of people making decisions in contemporary Communist China where about 60 million party members hold sway over about 1.2 billion people.
The American Revolution did not produce anything resembling a democracy. Nor did the later Constitutional Convention. It took about two hundred years of growth and change in the United States for that to happen. The powerful Senate, able to block the elected President's appointments and treaties, only changed from being an appointed body to an elected one in 1913. The Senate to this day uses undemocratic operating rules and bizarre election patterns to shield it against public opinion.
The popular vote for President did not matter originally. Apart from the fact that only a small number of males meeting property requirements could vote, the members of the Electoral College, drawn from political elites, were the ones whose votes actually counted. This absurdly out-of-date and anti-democratic institution still exists, and it can cause serious problems as we saw in the election of 2000.
Women only got the vote in 1920. Blacks in the American South only received an effective franchise a few decades ago. In some places, like parts of Florida, recent elections suggest that methods may still operate to limit the franchise of black citizens.
America has two parties sharing a quasi-monopoly on political power, and they produce much the same effects in the body politic that quasi-monopolies produce in the market place. The two quasi-monopoly parties are financed through a corrupt system of private donations. America herself still has a considerable way to go along the path to democracy.
Yet Americans generally believe that their Revolution and Constitutional Convention created a full-blown democracy and near-perfect system of government right from the start. Perhaps this explains the blind faith of people like Ms. Rice in thinking that if you just have a big war or coup somewhere, you can create a democracy.
Democracy comes gradually because it represents a massive social change that affects all relationships in society. The chief driving force towards democracy is the emergence of a strong middle class whose members have too much at stake to leave decisions to a king or group of aristocrats. The size of the middle class expands by steady economic growth. In the West, this process of change has proceeded steadily since the Renaissance and the rise of science and applied technology, with variations in the pattern of individual countries reflecting adjustments to peculiarities of local culture, invasions, civil wars, and varying rates of economic change.
Many of the societies America looks askance at in the world today make no progress towards democracy because they make little progress of any kind, especially economic progress. Static societies with little or no economic growth are ones where ancient customs and social relationships do not change, where kings or warlords rule just as they did thousands of years ago in early societies.
Economic growth is like a magical solvent that begins to erode old relationships. And given enough of it, over a considerable period of time, it erodes old ways of governing completely. This process is observable even within regions of a country. The American South was remarkably backward and static for a good part of the 20th century. But the shift of business and middle-class populations to the sunbelt during the middle of the century brought some rapid change - ergo, the phenomenon known as the New South.
It has been said that if, in the wake of 9/11, the United States truly had wanted to battle for democracy and human rights, it would have dropped dollar bills rather than bombs on Afghanistan. That, of course, is an exaggeration, but it contains important truth.
The United States could make a genuine contribution to the spread of democracy were it to focus attention on the economies of the world's more backward places. It might start with some generosity in foreign aid. The United States is the stingiest of all advanced countries in giving economic assistance to poor countries, giving at an annual rate of 1/10 of one percent of its GDP.
Reducing or doing away with American agricultural subsidies that impoverish third-world farmers would also be a great help. So, too, the tariff and non-tariff barriers that the U.S. uses against many products from these struggling countries.
Paying its dues to the United Nations and ending its childish carping about that important institution would help, since U.N. agencies perform many valuable services for the world's children, its refugees, and international cooperation and understanding.
In general, concern for democracy calls for the U.S. to start behaving more like a responsible neighbor in the international community and rather less like an 18th century French aristocrat who barely notices as his carriage thumps over the body of whoever happened to be in its path.
© 2004 John Chuckman