“What is ‘Democracy’ in the 21st Century?”

[Note from Christopher:  Sometimes I look back at things I’ve written and think, “Hmmm, well, that was a bit prophetic. Or at least good guess work. Maybe I’m not so dumb, after all.” Given the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, this column hits me that way. It was published in 2006 in The Progressive Populist, a biweekly political journal based in the U.S.]



PRAGUE, Czech Republic—March 1, 2006

A prediction for the 21st century: Globally, the definition of “democracy” will change so dramatically you’ll no longer recognize it.

Propaganda aside, most Americans know that democracy in the USA is broken. Rarely do even half the citizens vote. Those who vote choose between two candidates (a Democrat, a Republican) who each represent institutional (corporate) interests. The highest bidder (most expensive campaign) invariably wins. It’s a money transaction.

Is that democracy? Well, sort of. If people define it that way. Technically, we do have a choice. And if the choice sucks, it’s our own damn fault. People get what they have coming, or will accept. Right? At least that’s the prevalent view.

But what about democracy elsewhere?

Most Americans do believe democracy should be spread globally. It’s a noble goal… until Islamic fundamentalists start winning elections. In Iran, for instance. And Palestine. So do we want a truly democratic Egypt? American liberals and conservatives alike confess no, if they are honest. Democracy suddenly appears insufficient on its own. Other issues matter, too, such as the separation of church and state. So we support a fake democracy in Egypt and feel relieved (if guilty) when the Egyptian government jails its fundamentalists.

Then there’s the faux democracies in some post-Soviet nations. Under the influence of Russia, these countries with one-party rule (often a group of thugs) now imprison and kill dissidents, and fix elections, yet boast about their democratic character. Americans (meaning the U.S. Government, the average American being completely ignorant on this matter) accept the pretense. After all, we want Russia as a friend. Our economy needs, or at least wants, access to Russian oil and gas.

Indeed, the greater our economic dependence on a country, the greater our tolerance for stretching the definition of democracy—especially if the dependence concerns energy resources. Saudi Arabia, ruled by a family oligarchy, elects a few local city councilmen (no women allowed), and we celebrate its burgeoning democracy. Not that we require such dissembling from an oil supplier. We only ask that it remain “politically stable” and keep the pipelines flowing.

On the other hand, an energy supplier that embraces democracy while opposing U.S. policies does pose a problem. Venezuela, for instance. The U.S. Government is highly interested in seeing its populist president, Hugo Chávez, removed from office, and you can bet it’s hard at work trying to accomplish that end. The same with energy-rich Bolivia, where Evo Morales, a populist and socialist, just won the presidency.

In short, it appears that Americans believe (1) democracy is universally good and should exist everywhere, (2) democracy is bad is some countries where it does exist, and (3) democracy would be bad in some countries where it doesn’t exist. About nations that merely pretend to be democracies, Americans are ambivalent (i.e., confused), especially if oil and gas supplies are concerned.

If all that seems contradictory, then welcome to the cognitive dissonance thriving in the minds of many if not most Americans. Also, welcome to the world of American foreign policy. And should you protest that I’m wrong to equate “Americans” with “U.S. Government,” then I offer this reply: We’re a democracy, right? And in a democracy, the government is of the people; it is the people.

Still, if this entire state of affairs seems bewildering, then consider the view of Plato, who more than 2,000 years ago warned us against even attempting democracy. It would result, he assured us, in disaster. But then, Plato was an idealist. He didn’t foresee our ability to stretch the definition of democracy to include almost anything we want it to be.

Iraq is now a democracy, because we say it is. The same for Egypt and Afghanistan and Nigeria, and Russia and Guatemala, and… well, it’s a long list. And diverse, too. In fact, you might have trouble identifying what all the nations on the list have in common other than the official claim, “We are democratic.”

Just like the USA.




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