Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Demonocracy: Beware of Once-Elected Thugs

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

What exactly does democracy — “people power” — really mean? Even the Greeks who invented this peculiar institution were not quite sure. Was it just rule by a majority vote? Or did it include mechanisms and subsidies to ensure the participation of the poor? Or to protect the minority from mob rule? Aristotle himself was baffled about what actually distinguished some forms of oligarchies from democracies; indeed his Politics can offer only a hopelessly confused typology.

Later Westerners who looked back at democracy in Athens were also confused over whether it was the noble “School of Hellas” of Pericles or the mobocracy that had precipitously executed Aegean islanders and condemned Socrates — or both. Sober critics of democracy usually preferred a “Mixed Constitution,” a consensual constitution that had various checks — sometimes legislative, sometimes executive and judicial — on popular will.

In any case, through the long cauldron of Western political thought there has emerged a consensus that constitutional government should have elements of both direct voting and elective representatives to protect citizenry from their own spontaneous and raw emotions. An independent judiciary, constitutional protection of minority and religious rights, guarantees of personal freedom and expression — all these institutions are also essential to the idea of “democracy.”

In addition, free markets are integral to consensual government. So are property rights. And these institutions are not simply to be ensured at the national level alone; in a modern free country they naturally permeate all of society, from informal elections at local PTA meetings to airing squabbles freely at the local chamber of commerce.

“Democracy” is also an evolving concept. From its inception in ancient Greece it has steadily become more inclusive — dropping barriers to participation based on wealth, race, and gender. And it has also become more careful to distance governance from what a given electorate happens to feel on any given day, whether through judicial intervention or the rise of vast bureaucracies run by the executive branch.

In the modern world, the terms “democracy” and “republic” — nomenclature native only to Western languages — are bandied about quite loosely, inasmuch as they lend a veneer of legitimacy to otherwise awful regimes. The Soviet Union was supposedly a conglomeration of “republics.” So were North Vietnam and East Germany. Indeed “democratic peoples” and “socialist republics” were usually code words for no voting and no liberty.

In light of the propaganda value of giving lip service to freedom, dictatorships on the Right also rarely call themselves “The Autocracy of Chile” or “The Nicaraguan Dictatorship.” Many of the Arab autocracies — the Saudi monarchy’s employment of “kingdom” is an exception — are officially “republics.” Of course, not a single one has a really consensual government or regularly scheduled elections that are truly free.

So most countries that are not democratic claim that they are; and yet democracy itself turns out to be much more than just the occasion of one free election. And this paradox can raise real problems. Look at the Iranian elections of 1980 that took place in a climate of intimidation and without constitutional guarantees. Secular candidates were harassed and voters intimidated. Within three years there was essentially only one Islamic party and thereafter only sporadic rigged elections. The Iranian “president” and “parliament” meant little then and mean less now, as we learn from the recent forced withdrawal of a number of “reform” candidates.

Ditto for the Palestinians. Arafat had one sort of free election in 1996. But his “opponent,” Samiha Kahil, was denied commensurate air time and contended with the bribery, violence, and censorship of Fatah, before garnering a mere nine percent of the vote. There have been no presidential elections since, no free judiciary, and no free press. The Palestinian Authority is about as democratic as the regime of Saddam Hussein, who “won” his similarly fixed election by about the same plurality as Arafat. Yet the New York Times praised Arafat in 1996 for his electoral victory and like most others in the media has been reluctant since to condone his isolation to his Ramallah bunker, given that chimera that he was a “democratically elected leader.”

Haiti is not much different. An exiled Mr. Aristide was restored by the United States in 1996, on the pretext that he probably won the 1994 election. But since then he has engaged in criminality, censorship, blackmail, and violence to ensure that both the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2000 were engineered to his own satisfaction. For all his priestly past, New York sojourns, and professed sympathy for the poor, he too is a one-vote, one-time thug.

In some ways these aborted democracies are more pernicious than the old-style dictatorships, in that they use their purportedly democratic geneses as cover for some pretty awful things. Themodus operandi works something like this. An initial election follows after the demise of a prior government either associated with autocracy or the machinations of the West — the abdication of a Duvalier, Shah, or Israeli governing authority. Jimmy Carter arrives to certify (sometimes quite accurately) that the election is more or less fair — even as he can say little about the absence of a ratified constitution, free press, legitimate opposition, or bill of rights. U.N. “observers” lurk and prowl in the shadows to legitimize the proceedings, understandably scurrying back to their compounds or hotel the first time some hired goon sticks an AK-47 up their noses.

