Eunomia · democracy

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Sullivan is right when he says about Huckabee:

What matters is cultural and religious identity, rather than policy.

I say this frequently, but this response to candidates still drives me crazy from time to time.  In fact, I argued the same thing when I talking about the risks of describing Obama in terms of his familiarity and connections to other nations and religions:

“Vote for Obama–he’s not like you in so very many ways” is not a winning slogan in a mass democracy.  Identitarianism is one aspect of democracy that is one of its most deplorable features and one of its most basic and unavoidable.  Being able to identify with a candidate is essential, and anything that weakens this hurts the candidate.   

This is how it works all the time.  Somehow it still surprises me when it happens.  I don’t agree that it is a product of “sectarianization” of politics, since I think identitarianism is part and parcel of mass democracy.  Even so, despite understanding this, I continue to be amazed at the ludicrous forms identitarianism takes.

Ralph Peters says something that doesn’t drive me up the wall (for a change):

Our instinctive response is to praise the results of Sunday’s balloting in Venezuela and question the same day’s results from Russia. But, dirty politics notwithstanding, democracy worked in both places: It just worked differently - because the two electorates wanted different things.

It’s a shocking idea, I know, but it might just catch on.  He then goes on to make this a vindication of a thesis of global democratisation, which I find less compelling.  This seems not to take account of the billions of people who are not living in functionally democratic states.  Further, it seems to take no account of the understanding that global democratisation is generally a very bad thing for political freedom.  Also, the willingness of authoritarians to ratify their policies with plebiscites and elections is hardly new, and represents the easy coexistence between democracy and despotism.  Democracy may or may not sweep the world, but if it does the chances for real political liberty in the world will have gone down dramatically.  This is one reason why I have never understood the enthusiasm for democratisation, and why those who have dubbed it the “freedom agenda” have always been on the wrong track (assuming, that is, that they were ever genuinely interested in promoting liberalism, which I don’t assume).  Even if democratisation “works,” liberty will typically be the loser. 

It’s good news for Venezuela and good news for the general sanity of outside commentary on Venezuela that the constitutional referendum in Venezuela did not pass.  Perhaps now we can start to shelve silly talk about the “Cold War’s return”?  As Alex Massie notes, this was an unexpected outcome.  I certainly expected the referendum to pass.  I assumed that if Chavez could do one thing right, it would be to rig his own power-enhancing referendum to make sure that he wins the chance to keep being re-elected (and that those “re-elections” would also be thoroughly rigged).  However, I had to remind myself, as I have written in the past, that Venezuela really is a democracy.  Unlike some, I do not bestow this label as a form of praise, but as a description.  Venezuela is a populist, illiberal democracy, but a democracy all the same.  Sometimes demagogues and populists overreach and do not receive the popular support they expect, and this seems to be one of those times. 

I would add that this makes the prospects of the Venezuelan-Bolivian military threat to Argentina and the rest of South America, feared by some, less likely, but I suppose there isn’t much point in discussing the changing likelihood of an impossibility.  

I must have turned off the debate, or perhaps I was simply overwhelmed by stupefying boredom, by the time Chris Dodd gave a bad answer at last week’s debate.  He said (via Sullivan):

Secondly, this doesn’t mean — elections are only one note, as they say, in the tune of democracy. Be careful what you wish for. If there were totally free elections, in many of the countries we’re talking about today, the Islamic Jihad or the Islamic Brotherhood would win 85 percent of the vote.

This post is a pretty good summary of what was wrong with this statement, but let me just add a couple more points.  The question Dodd was answering was about Pakistan, where the specific groups Islamic Jihad and Al-Ikhwan do not exist.  There are Islamist parties in Pakistan and there are jihadists in Pakistan, as we all know, but in the context of talking about Pakistan Dodd’s answer was even more awful than it appears to be out of context.  Here I definitely agree with Hamid that Dodd is just lumping together every kind of Islamist no matter the country, which is the same sloppy analysis that gives rise of the nonsense term “Islamofascism” that I wrote about for my column in the 11/19 TAC.  Worse still, his answer contributes to this general sense of looming disaster that Washington cultivates to justify supporting Musharraf indefinitely, regardless of how destabilising Musharraf’s own rule has become.  If many Republicans have been obsessed with Tehran 1979 and “Iran’s 28-year war” against America, as the more fanatical of them see it, leading Democrats this year are not above invoking the spectre of the Shah to scare people into paralysis and an acceptance of aimless, dangerous Pakistan policy.  Call it “Carter’s Revenge.”    

Critics of democratisation, including myself, generally have a few reasons for urging caution and skepticism about democracy promotion as a foreign policy tool and as a foreign policy goal.  One is the argument from national interest, which is quite clear: promoting democratisation in a country that will lead to an increasingly hostile or uncooperative government is unwise.  Another is a pragmatic argument that tries to consider the welfare of the people in the country: democratisation can empower those forces in the society that are most likely to turn the instruments of mass politics into the power base of an illiberal and repressive system.  A related concern is that democratisation will be forced on a society too rapidly and it will end up falling back on pre-existing family and communal structures in political organisation, fragmenting and dividing the country along ethnic, sectarian or other lines.  Yet another is that democracy promotion in practice has little to do with cultivating institutions of representative government and civil society, but very often involves propping up hand-picked lackeys whose purpose is to align their countries with Washington’s economic and political objectives in a given region.  Unfortunately for many nations, this is frequently what democratisation actually means.    

While I’m thinking about Georgia, readers will remember that Saakashvili, the demagogic despot who had civilian protesters beaten and power-hosed down in Tbilisi last week, was an occasional contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, and the editors of the WSJ were ardent supporters of Saakashvili’s government.  The editors of The Wall Street Journal have so far stayed unusually quiet about the embarrassing antics of their favourite Caucasian strongman over the past few days, and it’s no wonder.  Just four weeks ago they named him on their list of deserving recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize:

Or to Presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Mikheil Saakashvili who, despite the efforts of the Kremlin to undermine their young states, stayed true to the spirit of the peaceful “color” revolutions they led in Ukraine and Georgia and showed that democracy can put down deep roots in Russia’s backyard [bold mine-DL].

How are those deep roots looking now?  It’s not as if the WSJ couldn’t have known that Saakashvili’s rule was increasingly brutal, authoritarian and corrupt, since this has been a mark of his government for years.  Yet they published the cited editorial on October 14!

The point of the editorial was to complain about the awarding of the Noble Peace Prize to someone whom the editors believed undeserving.  The standard complaint on the right against the Nobel Peace Prize is that it always goes to someone undeserving, but this editorial takes the whining to a new level by proposing nominees for next year, which in this case reveals a lot about what the WSJ thinks peace, democracy and human rights mean: they mean whatever the editors want them to mean if they advance the editors’ preferred geopolitical goals. 

The company in which they lumped Saakashvili is notable for just how radically different they are from the megalomaniacal lawyer: Burmese monks, Morgan Tsvangirai, who has suffered torture and persecution for his resistance to a tyranny far more brutal than anything Saakashvili ever had to face, dissident Catholics in Vietnam, women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, Chinese bloggers, Ayman Nour and many others.  They also list that other WSJ favourite Kasparov, who has more right to be on the list than these two.  I don’t much care for Kasparov’s promotion of hostility towards his own country, nor do I find his political associations (both inside and outside Russia) of late terribly attractive, but even I would not class Kasparov and Saakashvili together in anything except their antipathy to Putin.  Even Uribe, whatever you think of his government, doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with such characters.  To include Saakashvili or the criminal oligarch Yushchenko with these others, most of whom really are genuine patriots and heroes, is an insult to all of the latter.  That the editors could seriously include Saakashvili on this list a mere four weeks ago shows how cynical their use of the causes of genuine dissidents and democrats actually is.

P.S. Here was another exercise in Journal agitprop for their boy, dated August 25 2007.  The Journal and its contributors were loyal Saakashvili-boosters until last month, despite the evidence growing over the past several years that he was not the democratic hero and Georgia not the “shining star” his apologists claimed.  One assumes that they have remained his supporters until now.  I expect that we can expect some two-faced editorial in the near future declaring their disappointment with Saakashvili, who supposedly had so much potential.  Here was an earlier contribution from the same Melik Kaylan, who was enthusing about the “Prague Spring”-like atmosphere of Tbilisi in those halcyon days following Mr. Bush’s insane Second Inaugural.  The folly of the democratists in this case is a matter of record.

Another reason the WSJ may be unusually reticent when they have an occasion to try to stir up anti-Russian hysteria as they like to do is the pending acquisition of DowJones by NewsCorp, which has just had one of its local networks shut down by the local tinpot dictator champion of freedom.  Murdoch and company may not be very happy with the situation right now.  Also, Patarkatsishvili, the co-owner of Imedi, the network in question, has been accused of being behind the alleged attempted “coup” against Saakashvili, which probably also doesn’t endear NewsCorp to the current government.  They probably don’t like having their business partners accused of treason. 

As it happens, the opposition party in Burma, the one getting shot, is called the National League for Democracy. Not the National League for Stability, but Democracy. ~Daniel Henninger

That’s a really profound observation.  Very good.  Henninger has the critics on the ropes now!  Of course, the government calls itself the State Peace and Development Council, and it is clearly interested in neither peace nor development.  I don’t assume that the opposition is quite as dishonest in its choice of names, but obviously any dissident movement that wants Washington’s attention and support will invoke the magic d-word.  Every corrupt oligarch around the globe who wants to overthrow his government knows that much.

Henninger says later:

Instead, it’s that the president’s critics felt compelled not only to refute Iraq but every jot of the Bush foreign policy, including its espousal of democracy and freedom. They have come very close to displacing the Bush Doctrine with the idea that promoting democracy in difficult places is, very simply, a mistake.

But it is a mistake.  It was a mistake when JFK promoted it, and it will be a mistake should Obama continue to promote it in the future.  In its substance, it is actually a bad idea.  The Near East’s woes brought on, or rather exacerbated by, democratisation have sobered up people who just two years ago were saying silly things about an Arab Spring.  The attempt is misguided, and in most cases it is also likely to cause still more suffering.  It is certainly a mistake as it concerns American interests in almost every case, at least when the elections reflect the opinions of the people in the country, and it is also very likely a mistake for most of the countries proposed as “beneficiaries” of this great gift.  These are not things for us to promote, but they are instead things that we should practice and offer as examples.  If they are to have any meaning and to have legitimacy in many of these countries it is imperative that their promotion be indigenous and has nothing to do with us. 

Here’s the real gem:

Nations with freely operating political parties are likely to be centripetal; their energies bend inward, fighting with each other. In places without real politics, they sit in cafes plotting how to kill innocent civilians 2,000 miles outside their borders.

Which is, of course, why we didn’t invade Iraq (and Panama) and never bombed Yugoslavia–we were too busy fighting one another over school vouchers and Social Security reform!  In places without so-called “real politics” (whatever that means–politics are just as “real” when they are authoritarian, as people in Burma know only too well), people are usually preoccupied with targeting the government that denies them those “real politics.”  Or did I miss the Karen bomb attacks in Beijing?  The overwhelming majority of people in such countries does not engage in far-flung terrorist conspiracies against distant countries.  Instead, they endure and occasionally rise up against their own governments to attempt to free themselves, which is the only sort of liberation that ever truly lasts.

Ross follows up on the debate over his latest Atlantic piece on future Democratic electoral prospects, and he explains quite clearly what he means by populism and how his reform ideas relate to it.  I think Ross’ analysis of electoral trends makes sense, which is why I wrote in defense of it.  However, I am actually sympathetic to those, such as Will Wilkinson, who do not like the substance of the policy proposals endorsed by economic populists, as I do not care for many of them myself.  I disagree with some libertarian critics of this populism, to the extent that they even allow that it actually exists, concerning some specific areas of policy and more general assumptions about the legitimacy of the claims of national sovereignty and national interest.  While I have some right-populist inclinations in matters of trade and immigration and I have a very old-fashioned Bolingbrokean-Jeffersonian hostility to concetrated wealth and power, which makes for some common anti-corporate ground with more conventional left-populists, in practice I am not that much of a populist.  You will not see me voting for Edwards-style populism or “compassionate” conservatism or “Sam’s Club Republicanism” now or ever.  For that matter, I neither shop at Sam’s Club, nor am I a Republican, so that makes me a pretty unlikely supporter of this sort of politics, since I rather rather regard the former as a symptom of moral and economic disorder and regard the latter as, well, not my favourite organisation.  Yet I still do recognise that there are people who might just go for such reformism, and these really are the sorts of people the GOP needs to win over and keep if it wants to remain competitive going forward.   

As I have made abundantly clear over the years, I am a small-government constitutionalist and a Ron Paul man, which puts me in a fairly small group.  (I am also very sympathetic to corporatist ideas of solidarity and a conservationist ethic, which may put me in an even smaller subset of this group.)  Despite an appreciation for some of the aspects of corporatism, the kind of economic intervention by the state on offer these days leaves me completely cold.  (Non-intervention is very often the wise course, in foreign policy as in domestic affairs.)  However, my preferences do not really give me the luxury to pretend that people in this country are not looking for some sort of intervention by the state in the field of health care, because they plainly are.  You hear this anecdotally from friends and colleagues, and you see it backed up in polling.  The desire is there, and the main dispute seems to be over whether you have a mostly state-run or a more state capitalist-run program.  Mike Huckabee talks vaguely about having a solution that involves none of the above, but he is typically blissfully free of specifics when he says this.  (Based on anecdotal impressions, I would say that young, educated professionals might be even more worried about health care than many other groups, but I wouldn’t press that too far.)  These people are acting on the assumption that the U.S. government is “their” government (if only!) and that it exists to provide them with certain things they need, or at the very least to provide them with the “opportunity” to acquire what they need. 

At this point, someone usually says something saccharine about empowerment, which is usually where they finally lose me, since it is never the government’s role to empower its citizens.  This idea of government empowering people is the root of all swindles.  Indeed, citizens’ power stands in an inverse relationship with that of the government,and the government never “gives back” the power it has taken.  The more “empowerment” we have, the more servility we have.  This is naturally not a popular view (for confirmation, see the political history of the 20th century or just the 1964 presidential election), and it is not one that is normally associated with populism, though I think a case could be made that it is the ultimate populist view, insofar as it is one that places the best interests of the people ahead of popular enthusiasms.  It is the view most consonant with a decentralist understanding of political liberty, and such an arrangement would ultimately be far better for the common good, a humane, sane way of life and the flourishing of more self-supporting communities. 

As George Grant observed forty years ago, though, political decentralisation without economic decentralisation is simply submission to corporate oligarchy, which I think he regarded as worse than a living Hell (in which case, he would have been too generous).  Consequently, he was known as the “Red Tory” for his harsh criticism of the dissolving acid that capitalism and technology poured on social bonds.  Also, the Loyalist and Anglo-Canadian Conservative tradition never knew the reflexive hostility to state action that our political tradition initially did, and strangely enough Canada now enjoys more effective decentralisation in certain respects than we do (even though it also has more in the way of government services).

All of this got me to thinking about how strange it is that the Democrats have become the party of the economic populists, since they have historically been the less nationalist of the two parties and appear to be in no danger of changing, yet this kind of populism almost always goes with a strong dose of nationalism.  Most economic populist complaints today focus on a few general areas: free trade, the effects of globalisation (e.g., outsourcing, etc.), related government favouritism for corporate interests and immigration.  The Washington-New York political elite is largely in agreement that free trade, globalisation, state capitalism and mass immigration are fundamentally desirable.  There may be disagreements about how to manage them, but there is only minority support for rejecting or opposing any of them on a large scale.  (This is still true in the current presidential fields.)  You would expect the historic party of labour to be more concerned about immigration, but as chance would have it, they are also the historic party of immigrants.  You would expect the more nationalist party to be more skeptical of free trade and globalisation, but they are also the party of corporations.  On each issue where populists might gain traction, the party leadership has tended to reject the populist position and endorse the globalist one, because their true corporate masters desire it.  This remains true.  What is striking today is the extent to which Democratic candidates are willing to buck corporate America at least a little when it comes to free trade, which suggests that the populist critique of free trade and globalisation, which was smothered during the incredibly boring, issue-free 2000 election, might break through this time and cause a change in the political landscape.       

It is certainly a conundrum of America’s laudable foreign policy objective of democracy promotion that electorates sometimes freely vote for parties whose goals are distinctly inimical to US foreign policy objectives. ~Gerard Baker

You could call it a conundrum.  Or you could call it an entirely predictable outcome of empowering populations that despise U.S. foreign policy, which is not so much of a conundrum, since virtually everyone already knew the attitude of the populations in question.  Conundrum makes the outcome sound somehow mysterious, inexplicable and bizarre, as if it were the last thing anyone might have expected. 

Baker continues:

And yet, for all its perils, President George Bush is surely right to insist on the primacy of freedom.

Well, this seems to be a decidedly strange way to run U.S. foreign policy (the primacy of the just American interest would seem to be appropriate), but even supposing that Mr. Bush insisted on the “primacy of freedom” and did the necessary legwork to make sure that his rhetorical insistence was matched with proper support, an insistence on the “primacy of freedom” has next to nothing to do with the promotion of democracy.  As Near Eastern, Latin American and other elections are reminding us all the time, democratic elections in most countries are a sure-fire way to ensure that there is much less freedom in the country, since majorities in these countries are far more interested in using their political power to gain benefits and subsidies than they are in gaining any real sort of freedom.  This may have something to do with the fact that most people, when faced with the choice of either doing the hard work needed to possess and retain freedom or not doing it, will opt for the easier path.  This rather makes nonsense out of Mr. Bush’s refrains that all people want freedom, since they might very well want it and could still want many other things far more. 

If Mr. Bush were insisting on the “primacy of freedom,” he would be actively discouraging elections and encouraging the development of civil society and liberal education.  Instead, there is virtually none of the latter and constant chatter about the former.  Besides, all those purple-thumbed Iraqis make for better television than the drudgework of changing political culture over the long haul (not that I think that the U.S. government should be involved in any of this). 

Yes, Minister jokes aside for the moment, I was struck by Ross’ comment on the Peter Baker story I posted on yesterday.  Ross writes:

On the one hand, it’s a damning portrait of a weak President who entertained delusions of world-historical grandeur but couldn’t even keep his own Vice President on board with the mission, let alone his Cabinet agencies; on the other it’s a story of how the federal bureaucracy works to frustrate and undermine the elected officials whose policies it supposedly exists to implement [bold mine-DL].

I have a few observations.  Cheney seems to me to be wholly on board with the “freedom agenda” as far as the Near East and the former Soviet Union are concerned (and these are the only places where the administration actually cares about the “freedom agenda,” because they think it meshes well with their other strategic goals, such as they are).  Embracing Nazarbayev is useful in pushing an anti-Russian line, while pushing for “democratic” revolution in places with more pro-Russian despots also advances that line.  One of the goals of democratism is to put a “democratic” (i.e., relatively pro-American) elite in power in various countries around the world, but their democracy is very much the managed managerial democracy that will come up with the “right” policy results rather than function as a government that reflects and represents the popular interest.  Eastern Europe is lousy with such “democratic” governments these days.  When democratists talk about democracy, it is this managerial system to which they are referring.  Actual popular, representative government gives such people hives, as we can see whenever American populists make any headway in domestic politics. 

There is a certain irony that some of the bureaucratic managers inside our managerial state are opposed to the proponents of the ”global democratic revolution,” but I think it is a mistake to focus entirely on the federal departments as obstacles to some imagined representative government enacting the will of the people.  The policies being set by elected officials have no more connection with representative government than do the policymaking processes inside the bureaucracy; these policies routinely favour very narrow and particular interests that may have nothing to do with the interests of most of the voting constituents.  The departments and agencies work to undermine the politicians who actively work to undermine and discredit them–that’s how bureaucratic infighting works, and it is unavoidable once you have vested so much power in permanent departments and agencies.  If we find it obnoxious, as we all do to some degree, we might start by getting rid of large parts of the bureaucracy and removing permanent entrenched power interests from the heart of our government.  It seems to me that the trouble arises when we want to have the administrative and bureaucratic apparatus of a managerial state and also want to have none of the drawbacks of ceding actual governing to unelected functionaries.  We are likely to feel very agitated when confronted with the arrogance of the managers who think, not without good reason, that they are effectively in charge (or at least have a major say in what happens).   

What about the friendly relations with the Thai military men?  On the one hand, the administration can ignore the Thai coup and embrace Gen. Sonthi et al. because the coup does not represent a shift in Thailand’s relations with Washington (which is what really matters for those pushing the ”freedom agenda”), and it can also justify support for the coup on the grounds that Thaksin was corrupt, unpopular and making a hash of the counterinsurgency in the south.  There will always be “war on terror” exceptions to the “freedom agenda” (see Pakistan) and the U.S. acquiescence in the coup in Thailand was a good example of that at work.

Clearly Bush’s people were not watching enough Yes, Minister, or they would have known already that it is the bureaucracy’s job to govern and the politician’s job to get elected:

Defiance of Bush’s mandate could be subtle or brazen. The official recalled a conversation with a State Department bureaucrat over a democracy issue.

“It’s our policy,” the official said.

“What do you mean?” the bureaucrat asked.

“Read the president’s speech,” the official said.

“Policy is not what the president says in speeches,” the bureaucrat replied. “Policy is what emerges from interagency meetings.”

This bipartisan consensus is all the more striking because it is increasingly out of step with the majority of the American people. A poll conducted by the Washington think tank Third Way in March found that respondents favored protecting the security of the United States and its allies over promoting freedom and democracy in the world by a margin of 3 to 1. More recently, in a poll of Republicans by the Republican consultant Tony Fabrizio, only 16 percent of respondents supported basing U.S. foreign policy on spreading democracy, a dismal result for the Bush doctrine. On the Democratic side, the liberal blogger Ezra Klein recently pronounced himself “fed up with values,” calling instead for a foreign policy based on competence and consequences. Klein was sounding a familiar theme in the blogosphere: the idea that because the Bush administration has justified the Iraq war in the name of liberty and democracy, the values themselves are to blame. ~Anne-Marie Slaughter

I’ve seen some pretty big rhetorical leaps, but this one is astonishing.  As I understood him, Klein declared himself “fed up with values” in the context of criticising foreign policy that is abstract, vague in its ends and indifferent to means and oblivious to the realm of the possible.  Klein never “blames” the “values” here–he blames those who invoke liberty and democracy (whether sincerely or not) as supports for reckless and aimless foreign policy projects.  To the extent that “values” rhetoric provides justification to horrible foreign policy thinking, it shields bad policies from the appropriate level of scrutiny and critical attention they might otherwise receive.  Stripped of its region-transforming happy talk about the March of Freedom, administration policy in the Near East makes little or no sense and this would be much more clear to all if the entire debate were not cluttered with idealistic prattle that all people are destined to be free. 

What Slaughter describes as a “familiar theme in the blogosphere” is not familiar here at all.  Few bloggers “blame the values,” since many do not think the administration is committed to those “values” and others think they are so incompetent that they could not successfully advance them no matter what they tried.  Most critics of democratism, the spreading of democracy and the fomenting of global revolution are not themselves hostile to democracy as such (not that democracy can be called a “value” in any case) and do not necessarily blame democracy for the misfortunes in Iraq.  They may pin some blame on the elections, especially the way the elections were organised along sectarian and ethnic lines, but they would hasten to point out that elections are not by themselves enough to make a proper liberal democracy in the sense that most people mean it in this country.  There are those critics who think that administration talk of democratisation has always been two-faced and cynical (this is tempting, but incorrect), while they believe that they, the critics, are the defenders of democratic principles against the administration.  There are others who are quite fond of democracy, but who find the forcible export of it to be a misguided, impractical or counterproductive way to encourage this form of government abroad.  There are a few, including myself, who believe that genuine democratisation itself would be undesirable, and that it is doubly foolish to promote something that we should not want to see happen anyway–but then we were not exactly pro-democratic enthusiasts before the war, either.  There is virtually no one who used to think liberty and democracy were wonderful and who now think they are madness because George Bush used them in his talking points.  If you generally favour liberal revolutions and popular government, your problem with the “freedom agenda” is not that it has been promoting democracy, but that the administration believed launching a full-scale war was the wisest way to achieve this end. 

Despite this considerably wrong, misleading statement about bloggers, Slaughter has remarked on something that will be familiar to readers of Eunomia: the interventionist, democratist consensus is alive and well in both parties and dominates the top tiers of both presidential fields.  Most Americans do not want this nonsense, but like good democratists the elite of the two parties will continue to impose such policies on our country and on the world in defiance of what the majority of citizens actually desires.

In “Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion,” David Gelernter, a Yale computer-science professor and a versatile and prolific public intellectual, makes a provocative claim: Such professions of faith express “belief in . . . a religious idea of enormous, transporting power.” Indeed, he contends that America “is a biblical republic and Americanism a biblical religion.”

This does not in any way detract, Gelernter is quick to clarify, from America’s commitment to religious freedom: Liberty, democracy and equality constitute the American Creed [bold mine-DL]. And Americanism entails a duty to not only realize these universal ideas at home, but to spread them around the world. ~Peter Berkowitz

It’s simply appalling in so many ways that I am at first overwhelmed.  In the first place, the title is a little baffling (why the fourth?), until you realise that he must mean to include Islam as the third great “Western” religion, at which point we can already take it as a given that words mean nothing to the author.  Then there is this bit from his book’s description

Gelernter argues that what we have come to call “Americanism” is in fact a secular version of Zionism. Not the Zionism of the ancient Hebrews, but that of the Puritan founders who saw themselves as the new children of Israel, creating a new Jerusalem in a new world. Their faith-based ideals of liberty, equality, and democratic governance had a greater influence on the nation’s founders than the Enlightenment.

It is hard to say which is the worse part.  You have this business about “secular Zionism” that is at once religious and not religious  side by side with misrepresentations about ” faith-based ideals of…democratic governance” when referring to 17th century Calvinists along with a New England-centric spin on the whole of American identity, as if the Randolphs, Jeffersons, Morrises, Washingtons, Madisons and Pinckneys of the early republican era were guided by the zeal of New England Puritanism.  Whether or not I dislike many things in the Enlightenment heritage of many of the Whig ideas at the core of the political philosophy of many of the Founders (and I do), I cannot pretend that it played second fiddle to some mythical Zionism.  To the extent that this did exist at all and influenced American political life, the phenomenon he describes has very little to do with the establishment of the Republic and much more to do with the “refounding” or rather destruction of the same in the War.  If this Americanism has as three of its patrons Lincoln, TR and Wilson, the question is not whether it is dangerous (since it clearly is), but whether it has so entered into the mainstream of American politics that it cannot now be expelled. 

If “liberty, democracy and equality” constitute “the American Creed,” I am glad to say that many of the more esteemed Americans in our early history were only two-thirds or even one-third believers in it. 

Then there is another item from the book description:

If America is a religion, it is a religion without a god, and it is a global religion. People who believe in America live all over the world. Its adherents have included oppressed and freedom-loving peoples everywhere—from the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions to the martyred Chinese dissidents of Tiananmen Square.

I don’t know what to call this except insane.  There was another global godless political religion that sought to spread all over creation.  Perhaps Gelernter has heard of it.  As its fate reminds us, the Lord does not suffer such blasphemies to long endure.  You cannot serve both God and Americanism. 

This claim about the other peoples of the world is also shockingly presumptuous, even for someone of Gelernter’s policy views.  It is as close to someone saying publicly that “inside everyone there is an American trying to get you” as I have ever seen in real life.  This idea is often implied in what many democratists say, and it can be inferred from many of Mr. Bush’s major speeches, but most have the good sense not to say such things quite so bluntly.  Quite obviously, the patriots of the Greek and Hungarian revolutions “believed” in Greece and Hungary, if we must use this language of “believing in” countries.  (The physical places exist whether or not anyone believes in them, and the cultural distinctiveness of Greek and Hungarian would exist whether or not any political revolutionary ever “believed” in a national cause.)  The latter made the mistake of trusting the shaky promises of foolish American ”rollback” advocates, but the heroes of 1956 did not “believe in America” or in Americanism.  If they believed in an -ism, it might have been Hungarianism or something like it.  Give Gelernter credit for a certain bizarre consistency: if all it takes to be an American is to buy into a few tired political slogans, anyone who embraces those slogans really must effectively be an American or at least an Americanist.

Then there is this last bit, which is just too funny:

Gelernter also shows that anti-Americanism, particularly the virulent kind that is found today in Europe, is a reaction against this religious conception of America on the part of those who adhere to a rival religion of pacifism and appeasement.

Or it might have something to do with prudential objections to policies that are perceived as dangerous and misguided.  However, as we can all see, that’s obviously far too outlandish of an interpretation, so the “religion of appeasement” explanation will have to do.  Does that mean that anti-Americans in Latin America and the Near East also belong to the broad church of appeasement?  Hugo Chavez, pacifist–you heard it from Gelernter first!  No wonder the description calls the argument “startlingly original.”  I am startled that it even got published. 

It isn’t exactly the redeployment Warner and Lugar want.  American forces may not be going to the cooler heights of Kurdistan anytime soon, but it seems likely that some Iraqi parliamentarians will be taking their holidays there.  They did already give up their July vacation time and have still managed to go nowhere with any of the legislative agenda before them.  The worst thing that can be said of the Iraqi parliament is that it is irrelevant whether or not it is in session in August or at any time thereafter.  The final results in terms of legislation and political reconciliation will be roughly the same. 