In the years that follow (such “reelected” leaders never lose and never step down), various human-rights organizations and Western leftists subsequently praise the new progressiveness of the “emerging democracy” and turn mostly a blind idea to the predictable theft, killing, and lawlessness that follow.

So happy are supporters of elected indigenous scoundrels that they issue a lifelong pass, one that has the practical effect to encourage all sorts of pathologies, from making nuclear bombs (Pakistan and Iran) to blowing up innocent civilians (Arafat). In most cases, vocal Westerner sympathizers — a Sartre, Foucault, or Chomsky — are never interested much in real democratic government, but instead find a vicarious delight in seeing raw power employed under the slogans of “social justice” and “national liberation” and expressed in predictable anti-Western tones — democracy providing them necessary cover on the cheap for cheering on pretty awful rulers.

To this day, supporters of Iranian nationalism still cite voting in Teheran. “Elected” Mr. Arafat enjoys the fruits of moral equivalence and thus is seen as no different from Sharon — inasmuch as he too “won” a majority vote just like his counterpart. That Fatah is a lawless gang — that Palestinians have no real free press and are routinely robbed, shaken down, and sometimes killed by their thugocracy — is again excused by a single, once-upon-a-time vote. By the same token, Mr. Aristide is championed by the Congressional Black Caucus and an array of leftists precisely because he once won a purportedly transparent election when those he now despises took the effort to ensure his accession.

We should worry about these developments as we press ahead with needed democratic reform in Iraq. It will be easy to have one free election in Iraq under Western auspices. But precipitous voting will hardly make a democracy. Indeed it may have the opposite effect of extending legitimacy to radical Islamicists or strongmen who emerge through the liberality and sacrifice of Western blood and treasure — only in the years ahead to curb free speech, individual rights, the right to own property, and engage in commerce without government coercion. And far from hating “democracy,” such demonocratic subversives welcome its initial largess, by which all the better they can later destroy it.

What to do when we wish to leave — and those most likely to subvert the process most want us out? The most important development now unfolding in Iraq is not the date of elections, but the emergence of a constitution that protects secularism, women’s rights, and ethnic minorities, and a popular culture — Internet, television, free assembly, and consumerism — that promotes free and easy association.

Without all that, we will inevitably see a one-time elected leader who will systematically transform American-sponsored fair voting into an institutionalized sham. And these demonocrats will largely be given a pass from anti-American Westerners who, when the corpses pile up and the chaos ensues, will still cling to the myth that Sheik X, Ayallatoh Y, or Chairman Z was in fact “elected.”

The administration seems to grasp all these pitfalls and yet senses that democracy can still work in formerly awful places like South Africa, Poland, and Turkey — if there is a commitment to these vital ancillary institutions and protections. But they are between the rock of global demands for instant Iraqi popular sovereignty and the hard place of guaranteeing long-term democratic success a decade from now when our troops are gone and the world may be an even more dangerous place.

This is not the old realpolitik of giving a pass for pumping oil and keeping Communists at bay, or ignoring the usual descent into demonocracy. Instead of slurring our efforts as colonialist and self-interested, we should at least concede that the implementation of consensual rule in Iraq is the most idealistic, perhaps expensive, and in the end audacious initiative in the last half century of American foreign policy.

Indeed, we are in one of the rare periods of fundamental transformation in world history — as the United States has pledged its blood and treasure in both a dangerous and daring attempt to bring the Middle East, kicking and screaming, into the family of democratic nations and free societies. So while American soldiers fight, build, patrol, and sometimes die in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world at large — the Saudi royal family, President Musharraf, Mr. Khaddafi, the mullahs in Iran, the young Assad, the kleptocracy on the West Bank, and the weak and triangulating Europeans — wonders whether the strong horse will prove to be the murderous bin Laden and his Arab romance of a new Dark Age, or George Bush’s idea of a free and democratic Middle East.

© 2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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