It should be noted, however, that the Iraqi parliament’s failure to pass any part of its legislative agenda (e.g., de-Baathification law, hydrocarbon law, provincial elections, etc.) is much like the larger Iraqi “failure” to build a functioning self-governing political system: success requires Iraq to be radically different in its ethnic and sectarian makeup from the way that Iraq actually is.  The entire enterprise has been set up to fail, and under these circumstances condemning Iraqi failure or Iraqi stubbornness or whatever it is that opportunistic pols would now like to blame for their failure to serve the interests of the American people is a bit like blaming the rain for being wet.  It may feel good to say it, but it is ridiculous.  The old knock on the Great Society seems applicable here: if you wanted to create a political system designed to maximise communal hatred, violence and non-cooperation, you could not have done much better than the government has done in Iraq.  (This is not to say that democratisation in Iraq could have been done if it had been handled differently, but it might not have resulted in such a terrific explosion of violence and deepening communal resentment.) 

The ‘05 elections sharply politicised ethnicity and sectarian identity, encouraging the communalist violence that was already beginning, and the parties that prevailed in those elections reinforced and nurtured those divisions (divisions that are vital for their continued hold on power).  Now the government and parliament, which had its origins in this rather dreadful process, cannot find any consensus and so can pass no major laws, since there is virtually no sufficient minimal degree of common identity and shared priorities among the members.  This is a snapshot of the fatal flaw of Iraq as a “nation-state” that has explained much of its history in the 20th century.  As I’m sure others have said before, since there is no nation in Iraq, there will tend to be a great emphasis on the state as a substitute for a lack of any organic unity or natural affinities.  

In less obviously despotic systems, the state’s role in a multiethnic society is also bound to increase, either in its role of policing communal quarrels or as an instrument used in compelling a certain degree of good relations between different groups and through an institutional apparatus designed to protect minority interests.  It seems plausible that social solidarity will decrease as diversity increases, but it is by no means assured that the state will become either smaller or less intrusive as a result.  Lacking anything else, multiethnic societies will find their common loyalty in the institutions of the state or the state will use those institutions to coerce obedience of the different groups (or these societies will have some combination of the two).  The more “successful” multiethnic states have, in most cases, divvied up power among the different groups in some fashion or have attempted to act as a supposedly unbiased mediator of the different groups’ interests (this is the Austrian model, at least when it actually functioned properly).  Whenever the central state has become too closely identified with one group, the state tends either to resort to repressive measures against the increasingly alienated members of other groups (this has been the case with Iraq), or it will seek (usually in vain) to accommodate the demands of the other ethnicities, which can result in the complete breakup of the state (especially when, after a defeat in war, the central state has lost a large part of its authority with all member nations).  Lost on the democratists, as usual, is any awareness that it is mass democracy itself that makes imitation of the Austrian model all but impossible and makes it more likely that multiethnic societies will tend to suffer the fate of Iraq or Ivory Coast.   

On another Near Eastern policy topic of interest, Ross comments on Reza Aslan’s remarks on democratisation:

Aslan made a dismissive comment about the advocates of “stability” over democracy during his talk, saying sarcastically: “That’s worked out so well, hasn’t it?” And of course it hasn’t - except, Meridor’s remarks suggested, when you consider some of the alternatives.

Indeed.  I am tempted to rephrase Churchill’s line about democracy being the worst of all governments, except for all the others, replacing the word democracy with stability.  That would be a little too easy, but it would make the point.  Then again, I think Churchill was wrong about that–democracy is definitely in the bottom three or four, including all competitors. 

Aslan’s dismissiveness is typical of the democratists and interventionists.  When prolonged interventionism in the Near East contributes to blowback, they blame it on the pursuit of stability, as if there had been anything stabilising about the sanctions and ongoing air war against Iraq or as if the semi-permanent garrisoning of Americans in Saudi Arabia was a hallmark of genuine realism.  Depending on which group in the region you’re talking about, even that old “stability” was a lot better than the current approach.  So, yes, for some nations “stability” did work out relatively well, at least when compared to the disasters of the last few years.  The biggest problem with critiques of the policies of the ’90s is that they mistake those policies for being unduly cautious and afraid of change, when the establishment consensus by the late ’90s was for regime change in Iraq and fairly aggressive “containment” of Iran.  That this acquired frighteningly broad support in the foreign policy establishment shows just how flexible the name
“realist” really can be.  The goal in these cases was not stability, but upheaval.  Bizarrely, in turning against the ”realism” and “stability” of the ’90s (which were simply expressions of a mild interventionism), the critics have embraced precisely the elements of those policies that were the most damaging, destabilising and counterproductive and sought to replicate them on an even grander scale.  Calls to “drain the swamp” would be a lot more convincing if the people making the recommendations had not just spent the last 12 years creating the swamp–not through their tolerance of despotism, but through their misguided, heavy-handed and clumsy attempts to combat despotism.

Ross makes an important observation:

If you’re an outside observer looking at Middle Eastern politics, it’s relatively easy to take the Aslan line - which is hardly his alone - and suggest that ten “messy” years, or fifty, or even a hundred, is a small price to pay for the eventual democratization of the region.  If you’re part of Middle Eastern politics, though, and particularly if you’re the most hated country in the region, the scapegoat for every failure and the demon at the heart of every conspiracy theory, it’s a lot harder to sign up for the bumpy ride, because one of those bumps might jeopardize your very survival.

This is good, but missing here are some critical questions.  Why should anyone have to pay the price for democratisation, regardless of how long it might take?  Why does democratisation have such importance on the Near Eastern policy agenda?  If Israelis have some reasons to be skeptical of the short and middle-term consequences of democratisation (which assumes that the long-term results of such change will be ultimately positive), perhaps other peoples in the region likewise have good reasons to doubt either the practicability or even the value of democratisation.  Even supposing that it is a widely-shared goal, democratisation is still ultimately no more than a framework for the expression of the existing political priorities of a nation.  Democratists’ abstract faith in the goodwill of the common man would be touching, if it were not so totally out of touch with the deep reserves of ill-will that many peoples harbour toward one another.   

Talk of “messiness” is the sort of abstraction about violence, death and social disintegration to which interventionists and their friends, the globalists and developmentalists, often return.  You can almost hear them quoting, approvingly, the wisdom of the humanitarian Buck Turgeson, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.  What I’m saying is that we’re talking about no more than 20 to 30 million casualties, tops!” 

If the short and middle-term consequences of something, be it democratisation or ”increased diversity,” are extremely bad for social cohesion, social peace, a just ordering of the polity and the cultivation of a humane and decent order, that means that the policy is an extremely bad one.  I find it extraordinary that this rhetoric of “in the long run, we will all be better off” can still persuade after seeing where it has led in the 20th century.  If the long run involves running over a lot of people to get to the goal, maybe, just maybe, the goal is actually a bad one. 

To follow up on the omelette metaphor Ross mentions a little later, it does not seem to trouble these “big picture,” “broader canvas” types that their ends-justify-the-means morality entails that their, our, omelette sustenance comes from effectively devouring our fellow man or at least living off of the resources created by deliberately caused human suffering.  These are the humanitarians and cosmopolitans to whose enlightened perspective we  are meant to defer. 

And when people ask - and some do - whether America is ready for a woman president, I’m tempted to ask: Ready how exactly? Among the countries that have had women presidents would be, uh, Pakistan. ~Mike Littwin

I could think of worse comparisons, I suppose.  Ms. Bhutto’s rise to power as prime minister was not entirely unlike the one that Clinton is trying to replicate, inasmuch as neither one of them could have plausibly come anywhere near holding executive power had it not been for their husbands.  Ms. Bhutto’s first tenure also ended abruptly with the intervention of the military and then her second was brought to an end because of charges of corruption against her government, so perhaps talking about Pakistan is not the best way to discuss this question.  From the perspective of those who would like to see a woman as President, it certainly doesn’t conjure up a large number of desirable comparisons.   

Liberia and Bangladesh have also entered the glorious ranks of nations that have elected women as heads of government before America, as have India, Israel, Britain and now Germany.  Don’t forget the Philippines–they’ve already had two women presidents.  We could make a list and see what sort of countries have broken through that particular barrier and then consider whether “Let’s be more like Pakistan!” is a winning slogan.

Mr. Littwin’s trenchant analysis continues:

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found a shocking result - that only 72 percent said they would vote for a qualified Mormon nominee. The number was 88 percent for a woman and 94 percent for a black.

Shocking!  Admittedly, when I first saw the numbers from that infamous Rasmussen poll seven months ago, I was stunned at the depth of anti-Mormon feeling.  I had assumed that it would be significant, but not quite so overwhelming as the 43% refusal to vote for a Mormon.  To discover that almost one out of every two American likely voters was so opposed to Mormonism that it prevented them from voting for one was rather surprising.  Today, months and months later, this is no longer shocking. 

Religious identity does seem to matter more to religious voters than it did forty years ago, because there are more political issues that engage religious voters today and make a candidate’s religious convictions a matter of concern for voters where they may have seemed less relevant in the past.  Additionally, the less common ordinary church-going religiosity becomes in the country as a whole and the more secular and indeed anti-Christian much of American culture becomes, the more important a certain type of religious identity will become to those who see increasing secularism as a threat.  This seems counterintuitive–rising secularism should, one might think, encourage greater political ecumenism among religious conservatives, but inasmuch as combating secularism means affirming a certain kind of religious identity (be it Christian or the more PC, meaningless designation of “Judeo-Christian”) there will be built-in limits to the possibilities of building alliances with non-Christian religious conservatives.  Mormonism straddles the line, to the extent that Mormons may call themselves Christians but not be accepted by most other Christians as co-religionists, so the controversy over Mormon candidates will probably be greater than that over much more clearly non-Christian candidates. 

Then Mr. Littwin moralises:

Suddenly, this election looks like a test - of tolerance. I wonder how we’d look to ourselves if we failed.

I resent this sort of not-so-subtle moral blackmail.  The rhetoric about “tolerance” only means anything if female and minority candidates are actually judged primarily according to their qualifications and policy proposals.  Otherwise, we will be acknowledging that we have actively chosen inferior individual candidates out of a desire to not give the impression that we think female and minority candidates are inherently inferior.  In other words, if Democrats ”fail” by choosing Edwards and the Republicans “fail” by choosing, say, Fred Thompson instead of Romney or Giuliani, Mr. Littwin seems to be implying that these outcomes would have to be explained as the result of prejudice.  Mr. Littwin seems to be saying that the two primary electorates have to choose the “right” (i.e., female or minority) candidates or else they will have “failed” to be sufficiently tolerant.  This confirms that when people talk about “tolerance,” they mean, “You had better do what I say.”  Such “tolerance” is always set by default against whichever groups are or are considered to be the majority or the powerful.  “Failure” to give special consideration to someone outside those groups is deemed to be intolerance, rather than prudential judgement of the person’s ability, when allegedly the purpose of encouraging “tolerance” is to require that people give full consideration to a person’s ability without taking into account his majority or minority, in-group/out-group status.  In practice, “tolerance” is usually not the latter, but a scheme designed simply to transfer power from supposed in-groups to supposed out-groups.  It really exists for no other purpose.  

If we judged candidates purely on their merits, not only would Obama not be a “top tier” contender, but he wouldn’t have even declared for President, because he certainly lacks experience and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of policy proposals (and what policies he has proposed are rather terrible). 

Now, I’m not so naive as to believe that voters choose candidates based on anything as esoteric as experience or smart policies (where would George Bush be today if we did that?), but if we grant that identity politics is an unavoidable part of the democratic process (and it is), which can both harm and help women and minorities running for office, then we had better avoid cheap talk about the public’s intolerance when they “fail” to choose the “right” (i.e., female or minority) candidate in the primaries. 

It is close to certain that neither Clinton nor Obama would be where they are today in the polls if they did not have the advantages of being a woman and a black man respectively, as these are advantages with Democratic voters and are part of what gives these candidates their appeal and their edge.  (These things also help them with white and male voters who wish to demonstrate their political identity as progressive sorts through their support for female and minority candidates.)  To some extent, this gives them a certain appeal and an advantage with certain core Democratic constituencies that the others simply can’t duplicate.  Once they run in a general election, the things that have been advantages for them so far will be less obviously helpful and may prove to be a drag on the Democratic ticket in some parts of the country, which means that identity politics cuts both ways.  This is obvious, but apparently bears repeating.  This might be true even without Clinton’s (largely invented) reputation as a far-left liberal and Obama’s record of being just that kind of liberal. 

This result is a “failure” only in the sense that democratic politics is always a failure of the public to choose rationally the best qualified and most informed candidates, which is a central flaw in democracy itself.  Voters very often choose according to what they think their self-interest requires, but how they understand self-interest may be tied up with ideas of advancing “one of their own” to a position of power; there is a strong belief in democratic societies that you are best represented in government by “one of your own” who will in turn support your interests.  This is a question of being able to trust a candidate, and it is simply easier, as a matter of human nature, for people to trust those with whom they are better able to relate and identify.  That is the irrationality and folly of democracy.  That is also why it has an enduring appeal, even though it will consistently produce inferior government performance.  If Mr. Littwin has no argument with the way we select those who govern us, he really ought to leave the moral hectoring to someone else. 

In 1971, John Kerry told a Senate committee that “We found [in Vietnam that] most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy.” Now it is accepted on both sides of the aisle that the Vietnamese desire and deserve political freedom. There is bipartisan recognition that freedom is a universal human aspiration. ~Brendan Miniter

Consider Kerry’s point: communism and democracy both claim to offer equality, freedom and some measure of justice, and both of them say many of the same kinds of things about people’s government and the will of the people.  Much of this is fairly superficial, but for people who had limited experience, if any, with either system the differences might very well have been obscure.  For the average peasant or townsman in Vietnam, the differences probably would have seemed irrelevant–what mattered was who threatened his home, his means of supporting himself and his way of life as he understood it.  In Vietnam, c. 1965-71, would the average Vietnamese nationalist, for example, have been terribly concerned or aware of the differences?  More to the point, would he have cared?  Would he have not, as a nationalist, sided with the revolutionary force dedicated to national independence and unification or indeed anything not associated with yet another foreign power?  As we all ought to understand perfectly well in this country, nationalism frequently trumps the desire for freedom.  That doesn’t mean that the desire doesn’t exist, but that there are often stronger, more meaningful desires out there. 

We are confronted in Miniter’s column with the utterly irrelevant observation that all people want freedom.  Yes, in some sense, all people want freedom for themselves, but there are surprisingly few who can stand other people to have it in equal measure.  In some cases, this is because they lack a complete appreciation for what freedom entails; in other cases, it is because the extension of equal freedom to all in every circumstance is crazy and socially destructive.  We place prudential limits on the freedom of some rather than others all the time based on common sense, experience and priorities that have nothing to do with freedom. 

In any case, aspiring and acquiring are hardly the same thing, and keeping freedom is even trickier and apparently a very rare skill.  That an aspiration for freedom has nothing to do with the content of Kerry’s quote should be obvious.  Whether or not people in Vietnam, or Congo or Zimbabwe “deserve” freedom is almost beside the point.  Suppose that we all agree that they “deserve” it and even “desire” it–then what?  Is it on to Harare with the 82nd Airborne?  Perhaps subvert the government by backing the MDC?  Even if that “succeeds” in toppling the government and introducing reformers into positions of power, why does anyone think that the proper institutions that safeguard liberty would be created?  If it can be done, it is for the people in other countries to do it for themselves.  Indeed, that is the surest way to make sure that it is founded on organically evolved institutions that are consistent with the habits and mentality of that people.  That takes an enormous amount of time, perhaps many generations, and if blatant, public assistance from a foreign power makes the work of reformers in other countries  more difficult that assistance isn’t really assistance at all, but precisely the kind of moral posturing at which contributors to The Wall Street Journal excel. 

The easiest way to expose liberal democracy–and here I mean a genuine representative, constitutional and popular government, not the fraudulent oligarchies that Washington backs in every corner of the world–to dire threats from nationalist and sectarian backlash is by associating with foreigners and unbelievers, which simply confirms everything that these people believe about anything to do with freedom: that it is designed by foreigners as a way to rob and exploit their country, impose puppet governments on them and corrupt their national traditions. 


President Bush began by paying tribute to the founding father of Czech democracy. “Nine decades ago, Tomas Masaryk proclaimed Czechoslovakia’s independence based on the ‘ideals of democracy.’”

Well, that may be what the Masaryk said, but it is not exactly what he did. In 1918, he did indeed proclaim the independence of Czechoslovakia, confirmed by the Allies at Paris. But inside the new Czechoslovakia, built on the “ideals of democracy,” were 3 million dissident Germans who wished to remain with Austria and half a million Hungarians who wished to remain with Hungary. Many Catholic Slovaks had wanted to remain with Catholic Hungary. Against their will, all had been consigned to Masaryk’s Czech-dominated nation. ~Pat Buchanan

Just as democracies do not make war on each other, they do not point nuclear warheads in each other’s direction. ~The Economist

This, of course, is utter rot.  Democracies do make war on each other.  They have done so before, and as more nations become democratic it is inevitable that it will happen in the future.  The second part is particularly absurd.  If Pakistan became a genuine liberal democracy tomorrow, does anyone believe that it would not ”point” its nuclear weapons at India?  This is a question of perceived strategic necessity–nations with weak or smaller conventional forces will rely on nuclear deterrents to check foreign threats, and they will target perceived enemies that have made their hostility clear.  This remark about democracies and nuclear weapons is like saying that France and Germany, both states with constitutions and universal suffrage in 1914, could not possibly have been preparing for war with each other.  It is a fantasy about the virtues of democracy and one that will only become more dangerous with time.  Does anyone believe that a liberal democratic regime in Moscow would have responded to the anti-Russian moves of the last 10 years with significantly less suspicion and wariness?  The responses of governments to perceived threats have less to do with regime type than they have to do with the prevailing foreign policy faction in influential positions in the government.  If “hawks” and nationalists are ascendant, democracy is no guarantee that a less belligerent, confrontational policy will result.  Indeed, democracy combined with a consensus political culture of “hawkishness” and nationalism often has explosive, terrible consequences.

France would never have targeted America with its nuclear weapons because…wait for it…France is an ally of the United States.  Russia has been, or at least could have been, a real ally of the West.  Russia has been led to believe with increasing frequency that both Washington and Brussels regard it as a serious and growing threat.  Finally, after the last provocation of proposing the missile defense system into central Europe, Moscow has pushed back hard in a tragic and futile worsening of relations.  Western governments are not solely to blame for this dramatic souring between Russia and the West, but they have contributed more than their share.   

For democracy’s future, these are real problems. But there’s an even bigger one: democracy is not improving people’s lives. In Bangladesh, among the most corrupt countries in the world, many were thrilled when the military seized power in January. By most accounts, Russians like how Vladimir Putin has ruled. And though Chávez is one of Latin America’s least democratic leaders [bold mine-DL], he’s also one of the most popular. In many countries that have embraced democracy since the cold war’s end, free elections haven’t reduced corruption, violence or poverty. ~Peter Beinart

Take note that whenever Beinart talks about the decline of political freedom and someone being the “least democratic,” he is constantly conflating being liberal with being democratic.  There is no doubt that Chavez has been robustly, obnoxiously democratic.  That’s exactly the problem.  If he has become a democratic despot, he is not any less democratic for that. 

Incidentally, unless you are an outspoken journalist, a Chechen, a Georgian (or, more recently, an Estonian) or one of Russia’s seven liberals (five of whom live outside the country), why wouldn’t you like the way Putin has governed?  His tenure has coincided with, if not necessarily caused, improved living standards and has provided some stability and order where there was rather more lawlessness and chaos in the recent past.  Of course, people may like the way a government runs things and the government may still be horribly wrong in what it has done, but when you frame it this way it is obvious why Russians overwhelmingly approve of how Putin has ruled.  If you lived in Russia and were not a particularly political person, you probably would appreciate the relative improvement of the Putin era over that of Yeltsin.

Remember also that the Thais were also very enthusiastic when the military deposed Thaksin and seized power.  This is because democratic government will sometimes not only fail to reduce corruption, but will instead breed it.  Even if it does not encourage corruption, democracy is only as vigilant and honest as the electorate and entrenched power interests want it to be.  If elected representatives have no interest in checking executive corruption, there is nothing in a constitutional arrangement that will prevent it.  Even so, corruption charges against Thaksin and both major parties in Thailand made Thais very tired of his demagogic rule–and he has been one of the relative success stories of Asian democracy.

There is no reason why democracy should necessarily reduce corruption.  For every advance in open and accountable government democracy might theoretically bring, it introduces two opportunities for new graft, patronage and deal-making.  Only extensive reform legislation backed up by an ethos that tells people that it is actually wrong to help your cousins and friends game the system will effectively combat most basic corruption. 

There is no reason why democracy should curb violence or alleviate poverty.  Democracy politicises difference and aligns people along lines of mass identity: it requires well-established habits of abiding by the procedural rules of democratic government to keep these contestations from becoming either blatantly corrupt or violent.  Democracy concerns the equality of citizens, the nature of the distribution of power and the theoretical origin of political authority.  At its most basic, it is majority rule, and even in its indirect forms it is simply a mechanism for expressing consensus.  If most of the people in a nation embrace views that perpetuate internecine conflict or poverty or both, being able to vote and have representatives vote on legislation are fairly useless for addressing problems of violence and poverty.  Democracy is only as pacific as the people in a society (and perhaps less), and it has absolutely no direct relationship to the economic success of a society.  Those who think that participatory government will make them richer haven’t been paying much attention. 

What are Beinart’s answers?  Of course, it wouldn’t be to drop the idealisation of democracy.  That would make too much sense.  Instead, we should have “debt relief, open markets and foreign aid that really make a difference in a poor country.”  The first one makes a fair amount of sense (the refusal to bail out Argentina led to the implosion of their economy, the destruction of their middle-class and the backlash against pro-market policies), but the other two seem like invitations for populist backlash on the one hand and ever-greater corruption on the other.  Throwing foreign aid money at the rest of the world will not aid very many foreigners, except for those who happen to be among the government officials responsible for handling the money.

The “Idiot” species, we suggested, bore responsibility for Latin America’s underdevelopment. Its beliefs—revolution, economic nationalism, hatred of the United States, faith in the government as an agent of social justice, a passion for strongman rule over the rule of law—derived, in our opinion, from an inferiority complex. In the late 1990s, it seemed as if the Idiot were finally retreating. But the retreat was short lived. Today, the species is back in force in the form of populist heads of state who are reenacting the failed policies of the past, opinion leaders from around the world who are lending new credence to them, and supporters who are giving new life to ideas that seemed extinct. ~Alvaro Vargas Llosa

Far be it from me to defend the wisdom of crowds and the virtues of democracy.  If Mr. Vargas Llosa wants to say that the policy preferences of mass democratic electorates are often foolish and unsound, I will not contradict him.  However, I tend to find the anti-populism of the liberal democrat a little hard to take, since it is so transparently inconsistent with his own confidence in democratic government.  There is often nothing obviously more purely rational and less self-interested about the preferences of the liberal democrat that puts him in the position to laugh at the populist and socialist as an “idiot.”  Carl Schorske’s cultural history of fin-de-siecle Vienna was one work that revealed to me this contempt of the 19th century liberal and his sympathisers for the conservative Catholic, the nationalist and the socialist: in this telling, liberals conceived of themselves as embattled heroes of rationality, and their foes were foolish crowds stupidly pursuing “magical” answers that could not be explained by anything other than irrationality.  In fact, the backlash against classical liberalism across all of Europe and, to some extent, also here in America was the result of the failure of liberal policies to address the interests and needs of huge numbers of people.  There is good reason why Christian democracy and social democracy became the dominant forces in European politics in virtually every country: most constituencies did not benefit from and did not want the liberal order.  The story of modern Europe is the story of how liberty and democracy are frequently mutually exclusive, but it also offers an important reminder that there are social and political goods that most people will privilege ahead of fairly abstract notions of liberty. 

Liberal economic policies were geared for the benefit of liberal middle-class voters and promised, eventually, benefits for others as well, but in the short term the rural and labour interests were quite rationally and sensibly opposed to policies that privileged the interests of buergerlich city-dwellers and the interests of capital and finance.  Liberals are always caught in the paradox that they endorse all of the contractual and egalitarian theories that must lead inexorably to universal suffrage and mass democracy, knowing at the same time that their definition of good government and freedom is not shared by the overwhelming majority of people in the world and will likely be repudiated once everyone has a vote.  Nowadays they possess a charmingly naive faith in the virtues of democracy, but reserve the right to declare the exercise of the franchise in ways they dislike to be the workings of idiocy.  This role today is taken up by the inheritors of the American Freisinnigen, the Republicans, who are quite happy to extol the glories of democracy and “people power” at every turn when it seems to vindicate their policy preferences until the demos turns against them, whereupon they rediscover that America is supposed to be a republic and the madness of crowds is a dangerous and worrisome phenomenon.  It is as some of them are Jacobins who are willing to pose as Federalists when the occasion requires; the centralising tendencies of both Jacobin and Federalist make this contradictory stance less absurd than it might otherwise be.  But that is another story.         

Back to Latin American idiocy.  What is striking about this analysis is not its rude dismissal of the recurring preferences of large numbers of Latin Americans, but the treatment of the resurgence of “the Idiot” as if nothing in the 1990s happened that might have caused many Latin American nations to question the neoliberalism that was being promoted as the answer to “the Idiot.”  Latin American electorates did not turn on neoliberalism out of a fit of pique or whimsy–like its original, neoliberalism introduced any number of strains and upheavals into the societies where neoliberal policies were implemented and austerity budgets alienated those who depended on government largesse.  Like classical liberalism, neoliberalism has proved to be wildly unpopular.  The disasters of neoliberalism in Argentina in particular seemed to vindicate increased hostility to such policies.  Even though the Argentinian government could be fairly blamed for the overspending that pushed their country into the debt crisis that led to the meltdown that impoverished many Argentines, the association of the ruling party and the government with neoliberal policies tainted the entire theory with the failures of their mismanagement. 

If “the Idiot” has returned with a vengeance, it is because neoliberal politicians also acted pretty idiotically in their own right and discredited the alternative to old-fashioned populism.  To the extent that neoliberalism was associated with pro-American attitudes, its failure made hostility to U.S. policy fashionable once again.  Rather than face up to any of these political realities, Vargas Llosa goes so far as to declare outside sympathisers with this backlash to be guilty of “intellectual treason” (whatever that means). 

The author takes the easy road of bashing Hugo Chavez, who is so ridiculous that criticising him is a bit like calling in an airstrike on a barrel of fish.  He cites Chavez’s admiration for Chomsky and Chomsky’s admiration for Chavez.  That is a surprise–two radical leftists admire each other!  In other news, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair get along, and Christopher Hitchens does not believe in God.  Somehow Foreign Policy thought it worth publishing an article that tells us that (contrary to all of those numerous Western claims of success) Venezuelan social and economic policies are not working very well.  Plus, did you realise that some sociology professor from Binghampton University (where?) has defended the Cuban government?  How could you not know–he is apparently an “American opinion leader.”  Continuing to show the vast influence of ”idiot” sympathisers in the industrialised West, Mr. Vargas Llosa has dug up a lecture by Harold Pinter (he’s still alive?) in which Pinter rallies to the side of the old Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas (because it’s never too late to justify communist atrocities).  Of course, it’s dreadful to have people still defending the Sandinistas, but in an age when Trotsky admirers appear in the pages of National Review it might just be that old leftists rehashing debates of the 1980s are not the most pressing concern of our time.

But did you know that there are occasionally news stories written about Chavez that do not roundly condemn him and all his works?  Clearly, there are terrible and sinister forces at work!  That is not all.  He goes on:

Populists share basic characteristics: the voluntarism of the caudillo as a substitute for the law; the impugning of the oligarchy and its replacement with another type of oligarchy; the denunciation of imperialism (with the enemy always being the United States); the projection of the class struggle between the rich and the poor onto the stage of international relations; the idolatry of the state as a redeeming force for the poor; authoritarianism under the guise of state security; and “clientelismo,” a form of patronage by which government jobs—as opposed to wealth creation—are the conduit of social mobility and the way to maintain a “captive vote” in the elections.     

This is all perfectly true, and it is also a pretty good definition of every welfarist, progressive and social democratic political movement that has come to power in North America and Europe for the last seventy years.  Give or take a point, it could be a very good description of FDR and the New Deal.  These movements are routinely very wrong about the efficacy of the policies they promote, they are often quite stupid about economics and they often end up worsening the conditions of the people they set out allegedly to help, and they are, of course, vehicles for ambitious men to acquire power for themselves, but they came into being in response to the inadequate representation and inadequate response of governments dominated by other forces.  It may be the case that Latin American governments working on behalf of the interests of the wealthy oligarchs pursue policies that are better for the economic development of their respective countries, and it may often be the case that populist backlashes harm these countries, but it is entirely understandable and predictable that marginalised, dispossessed and poor people who see relatively few obvious benefits from this order are going to seek some kind of change.  There is not even a hint that there might be some explicable cause for the resurgence of populism–it can only be idiocy. 

Now, obviously Western sympathy with Chavismo is fairly idiotic, but it is also highly unrepresentative of most Western opinion, just as Chavismo itself is largely unrepresentative of most Latin American left-populism.  Most Latin American nations have turned left without indulging in the more absurd excesses of Venezuela and Bolivia, and they will benefit from their moderation.  The “threat” described in this article is not really that threatening, since it refers to the political sympathies of mostly marginal and far-left Western figures who have limited influence, if they have any at all, on policy.  The regimes for which they have sympathies are themselves relatively weak and have already begun to suffer the economic consequences of their flawed policies.     

But in the 21st century, things look different. Dictatorships, as in China, appear to have learned from the failure of the Soviets. While they continue to oppress political opponents, they allow a high level of economic freedom within their borders. ~Kevin Hassett

For some people, this seems difficult to accept, but I’m not sure why it should be.  Providing goods and services and participating in government are two very different things.  If the government permits the former, but prohibits the latter, that might even help boost productivity (imagine how much more productive political bloggers would be at whatever they did for a living if they weren’t spending all their time blathering about politics!).  As a matter of resources, time, energy and attention, it could easily be argued that participation in politics and the exercise of political freedoms are a drag on economic activity.  We could acknowledge this and still say that we prefer to expend our energies on these other goods, but it makes sense that those who have no such political freedoms and no participation in government to worry about will probably devote more energy and attention to work.  Authoritarian governments may decide to do economically stupid things (such as the Thai junta clamping down on moving bahts out of the country), but democratically elected governments may make their countries commit prolonged economic suicide (e.g., Venezuela) to pursue ideological and political goals.  It certainly doesn’t follow that giving more people the right to vote will ensure better economic policies–to believe this is to assume that the mass of voters knows something about economic policy and can gauge and discern wisely which proposals are better than others.  Usually, voter preferences tend to be very blunt: they tend to overreact to perceived failure with extreme swings to the opposite side, or they find themselves confronted with a two party consensus on economic management that permits no real change no matter what the people may or may not want.     

It isn’t as if the thesis that societies with less of a participatory government could be economically more productive was entirely unsuited to the 20th century.  Singapore has stood as a brilliant, shining repudiation of all theories that insist political freedom and economic freedom are somehow inextricably tied together.  Arguably, Singapore is exceptional in many ways that could make it a weak example, but time and again you can find evidence that both less free and less democratic societies (not always the same thing) will enjoy greater productivity and wealth.  The post-Cold War era has seen this happen on a consistent basis, as the graph in Mr. Hassett’s own article demonstrates.  The disparity between unfree-but-productive and free societies has actually widened during the 2001-05 period.  Of course, this involves including Malaysia (which at least plays at having elections) and Russia (which has elections that produce outcomes that liberals don’t like) among the “repressive” societies, which will definitely boost the numbers against the free and the democratic.

Dr. Dalrymple, sometimes TAC contributor and a thoughtful man, has an article in The New English Review comparing the thought of Marx and Qutb.  He does hit on some similarities, which are the similarities of all utopianisms, but I am concerned that this sort of argument pave the way for the invention of the no less ridiculous idea of “Islamomarxism.”  Are we really unable to approach the thought of a Sayyid Qutb without relying on the clumsy and inappropriate frameworks of 19th and 20th century European political thought?  Are we incapable of seeing Qutb as an exponent of a religion?  Of course, part of his religion involves a call to political power and the exercise of that power, but all of these things he advocates for reasons of his religion based on the requirements–as he sees them–of his religion.  Trying to interpret it through the lens of secular ideologies will not get us very far.   

But then there was an item that caught my attention.  Dr. Dalrymple writes:

Is this Marx or Qutb speaking:

[there] is a natural struggle between two systems which cannot co-exist for long.

The answer is Qutb, but Dr. Dalrymple also notes the striking similarity between this statement and those of Marx and Marxists down through the years.  However, this is not really evidence of some deeper affinity between Qutb and Marx.  It is a reflection of the Manichean rhetoric employed by all fanatics and modern gnostics who insist on realising their version of the Kingdom here and now.  You can see it in Lincoln’s claims that the Union cannot endure “half slave and half free.”  Why couldn’t it endure?  Because one side is going to insist that the other half cannot continue as it has been going.  The impulse of the Freisinnigen is to “rationalise” everything and make uniform standards everywhere they can.  (The same mentality appears whenever someone believes that such-and-such an issue is “too important” to be left to the states or local communities, which is basically a statement that federalism and decentralism are only good for handling minor and insignificant things, which is to doubly insult both.)  If such-and-such a thing is intolerable or unacceptable in Maine, it must be considered so in Mississippi, and not just in Mississippi, but also eventually even in Mauritania and the Maldives.  Presumably, infant car seat regulations in Bolivia are not up to code–taken to an extreme, the freethinker will consider this his problem, just as Obama believes that there is nothing on earth that is not related to the national security of the United States. 

The entire notion of Iraq serving as the model of democratic reform leading to the regional transformation of the Near East is based on a related view that if there is one “successful” case of democratisation in a region, it will automatically spread and reproduce itself in neighbouring countries, as if political ideas and institutions were like viruses that could spread in this fashion.  Indeed, democratists almost have to think of democracy as a kind of blight that will attack a monoculture of uniform despotism, simply wiping it out wherever it goes, which naturally takes no account of the diversity of cultures and peoples in the countries that they are trying to democratise.  It might seem strange that democratists are probably the least qualified to spread democracy around the world, but it seems to be the case.  Why?  Since they don’t seem terribly interested in the rest of the world for what it is, but simply as a platform where they can demonstrate their ideology in action, they are uniquely ill-suited to conveying democracy as anything other than a universalist project that aims to obliterate local customs and institutions.  This has very often been the flaw of advocates of democracy, who often express some degree of contempt for the customs and traditions of peoples who do not have democratic regimes.  They vaguely sense that the local culture has inhibited the establishment of democracy, but instead of finding some way to adapt their model to local circumstances they will often seek to uproot whatever they regard as an impediment, ensuring that democracy is thereafter associated in the minds of the locals with cultural and political radicalism that deeply offends them.    

The old joke that the puritan is the person who is worried that somewhere someone is having a good time is only partly right.  It is not just the enjoyment of others that such people cannot stand.  The real freethinking Yankee is the person who is worried that somewhere someone is thinking in a way that is not identical to his own thinking.  Difference troubles the freethinking mentality, and the untidiness of non-systematic views of the world drives the freethinker crazy. 

You can see the same “no coexistence” rhetoric in WWII propaganda films that claimed that the world cannot be partly enslaved and partly free, which is even sillier, since it was entirely possible for decades and decades for a few free republics and constitutional monarchies to exist and coexist with the rest of the world that was subjected to some form of autocratic rule.  This would have continued to be true, regardless of the outcome of WWII, but as with all good propaganda the message had to be one that related distant, abstract dangers in immediately threatening ways.  If Germany attacks Russia, how does that concern you?  In reality, it often doesn’t concern you.  But if you are convinced of the danger of Germany eventually attacking you, then you become very attentive to the problem of Germany.   

Most people are unconcerned if there is or is not freedom on the other side of the planet–what concerns them is when that lack of freedom supposedly endangers their security.  If someone could plausibly argue that inaction with respect to Darfur would lead in a fairly direct way to a bomb going off in their local mall, people would become a bit more anxious about helping Darfuris.  This is actually a fairly normal response; people who lie awake at night worrying about Darfuri villagers are highly atypical and frankly rather odd people. 

In a related way, this is why–indeed it must be why–interventionists continue to spout the obvious lie that “they hate us for our freedom” and the associated falsehood that “democracies don’t war.”  Wasting time, money and lives on democratisation only makes sense if it is seen to serve a larger purpose of security.  Constantly babbling about spreading freedom only seems reasonable to national security-focused citizens if they are made to believe that we have enemies because of who we are and that we can only eliminate those enemies by making their own societies more like how we are.  The government needs to make the conflict ideological and promise that it has an ideological solution, which theoretically reaffirms domestic confidence in our own ideals and also links what is an entirely security-related matter to ideological definitions.  Security threats have not come about because of certain policies or lapses in defense, but because of people opposed to our very existence and way of life.  In other words, as the propagandists tell it, the only reason why these other societies produce hostile forces is that those societies are insufficiently identical with us in their political norms and institutions.  If we make them more identical with us, there will have to be peace!  It is so logical that the stupidity of it doesn’t seem to occur to all that many people who support the government’s decisions.  The problem arises when policymakers believe their own propaganda and think that they actually can solve the problem of jihadi hostility by promoting democracy and freedom, when the lack of these was never the cause.  They mixed up the domestic propaganda message with the actual policy analysis (assuming that there was any analysis with which to confuse it), and hijinks ensued. 

The end of the Cold War with all its attendant resurgences of nationalism, ethnicity, religion and political diversity–things that had been largely artificially suppressed or managed by the two rival systems–should have put an end to this kind of homogenising, rationalising thinking once and for all, but instead the democratists took the collapse of communism as an invitation to make the world in the democratists’ image.  Incidentally, there are two principally ideological reasons why democratists are so furious with Putin and Chavez: they have shown that real mass democracy can and will yield authoritarian, illiberal governments in societies that do not have a politically liberal culture appropriate to constitutional government and, furthermore, that the cookie-cutter model the democratists would impose all around the world is wildly unpopular in large parts of the world.  Left populism in Latin America is a very public repudiation of everything democratists have claimed about democracy: that it is inherently peaceful, prone to encouraging freedom and likely to produce more pro-American regimes.  To maintain the obvious contradiction between their ideology and reality, they must massage the reality and describe Russia and Venezuela as “failed” democracies, because it can never be admitted that fully functioning democracies can create what is being created in Russia and Venezuela.  (Occasionally, some democratists will see the flaw in this sort of argument and acknowledge that when they say democracy they don’t just mean ‘majority rule’ and political equality of citizens–which is what democracy actually means–but include under that label the whole array of liberal constitutional arrangements that have, of course, absolutely nothing to do with democracy.)  This is fine, except that their democracies are doing what the ancients knew democracies were best at doing: attacking the rich, creating chaos and leading directly to despotism.     

The impulse to homogenise and unify on the home front and eliminate rival systems elsewhere is the impulse of every kind of ideologue, which is why conservatives and men of the Right who love variety, the local, the particular and the differences of place, custom and culture are dead-set against every kind of ideology and pursue a persuasion, a mentality and a way of life that will not be governed by the dreadful categories of ideological thinking. 

Frankly, I do admire Romney’s consistency, it shows professionalism - some candidates don’t even know what talking points their campaigns communicate. However, I’d like to hear Romney’s view on the fact that democratic elections in the Middle East in the past few years have quite legally, and under US-sanctioned balloting, increased the political clout of Hezbollah (Lebanon), Hamas (Palestine), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt). ~George Ajjan

This was a point I didn’t get to in the post where I united two of my favourite hobbyhorses (bashing Romney, mocking people who talk about Islamofascism).  Now I can add two more of my preoccupations to the mix: questioning the wisdom of democratisation in the Near East and rejecting optimism. 

There are three consistent positions one can take on the question of democratisation:

1) Democratisation is good for the peoples of the Near East and is naturally bound to create a more pro-Western, pro-American, pro-Israel Near East (see Turkey for why this one is wrong).

2) Democratisation is probably bad for American and Israeli interests, but must be pursued for the long-term development, security and sanity of the region.  See interwar Europe, Latin America at almost any time in the last 200 years or modern Africa as counter-examples of the rather terrible results when fragile developing democracies are created in inhospitable times and climes, whether they are being established in badly tribally, ethnically or religiously-divided nations or in nations with insufficient experience with the norms and practices of democratic governance.

3) Democratisation is an inherently destabilising and all-around bad idea that is both inappropriate to the nations of the Near East now and for the foreseeable future and fundamentally dangerous to international security.  In this view, the “global democratic revolution” may even be potentially far more dangerous to the peace of the world than global communism.

Naturally, Republican elites, including Romney, have generally endorsed #1 and have been gradually moving towards #2 as they have begun to count the costs and have been forced to acknowledge that nothing pro-American is emerging in the democratic or quasi-democratic regimes arising in the region.  Those Republicans who once endorsed #1 and have since thrown up their hands in despair do not usually move over to #3, but very frequently retain their powerful faith in democracy as an engine of peace, freedom and development (looking over the hideous history of the most democratic century in history, I really have no idea why they think this).  They are incapable of doubting the virtues of democracy and soon adopt a fourth position, which might be called the Ralph Peters view or the “damn ingrates” position: democratisation in the Near East was a fine and noble idea, and we are fine and noble people for trying to implement it, but those stupid Arabs just couldn’t get their act together, so let’s just kill as many as we can.  This is sometimes hard to distinguish from the advocates of the #1 position, since the #1 folks also tend to be very vocal about killing as many Arabs as possible (see Ledeen and “crappy little country”-against-wall-throwing approach to foreign policy or Rice and “birth pangs of a new Middle East”).  It is amazing to watch the transformation of some of these unbounded optimists, who were not long ago preaching the universality of human dignity, into the most cynically monstrous of amoralists, who now believe that the Iraqis failed us, because they weren’t able to pick up on the fly in a war zone something that takes hundreds of years to nurture, cultivate and developThis is a powerful confirmation of the potential evils of optimism: no one is more savage and cruel than an optimist disappointed by the people he was going to save through his naive idealism.

Coming back to Romney, it is intriguing that he at once takes the far-out confrontational posture of a “Gathering Storm” Santorum vis-a-vis Iran, while at the same time listing the Muslim Brotherhood as part of the general jihadi foe that must be fought.  That ends up putting Romney in the odd position of defending the Syrian government as a “moderate Muslim government” as he breathes in, and then implicitly damning them by targeting Hizbullah as another part of the jihadi foe as he breathes out.  Even though the Syrians oppose one part of the ”worldwide jihadist effort” in repressing the Brotherhood, we will no doubt be told that they are also part of the “worldwide jihadist effort” because they lend support to Hizbullah, which tends to show just how useless and unwise this sort of rhetoric about a “worldwide jihadist effort” really is.  It is safe to say that anyone who thinks that there is a “worldwide jihadist effort” that includes both the Brotherhood and Hizbullah working for the same goals is playing directly into the hands of those, such as al Qaeda, who want nothing more than to convince as many Sunnis as possible that Washington is intent on indiscriminate war against Muslims everywhere.  Nothing better aids jihadi propaganda that presents them as champions of an Islam besieged all over the world than clumsy, ham-fisted descriptions of a “worldwide jihadist effort” that validates the jihadis’ own description of the nature of the war.  Romney wants us to play the jihadis’ game, and in this he is hardly alone on the right–shouldn’t someone be asking why Romney wants to fight the war on the enemy’s terms?  

Rather than exploiting the cleavages that exist between different kinds of Muslims and different groups of jihadis, as a savvy George Kennan-like foreign policy thinker might propose, the insane plan of leading Republican candidates and the party leadership is to keep reinforcing the image of a monolithic, unified “worldwide jihadist effort.”  The net result of this thinking will be that America will have that many more implacable enemies to fight and we will have missed that many more opportunities to turn jihadi against jihadi and use natural Baathist hostility to the same to our advantage.  Rather than playing on national and sectarian divisions and exploiting opposition between relatively secular Muslims and their religious counterparts, talk of a “worldwide jihadist effort” helps to push these groups into collaboration where none existed before.  Of course, having created this collaboration, it will then be taken as proof by these same clever people that these groups were “inevitably” going to ally with one another because of their fundamental agreement with one another.   

“…There were three elections held. Those were a powerful demonstration of what no one is able to deny, even those who now want to turn away and give up on Iraq. Which is that the majority of the Iraqi people want a better life for themselves and their families. The majority is not involved in sectarian violence and clearly not involved in terrorism.” ~Kimberley Strassel

Everyone wants a better life for himself and his family.  That’s the most vapid thing anyone can say.  It’s right up there with “‘Everyone wants to be free” or “everyone wants to be happy.”  Well, that’s nice, but how many people know how to acquire these things?  How many people understand that you really can’t have both freedom and happiness?  But leave that for another time. 

Lieberman is whistling past the graveyard if he still insists that people should think of these elections as some sort of success.  As democratists are only too happy to point out when their democratisation empowers horrible killers and maniacs: “Elections are not the whole of democracy!”  To which I reply, “Well, okay, so stop talking about having elections as if it were proof of some success in democratisation.” 

The consequences of these elections have been dire.  They have not only politicised sectarian and ethnic identities even more than they were before, and they have not only managed to establish a Shi’ite majoritarian tyranny backed by the death squads and militias of the Shi’ite coalition parties, but the elections have created the absurd situation where the present government, our supposed ally in this conflict, depends for its existence on the political support of one of the primary causes of sectarian strife and has been entirely subservient to the interests of this sectarian faction for the past year.  Democracy, to the extent that it has actually come into existence in Iraq, has worked to the detriment of Iraq’s stability and security, and has therefore directly and negatively affected the U.S. mission in Iraq. 

Not surprisingly, holding elections in a war zone will tend to empower those who campaign on a platform of fanaticism, self-righteous anger and appeals to unity against your faction’s enemies.  Elections in such an environment are positively destabilising and dangerous.  To have three elections in the middle of the war indicates that on three separate occasions Washington foolishly treated one of the most dangerous sources of political instability as a near-panacea for the political and security ills of Iraq.  That Lieberman, at this late date, continues to repeat this nonsense suggests that he is unfit to speak on such matters.

Schumacher’s greatest achievement was the fusion of ancient wisdom and modern economics in a language that encapsulated contemporary doubts and fears about the industrialized world. The wisdom of the ages, the perennial truths that have guided humanity throughout its history, serves as a constant reminder to each new generation of the limits to human ambition. But if this wisdom is a warning, it is also a battle cry. Schumacher saw that we needed to relearn the beauty of smallness, of human-scale technology and environments. It was no coincidence that his book was subtitled Economics as if People Mattered.

Joseph Pearce revisits Schumacher’s arguments and examines the multifarious ways in which Schumacher’s ideas themselves still matter. Faced though we are with fearful new technological possibilities and the continued centralization of power in large governmental and economic structures, there is still the possibility of pursuing a saner and more sustainable vision for humanity. Bigger is not always best, Pearce reminds us, and small is still beautiful. ~Description of Joseph Pearce’s Small Is Still Beautiful.

Clark Stooksbury, Jeremy Beer and (I suspect) many others familiar to us all from our Crunchy Cons and Look Homeward, America adventures earlier in the year will be assembling next month for the group blog about Mr. Pearce’s new book, whose name it bears: Small Is Still Beautiful.

Meanwhile, the woman [Rice] is still with us, more powerful and more disconnected from reality than ever. She apparently still believes there’s no point in talking to Syria and Iran. She still believes that democracy is a feasible goal in Iraq. At the State Department dinner, I watched her speak about the arts. “Arts flourish most when they happen in a democracy,” she said. “The arts give expression to human spirit and give expression to human freedom.” ~Nora Ephron

Raise your hand if you believe this nonsense.  No one?  Good.  Art as an expression of human freedom is itself a tired Romantic fantasy.  Art is an expression of the human desire for beauty and the yearning for proportion, balance and order in space and movement. 

But, by any meaningful standard, it is impossible to believe the claim that “the arts” flourish better in a democracy.  (Leave aside for now the obvious problem that freedom and modern democracy have nothing necessarily to do with each other.)  Perhaps it is only a coincidence, but the rise of democratic politics and all manner of egalitarian flim-flam in different parts of the world have tended to coincide with a degeneration of anything like high artistic standards in those same places.  Democratisation and mediocrity do go hand in hand.  Excellence and egalitarianism do not go well together, and the latter will always drag down the former.  If you are a believer in the virtues of democracy, you might very well say that this is an acceptable trade-off, but a trade-off undoubtedly exists. 

“The arts” flourish most in societies with two things: a great deal of material wealth and a relatively high level of education that cultivates new generations of artists and creates an audience capable of understanding or at least valuing in some way the art they create.  It is possible that a democratic culture might allow more people access to “the arts,” but this does not therefore mean that “the arts” are flourishing more than they would have done under a different kind of regime.  To the extent that democratic mediocrity weakens the quality of everyone’s education, it is likely that the practice and culture of democracy positively harm the flourishing and appreciation of “the arts.”  The arts are closely related to the classes that are always considered expendable in public school budget-cutting, because voters will usually treat these classes as extraneous and of secondary importance.  The reservoirs of high bourgeois culture in opera, theater, orchestral performance, art galleries, etc. are now theoretically open to all but are, in practice, still the preserve and the interest of a relative few (and those ticket prices don’t make it easy to broaden their appeal!).  Even though the federal government should have nothing to do with funding the arts, it is not surprising that arts funding takes a low priority, as there are no large constituencies that will be offended by the neglect of this.  

Remarkably greater sums of wealth go towards mass entertainments of low and dubious quality, and consequently there is much more of this sort of thing available at far more affordable prices.  This is the way of things in the world of mass consumption and mass politics, but we do not have to keep lying and pretending that democratic societies enjoy some efflourescence of artistic creativity because of “freedom.”  If “the arts” flourish at all, it is in open defiance of the logic of democracy with its leveling, its refusal to rank and its counterintuitive claim that everyone is equal.  Art is one field of human endeavour where whatever equality of nature men may have (i.e., everyone is equally human–as meaningless a statement as there can be) becomes ridiculously irrelevant in the face of the vast gaps in ability and vision that exist.         

These elections were one of the things that were alleged to be impossible by many of the “realists”.  ~Andrew Cunningham

A citation on this point would be helpful, since I cannot recall a single person, realist or no, arguing against the war and saying that “elections” would be “impossible” in Iraq.  Elections occur in the Near East and North Africa with a kind of dreary regularity.  They vote in Lebanon, they vote in Yemen, they vote in Egypt, they vote (to no purpose whatever) in Algeria, they vote in Iran, they even vote in Bahrain.  Nobody doubts that elections are possible in every corner of the globe.  Even relatively “free and fair elections,” such as they are, take place in countries that no one would reasonably call free, such as Russia and Pakistan, and whose governments no one would confuse with being representative or constitutional.  But if, as the democratists now try to aver, “elections are not the whole of democracy,” having elections does not a successful implantation of democracy make.  If elections–and nothing else–are what democratists wish to introduce to the world, then they are even more dangerous than I thought. 

Furthermore, what realists and anti-interventionists of various stripes were usually saying was one of two things: a) elections will empower illiberal, dangerous or otherwise despotic characters or b) elections will empower forces hostile to the United States and her allies.  (Some went further and noted that in ethnically and religiously divided countries democracy was simply a way to politicise these divisions and inflame divisions to the point of violence.)  In the event, those who held one or both of these views have been vindicated by events in Iraq, as the political forces endorsed by elections have been largely illiberal, anti-American and hostile to American allies in many important respects.  Especially in the developing world (but not necessarily limited to it), democracy often means in practice authoritarian populism or some form of illiberal democracy, often dictated by the pressures of nationalism or religious fundamentalism.  Realists and anti-interventionists questioned the wisdom of unleashing political forces hostile to American interests and forces that were no more inclined to basic Western political values (and perhaps less so) than the Baathists they were replacing.  In other words, the idea that democratisation would make Iraq moderate, peaceful and pro-Western–which many a pro-war pundit definitely did say would probably result–was a lot of hogwash and some opponents of the war said as much before the invasion.  But none of us ever said that elections were impossible.  In our eyes, they were only too possible, and their results were only too predictable

Untried men, without any experience in any affairs and ignorant, took their places in the assembly and then undertook useless wars, then they put factious men in charge of the state, and they drove the most deserving citizens out of the country. ~Cicero, Pro Flacco

First of all, Afghanistan has a democratic government now. It is the democratically elected government of Afghanistan that wants international assistance — including Canada’s — in order to maintain itself against its enemies, namely the Taliban. ~Akrasia

This is cute.  Afghanistan has a democratic government!  Hamid Karzai is the President of Afghanistan!  The “Afghan government” has requested our “assistance”!  How quaint.  The famed loya jirga of 2002 was consensus-based politics, Afghan-style, in which the local heavies agreed to let Karzai be a powerless figurehead on the condition that they were allowed to continue doing what they were doing in their precincts.  This agreement has been honoured, and Afghanistan now has as much of a democratically-elected government as Pakistan.  There’s nothing surprising or scandalous about any of this.  At least, that is, not to those of us who don’t think that Afghanistan is a democracy in any meaningful sense of the word.  For those still operating under this pleasant fiction, it could be most alarming.

But Akrasia is not very clear on what democracy is, now, is he?  In a later comment he writes:

Suffice to say, it was an integral part of the western Allies’ (Britain and U.S.) post-war strategy that Germany and Japan be reconstructed as demoractic states. To suggest that Britain and the U.S. ‘didn’t give a crap’ is a patent falsehood. (How could it be otherwise with respect to Japan, which had no historical experience with democracy?)

When getting on the high horse of superior historical knowledge, it is best to know how to ride.  Alas, Akrasia sets himself up for a hard fall on this one, since his lecture to Pithlord declares that Japan had no experience with democracy, when it had enjoyed some considerable experience with universal manhood suffrage and elected government under a constitutional monarchy for the better part of three decades before the military effectively took over in the 1930s.  Even then, the structures and fictions of elected, representative government, with which the Japanese allegedly had no experience, were maintained.  To top off this supposedly damning indictment, he ironically invokes Santayana’s famous dictum about historical ignorance.  Not finished yet, Akrasia also manages to squeeze in an especially crass reference to Chamberlain and appeasement before he is done!  If he is ever out of work, I’m sure The Weekly Standard will have a place for him. 

I’m all in favour of ‘democracy promotion’ (means to be determined on a case-by-case basis). Indeed, I consider it to be an essential goal for the West in the 21st century, both for reasons of self-interest (democratic governments do not go to war with each other), and basic human morality (democratic governments respect universal human rights).

I can’t understand thinking that a democratic government’s role does not involve securing and promoting democracy. ~Akrasia

Via Pithlord

Akrasia’s first claim, the claim of democratic self-interest in promoting democracy, is based on a fable and a dream.  Not only do democracies go to war against each other with sufficient regularity to reject any talk of “exceptions that prove the rule,” they tend to wage particularly nasty, long, drawn-out wars against each other.  Second, must we continue to belabour simple points about whether democracies respect human rights?  Some democratic states (Russia leaps to mind) do no such thing, and there is nothing inherent in democracy that requires such governments do respect those rights.  If by “democracy,” Akrasia means constitutional government under a rule of law, he should say so and stop importing the virtues of one kind of regime into democracy and pretending that democracy has something to do with respecting human dignity and the claims of morality.  Any government’s duties, regardless of its political constitution, are defined by providing basic order, enforcing the laws, protecting citizens against external threats and securing the interests and welfare of the people and the commonwealth.  At no point is it part of any government’s function to export an ideology or lend its support to the spreading of a certain type of government elsewhere in the world.  Besides going beyond its proper functions, any government that did this would very likely have to acquire such power that it would become a threat to the constitution of the home country. 

Yet, for all our errors, we did give the Iraqis a unique chance to build a rule-of-law democracy. They preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption. It appears that the cynics were right: Arab societies can’t support democracy as we know it. And people get the government they deserve. ~Ralph Peters

But to state an obvious truth that our system of government depends on an entire culture made up of long-tested and established habits and practices that is not necessarily transferrable to all other societies is not to be a cynic.  People with ludicrous, hyper-optimistic expectations of the impossible call people with an acquaintance with reality cynics when they are disappointed in their own unrealistic and possibly delusional hopes.  No one who really knew anything about Islam in Iraq, the tribal and sectarian nature of Iraqi society and the complete lack of any heritage of representative government and any experience upon which they could draw ever believed that the democratisation of Iraq would succeed in doing anything other than politicising ethnic and sectarian identity in a dangerously heterogeneous society and making politics a rehashing of old grievances that would end up erupting into violence when these grievances could not be addressed otherwise. 

As I wrote in February 2005:

Nonetheless, that road to unrest and violence has been made all the smoother by the direct politicisation of ethnicity, sect and religious fundamentalism. I want to stress that this is the fault of democracy to the extent that it has been allowed to exist in Iraq, and not attachment to ethnicity, sect or religion as such: on their own terms, these things are often quite good and healthy attachments, but when they become the cheap symbols and slogans of demagogues they are turned into some of the ugliest and worst fanaticism. Naturally this was unforeseen by the Bush administration, as it has no grasp of what these loyalties really mean or how powerful they really are beyond their own limited use of religion and national pride as props in their absurd performance during elections.  

I also wrote the following in February 2005 in response to Krauthammer’s infamously dismissive ”tribe or religion or whatever” crack:

I would be the last one to begrudge anyone expressing his loyalty to his people or religion, but it is also in just such a society where these loyalties are binding that mass politics is the most provocative and dangerous. It is no accident that democracies in tribal societies organise their politics along tribal lines, and also no accident that such societies are more prone to civil strife than most any other. The tribal or ethnic differences, which might have hitherto been merely facts of life and only occasionally cause for conflict, have become perpetual political boundaries about which regular contests are held. The Ivory Coast is a shining example of how democracy has ruined a perfectly stable and relatively prosperous African country by politicising ethnic groups and turning them into rivals for power.

Those of us arguing against the invasion understood this about Iraq a lot earlier than 2005.  There were those who predicted the likelihood of just this sort of bloodletting back in 2002 and early 2003, having seen the horrors of Hutu majoritarianism in action and having left the disastrous wreckage of Yugoslavia behind us only a few years before.  Anyone familiar with the history of the 19th and 20th centuries who was not an ideological democratist could not look on the introduction of democratic politics to developing nations with anything but horror at the terrible consequences that would follow.  

Such people were not “cynics” in the sense that word is usually meant; they weren’t cynics of any kind.  They were simply better informed and had a better understanding of the region that others thought, in their stupendous arrogance and hubris, they could transform by apparently doing little more than toppling a government and holding an election or two.  Freedom is universal!  Democracy for all!  If you don’t agree, you’re racist and condescending!  As we have all started re-discovering, or as some of us have known all along, some societies are suited to representative, constitutional and popular regimes, and others are not.  Full stop.  Cultural, religious and social habits create the vital foundations for any hope of successful representative, participatory or popular government, and Iraqis possess few if any of these.  This is not a flaw or moral failing on their part, though Peters gets on his high horse and condemns them for valuing attachments that all normal people throughout time have valued more highly than the institutions of a government or other idols of the democratist. 

More to the point, I would bet that many of the Iraqis do not desire such a type of regime if it would mean sacrificing or weakening their prior commitments to family, tribe, sect and religion, which, of course, a functioning mass democracy does require.  (This is why, as a conservative, I have no great love for mass democracy, because these other things are far more important and essential to the stability and health of society than whether or not the mob gets a vote every two or four years.)  Everyone likes freedom, and everyone likes the idea of an accountable, relatively just government, but how much is a given people willing to give up to have those things?  What, in fact, are those things really worth?  As it happens, most people are either obliged by duties to parents, elders or other authorities to not give up certain attachments and loyalties or they are themselves unwilling to give them up. 

In this they are far more normal and like most people throughout history than we are.  Our experience is supremely unusual and atypical.  It is something remarkably rare, like a delicate orchid, that, if we value it, must be assiduously protected and tended; it is not something that can become the monoculture of the world (if such a thing were even desirable, which it is not).  For all of the benefits that we can see in our system of government and our way of life, to a great many people who do not possess anything like either of these they appear and are freakish and horrifying.  This may strike some as hard to take (though it is probably easiest for traditional conservatives of all people to understand more fully), but I believe that is the case.  Of course you can find exceptions, people who do desire all of what we have (rather than wanting to be able to enjoy the benefits of Westernisation or democratisation without the necessary sacrifices from their existing way of life), most of whom end up emigrating from their home countries and come to the West to live the kind of life they know they will never have back home because the weight and constraints of these natural loyalties and affinities prevent it.  Of course, even those who come here cannot shake off the traditions of their fathers like so much dust.  Even emigres and exiles are defined and shaped by the traditions and place they inherited, even if they want to flee from both; in flight, they are forever haunted by their origins.  This is also why it matters supremely to the nation that takes them in what kind of political and religious culture immigrants possess, how they understand the contestation for power and influence and what their political values are.  This is more dramatically clear with Muslim immigrants in Europe, but the same thing is true of immigrants from Latin America or Asia.

“Islamic democracy” as such has succeeded nowhere; it doesn’t exist; it is a fantasy of people who know a little about democracy and less about Islam.  Democracy in majority Muslim nations has succeeded to some degree to the extent that Islam has been officially and largely removed from politics (Turkey) or to the extent that, as in a place such as Mali or Indonesia, the Islam practiced by the people is traditionally of a far more eclectic and accommodating type that would not meet with the approval of any form of Islam practiced in the Near and Middle East today.  However, Indonesia is a danger zone to the extent that Muslims in Indonesia have only experienced democratic government for eight years or so; prior to this were the dictatorships, colonial Dutch rule and then local kings and chiefs.  Whether in the future Wahhabism or similar versions of Islam take hold of a large portion of Indonesian Muslims or not will likely be one large factor in determining whether that country will succeed as a democratic state or collapse even more rapidly into conflicts among its constituent regions and ethnicities.  The entire project of the “freedom agenda” and democratisation presupposes that Islam and democracy are compatible in the Near and Middle East because of such exceptional examples.  It is a very dangerous and foolish way to go about making policy for an entire region when you take the marginal and exceptional and regard them as the model for the rest to follow.  This is to expect that all Muslims are as ecumenically-minded as Ibn Arabi rather than as strict and ”dogmatic” as Hanafi, when Hanafi’s influence is, in fact, vastly greater and always has been.  It is often an argument based in anecdotal experiences, “I met a very nice secular Muslim fellow once in college, so why can’t they all be like that?” or “I have been to Turkey a few times, and democracy seems to work just fine there!”  Yes, so long as the army is always ready to step in and depose Islamist governments when they get too, well, Islamic–that’s what I call a functioning democracy!  If the case of Turkey is not a particularly impressive one, why would anyone have expected better of Iraq (as artificial and arbitrary a “nation” as any that has ever existed, whose chief representative of secular nationalism we were setting out to overthrow)?  People with some sense never did expect anything better, which is one of the reasons why they rejected the war and why they are calling for our soldiers to return home.  Remaining in Iraq simply makes no sense, just as going there never really made very much sense (even if most of the government’s claims were true).  Bring them home.   

In contemporary America, this presumption toward freedom may no longer be valid, as Mr. Will makes clear. The lower middle classes and nearly everyone else, for that matter, really do love Wal-Mart and are quite happy to sell their American birthright of independence and self-sufficiency for a bowl of processed – but cheap! – soup. This is the challenge facing the new populists of the right: how to advocate and promote the free and sturdy democratic qualities of the common man – qualities that made America great – when the common man has apparently turned his back on those virtues?

The genius of Wal-Mart lies in its ability to make dependence attractive to individuals and communities. The fact that independence is handed over willingly by the masses only makes the surrender that much more difficult to overcome.

If it is to be overcome, it will require an effectively conservative and populist appeal to the conscience of freedom, independence, morality and sturdy self-sufficiency that is still alive in this country.  ~Caleb Stegall, Dallas Morning News

The sheer size and power of Wal-Mart ought to make any conservative wince. A private entity the size of the U.S. military with the economic clout of the Federal Reserve is no friend to liberty. It should be clearly understood that the conservative’s objection to centralized power and wealth – either in its statist or its corporate forms – is primarily, perhaps exclusively, an objection to its capacity for imposing servility and dependence among his fellow citizens, who should be free.

In this, postwar American conservatives are heirs to the Jeffersonian, anti-Federalist and populist arguments of the 18th and 19th centuries. These decentralists, state’s-righters and agrarian champions presumed a basic level of democratic and economic sturdiness and self-sufficiency in the common man. Left to his own devices, it was thought that the common and working classes – the Minutemen of the Revolution, the pioneers of the West – would not willingly don the yoke of servitude, but would prefer to be free, despite the sacrifices and hardship such a life might entail. ~Caleb Stegall, Dallas Morning News

Unfortunately, those who are conditioned to think that economic dependence on ever-larger corporations is a mark of their “economic liberty” (look at the wonderful selection! look at all of the “choices” we have!) rather than a sign of their servility do not even realise that they have donned the yoke of servitude.

As Mr. Will sees it, the liberal war on Wal-Mart in the name of the common man is really a war on the preferences of the common man. By couching his arguments in terms of “consumer sovereignty” and the “preferences of ordinary Americans,” Mr. Will undermines liberal objections to Wal-Mart by co-opting the historically liberal defense of unconstrained freedom of individual choice. This is effective for puncturing the pretensions of liberal elites, but it’s a curious position for an avowed conservative. 

Arguments from preference for, say, complete sexual freedom, unlimited abortion license and illicit drug use have never been very convincing to conservatives. Instead of asking what conditions most Americans prefer, postwar conservatives have traditionally asked the more important question: What conditions will make common Americans free – free not just to pursue their baser appetites, but to fashion an independent and virtuous life? Further, conservatives have argued that our democratic system of self-government cannot last in the absence of a class of men and women who are truly free by virtue of their moral, economic and cultural independence from the centralized management classes.

One of the primary conditions of freedom is a widespread distribution of capital, both economic and cultural. This accounts for conservatives’ long-standing skepticism and mistrust of centralized and concentrated enclaves of money and power with their tendencies toward societal management at every level. The oppressive effect of the management elites is essentially the same whether those elites sit in the board room, the judicial chamber, the legislative halls or the Oval Office. ~Caleb Stegall, Dallas Morning News


The King’s actions have always been guided not by his interests, but by the country’s, which is why the Thais will almost certainly accept his wishes once again, and why this coup will very probably work. The people, like their monarch, understand the limits of democracy and the boundless advantages of flexibility in a turbulent world. ~Alex Spillius, The Spectator

The distaste for Thaksin may have colored the tepid U.S. response. “Nobody wants to go to bat for Thaksin. He’s just an odious figure,” said Michael A. McFaul, director of Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. “But there’s the problem — democracy’s not about picking winners and losers, it’s about defending institutions.”

Lorne W. Craner, former assistant secretary of state under Bush and now president of the International Republican Institute, agreed that U.S. concerns with Thaksin did not justify a coup. “You can’t sanction a coup just because you don’t like the guy if you’re going to stand up for democracy,” he said. “It’s unconstitutional.” ~The Washington Post

But Thaksin alone isn’t the only problem.  Both major political parties have been at risk of being banned for illegal behaviour, and the election commission that oversaw the one-party elections in April is under investigation.  Thailand has been facing a crisis of many of its basic institutions because all of those responsible for those institutions have failed.  One can make the argument that the intervention of the military, which has been approved, if not originally planned, by the king, is giving Thailand the time to sort out the tremendous legal and political problems of its democratic system.  The juxtaposition in this story of the Thai situation with other despotisms–such as that of Aliyev in Azerbaijian or Musharraf in Pakistan–is simply inappropriate.  Here there is clearly a military intervention to save the country from an overtly corrupt and irresponsible leader, and one that is sanctioned by a unifying national figure; in Pakistan, Musharraf’s takeover was just one more spasm in a fundamentally disordered polity and one that shows no signs of ending or yielding to democratic rule (not that democratic rule in Pakistan would necessarily be desirable for anybody).  In Thailand’s case, there is every reason to think that this coup will ultimately work to the benefit of the country and to the reform of their democratic politics.  As with the administration’s tacit approval of the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002 (I bet they wish they’d made more of an effort to support that one!), the mild rebuke to the coup leaders in Thailand is one of the few signs of foreign policy sanity in this administration.  Thailand is a perfect example of how a formula of “more democracy” or “democracy no matter what” can backfire and actually harm a country.  Thaksin exploited his party’s popularity in all those venal and self-serving ways that demagogues will, and in this he showed the seedy side of democracy, which is always potentially present in every democratic regime.  The Thai coup reminds us that there are things, like good and stable government, that can actually be more important than democracy, and that the one-solution-fits-all strategy of democratisation is inherently misguided and foolish.   

“I almost died when for a year and a half we had to pretend we were governing. Instead, we lied morning, evening and night,” he told his fellow Socialists.


President Laszlo Solyom asked Gyurcsany to publicly recognize his error, saying the news of the remarks had thrown the country into a “moral crisis.” He also chastised the prime minister for “knowingly” jeopardizing people’s faith in democracy.

Gyurcsany defended himself by saying that was he trying to convince his party about the urgent and inevitable need for comprehensive reforms and to change the political culture. ~The Houston Chronicle

It has not been a good week for fans of democracy (for those keeping score, I am not one of these people).  In Thailand, the corrupt Thaksin has precipitated a coup, and in Hungary the revelations of the dishonesty of Gyurcsany and his Socialists has provoked riots, caused the forint to go into steep decline and generally made a mess of a country to which I have a family connection and for which I have much goodwill and affection. 

But imagine that–rioting because politicians in government lied!  What a quaint notion.  Were we to do the same, all of our cities would have burned to the ground long, long ago.  There is something profoundly wrong with a form of government that not only rewards deception with power, as democracy routinely does, but positively encourages deception as a necessity in fighting elections.  You almost have to admire the idealism of people who would sooner riot than accept a dishonest political leader, but then you have to ask: wherever did they get the notion that democracy had something to do with honest government? 


His quiet departure after a fresh election might indeed be best for Thailand. But for the present, and while he keeps everyone guessing, the country is on edge. There have been disquieting rumours of plots to overthrow or even assassinate the prime minister. In late August police arrested a junior army officer in a car packed with explosives, near Mr Thaksin’s home.

His critics accuse Mr Thaksin of staging the bomb plot in order to win sympathy from voters. They are also reporting rising unrest in the army over his attempts to secure promotion for his chums in the annual shuffle of military commanders. According to one popular theory, these moves are part of a power struggle between Mr Thaksin and a rival group led by Prem Tinsulanonda, a retired general who is King Bhumibol’s senior adviser. If true, the consequences could be nasty. ~The Economist

Little wonder, then, that some of the Thai military reacted as it did.  They had some reason to resent Thaksin abusing his position to make preferments for his friends in the military.  Given the man’s alleged corruption, this is not at all surprising, and makes him even more responsible for what has happened in Bangkok than I had thought.  Moreover, if this is the fruit of a rivalry between the PM and the king’s senior adviser, the coup almost certainly must have taken place with the king’s knowledge and consent.  Good for King Bhumibol.  Thaksin had become an embarrassment and a disgrace to his country, and he should have stepped down earlier this year when calls for his resignation began coming in. 

HEAVILY-armed troops backed by tanks took control of the Thai premier’s office in Bangkok while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was out of the kingdom, witnesses said.

Witnesses outside Government House in central Bangkok said forces loyal to sacked military commander Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin took control of the building in what appeared to be a coup.

An announcement flashed on all public television channels said police and military forces loyal to King Bhumibol Adulyadej had taken control of Bangkok “to maintain law and order”. It was accompanied by patriotic music.

The announcement said the troops belonged to the “Council of Political Reform”. It apologised to Thai citizens for the unrest and asked for them to cooperate. 

So the corrupt Thaksin Shinawatra has managed to effectively sabotage one of the only successful democratic governments in southeast Asia through his grandstanding and egomania.  Thai Rak Thai, but I expect they don’t much rak Mr. Thaksin right about now.  Assuming that the army has intervened not to overthrow democratic government, but has simply become disgusted with the antics of the Prime Minister, the coup is a blunt but possibly necessary way to force Thaksin’s hand and get him to resign. 

It is to be hoped that the venerable king of Thailand intervenes to arrange some peaceful transfer of power from the military government that will allow the Thais to have their constitutional government restored to them and will have Mr. Thaksin thrown out of office.  The monarchy may be the one thing that ultimately prevents this coup from degenerating into ruinous internal strife.

Memo to the democratists: if democratic government can implode and provoke a military coup in Thailand of all places, there is not much to hope for it in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  Stable, reasonably just and orderly governments are what allow for the gradual evolution of the indigenous institutions and habits necessary to sustain self-government.  Without the monarchy in Thailand, one wonders whether they would not have gone the way of Burma long ago.  One-man, one-vote democracies that heighten and politicise tribal and ethnic quarrels are disasters in the making.  If democratic government can fail in a relatively homogenous, stable and relatively prosperous country such as Thailand, it is not only insecure almost everywhere but it is also hardly the magic remedy to what ails a nation. 

And more and more, the report concludes, Germans are disappointed with democracy within the country. This is especially true for those living in eastern Germany.


Last year, only 38 percent of eastern Germans thought democracy was a good form of government, the study said. In 2000, it was 49 percent. ~Deutsche Welle


Put yourself in the shoes of the average German from the old DDR.  Those who grew up under the old system probably find the transition under the unified Germany rather unpleasant and jarring (arguably, the hit success of Goodbye, Lenin! with its nostalgic DDR kitsch tapped into some sentiment that could view the DDR with both fondness and contempt); the roughly 20% unemployment in the east (the rate is higher in some of the eastern Laender) can hardly encourage a lot of enthusiasm for the status quo; there have probably been a lot of unreasonable expectations of the “why doesn’t Rostock look like Frankfurt-am-Main by now?” variety that assume there is some magic connection between having elective government and having an economic engine that generates massive wealth and that this wealth will be widely distributed to everyone by dint of being a member of the same country.  People who talk about democratic capitalism can only exacerbate this problem, as they imply that there is some necessary connection. 


These expectations of fortune and success under democracy are silly expectations, but if you grew up associating the wealthy Wessis with democracy and freedom, you might be forgiven for thinking that the acquisition of democracy and freedom (of some sort) should lead to greater economic success.  When that doesn’t happen, you assume something must be wrong with the democratic system rather than with, um, you. 


Fundamentally, the reason why most people in the West say they like democracy is because they think it is a means to get them the stuff they could not have under another system, and in this case they quite literally mean “stuff,” as in material things and wealth.  Indeed, one of the main selling points of the superiority of ”democratic capitalism” over communism during the Cold War was the former’s ability to get people lots of stuff; the austerity of communism was held up as if it were some kind of insult, when it was the oppression, not the lack of material things, that mattered.   


When the people expecting it do not get the stuff, they believe that the system has failed them.  In other cases, the democracy may be nominal or it may become the property of the plutocrats–as in Panama–and disillusionment with the promises of democracy follows swiftly.  Panama in particular has shown high levels of disapproval of democracy and strong potential for preferring authoritarianism because of the deeply corrupt nature of Panamanian democracy, alluded to so well in The Tailor of Panama (one of the best anti-interventionist films of the last 30 years), which is not at all surprising.  Democracy does not guarantee either eunomia or prosperity, and quite frequently results in neither, and expectations of either are misplaced and will inevitably lead to disappointment.  The question is not why so many people in eastern Germany are losing faith in democracy, but why so many in Germany or anywhere else still have faith in it.   


Of course, there is a good argument that it is irrational to blame the political system for your region’s economic failure, but popular preferences are very often a mix of rational interests mixed with a lot of irrational, muddled thinking.  It is generally easier to write off an entire system.  That does not mean that you are wrong to write it off, but it does suggest that you may never find anything satisfactory if you assume that the fault is in the system and not in yourself.  Democracy itself contributes to this error because it encourages people to project their own failures onto the collective of “the people” and thus avoid responsibility by attributing the problem to “all of us” and saying that this is a problem that “we” need to solve.  It is, of course, the priorities and values of the people in the system (in theory) that will dictate the people’s relative success or failure.  One of the problems with democracy is that it gives people all of the wrong priorities and many of the worst values, starting with ingratitude and laziness and working down from there. 


This is perhaps a crude portrait and possibly unfair to many Germans in the east who have not soured on German democracy (which is, incidentally, a system far more constrained and limited in its political options than even our own, if such a thing were possible), but I think it must explain part of the reason for the disenchantment.  Germans in the west have much greater confidence in democracy as a good form of government, which makes sense since their material conditions are remarkably better than those in the east:


That percentage for Germans in the western part of the country was higher, with 80 percent in 2000 and 71 percent in 2005 believing it was a positive form of government.


This should serve as a warning: support for democracy can often be very broad but also very shallow.  It receives as much widespread enthusiasm as it does because there is a common, but mistaken impression that it has some connection to prosperity, and when that prosperity falters or disappears there can be a large loss of confidence that paves the way for other kinds of radical mass movements. 


Democracy is unusually vulnerable to this disillusionment in the modern age, because it has tied its identity in the West to social welfarism and the competence (ha!) of the managerial state, which perversely makes the performance of government managers and the conditions of society measurements of the worth of democracy.  By making management of the economy a central preoccupation of government, economic failure redounds to the discredit of democratic government, even if the government has no direct role in economic problems.  When the managers fail to run things well, and democracy fails to provide “the safety net,” the many will seek alternative solutions.  Countries with people suffering from unreasonably high expectations, Eurosclerosis and a broken social democratic model (we suffer from two out of three of these, by the way) are at risk of losing confidence in democracy, or at least in the particular system of democratic government that currently exists as that government increasingly fails to meet those unreasonable expectations and cannot “provide the goods” that it has no role even trying to provide.  The flaw is not that democracy fails to deliver the goods, but that it very often promises to do things for people through government that they ought to be doing for themselves.  In its inculcation of dependency and apathy, it is the perfect breeding ground for future despotism.    

Said Bush, we know by “history and logic” that “promoting democracy is the surest way to build security.” But history and logic teach, rather, what George Washington taught: The best way to preserve peace is to be prepared for war and to stay out of wars that are none of the nation’s business.   

“Democracies don’t attack each other or threaten the peace,” said Bush. How does he then explain the War of 1812, when we went to war against Britain, when she was standing up to Napoleon? What about the War Between the States? Were not the seceding states democratic? What about the Boer War, begun by the Brits? What about World War I, fought between the world’s democracies, which also happened to be empires ruling subject peoples?

In May 1901, a 26-year-old Tory member of Parliament rose to issue a prophetic warning: “Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.” Considering the war that came in 1914 and the vindictive peace it produced, giving us Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, was not Churchill more right than Bush? ~Patrick Buchanan 

Even more worrisome than Mr. Bush’s comical invocation of “history and logic”–two subjects few would confuse with Mr. Bush’s strong suits of bluster and assertion–is his channeling of classic Marxist-Leninist language, as I have noted before. 

The faith of these democrats, these democratists, in the power of democracy is like almost nothing I have encountered in my lifetime.  It is its own kind of political-religious fanaticism, as Mr. Buchanan suggests with his citation of Schumpeter’s description of Marxism as an ideological system the promises immanentist deliverance and salvation, a solution to man’s ills and a (more or less) self-contained and coherent account of the entire structure of the world.  In this way, it is a modern gnostic doctrine. 

Like the jihadi slaughtering on behalf of Islam to bring the world into submission, the democratist cannot rest so long as there is one inch of territory that does not bow to the supremacy of Demos.  The ambition of democratists and jihadis is similarly global; the former happen to have the preponderance of political and military power behind them.  Which band of fanatics really troubles you more?  Those who demand your submission, or those you come to “liberate” you?   

Any crime is ultimately permissible if committed in service to the democratist dream: if civilians in an enemy state are killed, it was incidental or they had it coming because–and only a democrat could think this way–they supported the government that our government is fighting (some of the more chilling apologists for Allied war crimes in WWII repeat this rubbish as a way to evade the moral problems of incinerating tens and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants).  Thus even in nondemocratic states “the people” are held responsible for actions of a government to which they may not have consented.  Total wars, wars of “unconditional surrender,” collective punishment, genocide and mass warfare are all the necessary corollaries of democratic politics.  Democracy feeds off of totalitarian impulses, and in turn encourages the same impulses.   

Democracy for the democratist is not just a type of regime that vests sovereignty in “the people” and provides for, in its representative forms, elections and, in its liberal forms, guarantees against arbitrary government treatment; it is a kind of moral stance, a political purity and innocence that insists that democracies have never, will never, can never do anything really wrong or evil.  They can never be guilty.  By their very existence as democracies, by their very popular nature, they legitimise every evil committed in the people’s name.  They are always innocent, always put upon, under siege, attacked by various and sundry ”authoritarians” or “fascists” or “dictators.”  That this is not always true will have no bearing on the democratists’ convictions: for them, every war that a democracy fights is a war against tyranny or fascism, for the simple reason that they literally cannot conceive of any other kind of democratic war but an ideological one.  There are, in fact, no “small” or “minor” wars, but simply engagements in long, running battles between Democracy and Tyranny.  It is, of course, no use reminding them that almost everyone who has given the problem any thought has considered democracy ripe for becoming a tyrannical regime and is in many ways one of the least stable and least good.     

In perfect certainty the democratist can declare that democracies do not fight each other, because no real democracies would ever do such a thing.  If there are wars between two or more democratic governments (and modern history is fairly littered with them), the democratists’ escape will be found in some undemocratic element of one side or the other.  Thus a democratist will say that the constitutional monarchy of King-in-Parliament was insufficiently democratic (they have a king!); he will say that the Confederacy wasn’t a “real” democracy because of slavery (Hanson’s supposed hatred of “aristocracy” comes in handy here); he will say that you must blame the imperialist wars of Britain on something, anything except the fully enfranchised mobs who cheered on the aggression against the Afrikaners; obviously the mass, universal suffrage of Germans and Austrians–like that of their counterparts in the Entente nations–cannot have had anything to do with whipping up the nationalist war fever in 1914.  Because democratic peoples don’t want war, and people who want war aren’t democratic peoples–the faith in democracy is so blind, so completely mad, that no appeal to either history or logic will suffice to break it. 

The democratist ideologue will focus on the imperfections of the far more developed, more successful and stable Wilhelmine political system of constitutional monarchy, but in the same breath will praise–apparently without irony–the rise of real democracy in Iraq.  Pay no attention to the sectarian death squads behind the curtain in Iraq, but instead reiterate that WWI was fought against the forces of autocracy and absolutism.  It will make you feel better–and one suspects that feeling better about the decidedly mixed record of democracy is essential for those who wish to inflict this type of regime on others. 

As the doctrine of an ideological empire, democratism does not have to accord with reality, so long as it facilitates policy.  If Hizbullah has both a political party that competes in democratic elections and an armed militia, the latter cancels out the democratic credentials of the former, while if SCIRI has an armed militia it remains a legitimate participant in democratic politics.  This might seem inconsistent or the result of the application of a double standard, until you realise that the administration is the one that decides what constitutes real democracy–and real democracy does not exist anywhere except where it decides it exists.  Thus, without any sense of contradiction, the democratist can tell you that some elected foreign leaders–such as, say, Ahmadinejad–are not really democratic leaders in any sense at all, because they espouse the wrong kinds of policies, but the sham democratic politics of Pakistan–a thin veneer covering up military rule–will be praised as robust and admirable.        

Even when democratic states attack other states without real cause or provocation, they are not violating the general peace, you see, but upholding the peace of the world–not because that is what is actually happening (obviously it is quite the opposite), but because that is the only thing that democratic states can ever do.  In a pinch, they can always be “liberating” someone, whether or not that has anything to do with the conflict in question, which is the great escape clause for all democratic warmongers–just as it was for the communists.  That liberation may not be the result and that it may simply be a euphemism for domination does not trouble the democratist: just as democracies are peaceful, they obviously only go to war in self-defense or to liberate others.  Therefore, if there is a war and a democracy is involved, there has to be some kind of liberation.  It is unavoidable. 

When Mr. Bush says, “democracies are peaceful,” he is not describing reality, nor is he even really attempting to describe reality (though he might tell you that he is), but stating an axiom taken straight from the catechism of liberal, democratic faith.  It is exceedingly difficult to have faith in a type of regime that in fact encourages all the worst passions in men and which is subject to the power of demagogues and popular enthusiasms; mass hysteria, particularly nationalist mass hysteria, is a powerful danger that all democratic states face.  This deeply troubled side of democracy, which has been on full display for the past five years, cannot be admitted by the democratist.  After all, to spread this sort of dangerous, chaotic regime to other parts of the world would be mad, regardless of whether the recipients were even remotely prepared for it.  It is therefore essential that everyone keep parroting the line that democracies are stable and peaceful, do not seek the most dangerous weapons and, of course, never ever use them.  Unless you need to pre-emptively nuke those “Islamic fascists” in Iran along with all their people, in which case they had it coming anyway, right?  And if you begin to doubt the justice of what you are doing, remember that “history and logic” have confirmed you in your path and told you that History is tending ever upwards towards the universal freedom of man–and all those who get in its way will be crushed.   

Lopez Obrador’s plan is to have his government help the poor, oppose privatizations and make the news media — which he has accused of ignoring him — more “truthful and objective.”

It’s not clear how he plans to do that, but his supporters are already planning to hold an alternative swearing in ceremony to rival the official inauguration on Dec. 1.

People close to Lopez Obrador say he is assuming the role of his hero, 18th century [sic] President Benito Juarez, who led a roving, “unofficial” presidency from 1863 to 1867 during the French invasion, before driving out the invaders and executing the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. ~MSNBC

Does that mean that he has hopes of executing Calderon?  I wonder.  Of course, if Lopez Obrador and his followers do manage to start a civil war over this, the peoples of Mexico and the United States will be the losers, since, besides the destruction it would cause, it would make Mexico most undesirable for outside investment and the refugees from the war would be coming here in droves. 

But what Lopez Obrador is doing should stand as a shining example to people who think that the PRD-style of politics has something to do with any kind of democracy that we would recognise here or who think that the political habits of Mexicans in Mexico have no impact on the political habits of Mexican immigrants (who can, let us remember, vote in Mexican elections).  It is the politics of direct action and street protest (and, if need be, street violence), and it is the style that many of the people coming to this country from Mexico have imbibed from their youth.  These are the political habits they have inherited, and I think we would be foolish to think that they will not keep them even once they have relocated to this country.     

In the driving rain López Obrador told supporters not to accept the decision of the tribunal and vowed to continue the demonstrations.

“They supported the delinquent that stole the presidential election,” López Obrador said. He also said the tribunal made a “political decision, not a judicial one.”

López Obrador, of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, had demanded a full recount and has said that he would not accept the results of the partial recount. He also has said he plans to declare himself the president of Mexico, regardless of the tribunal’s decision. ~The Washington Post

You have already heard all the serious commentators tisk-tisking at Lopez Obrador for his lack of respect for the results of the democratic process, the need for electoral victories to be recognised by all parties for the integrity of the system, and so on and so forth.  But if people respected electoral outcomes, where would Yushchenko and his Ukrainian nationalists be now?  It doesn’t seem fair that illegal antics and street protests shouldn’t get you something for your trouble.  There should at least be some kind of consolation prize–like being made governor of Chiapas! 

I think the main reason Lopez Obrador did not win massive Western aid and propaganda support wasn’t that he was a member of Mexico’s leftist party or that he is more hostile to Washington, but because he did not have a colour scheme and enough impressive music concerts.  The two colours of green and red from the Mexican flag would have been very festive, and would have filled American onlookers with a peaceful feeling of Christmastime.  In New Mexico, the Green and Red Revolution could have found handy expression in chile roasting events and giant feasts of homemade New Mexican food; Gov. Richardson would probably had gone down to mediate the electoral dispute himself.  But Lopez Obrador screwed up.  He didn’t know that street protests now need to have a theme and a PR label–simple political resentment and angst is so 1960s.      

So let us take a moment to celebrate the fact that we have a PRD myth of a stolen election so soon after the Democratic myth of a stolen election.  This will help to create solidarity and understanding between our two countries, as almost everyone on either side of the border, regardless of political affinities, will have someone on the other side with whom he can identify.  Republicans and PAN men can laugh heartily at wild conspiracy theories, and Democrats and the PRD can simmer and bubble in their stew of bitterness.  The rest of us can sit back and enjoy the entertainment of such a ridiculous system for selecting a head of state. 

And, really, we should be willing to learn from our Mexican neighbours.  When Lopez Obrador finally does declare himself President, some might consider this to be in poor form or even possibly illegal, but I think he is just taking party politics to their logical conclusion.  So often we hear that a President is a President “of all the people,” but we know this isn’t really true, so Lopez Obrador has come up with the obvious solution: simply have another president to cover everyone not really represented by the winner.  Before you know it, we could have a slogan that would make the Kingfish himself proud: “Every man a President.”  It is not as poetic, but if modern presidents are anything to go by this is a much better deal for the average Joe than being a measly king. 

This dual presidency could create some problems when it comes time to organise governments, execute laws or direct the military, but I’m sure that the two presidents will sort everything out amicably, just as so many other rivals for control of the Mexican government have over the last two centuries.  Perhaps it will encourage us to dust off the New Jersey Plan and show the Mexicans up by having the three Presidents suggested by William Paterson.  So, thank you, Manuel, for showing us the way.