Does Democracy Cause Peace?

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Does Democracy Cause Peace?

Poll ended at Wed May 12, 2004 4:34 pm

Yes
5
24%
No
16
76%
 
Total votes : 21

Postby Penta » Mon Apr 19, 2004 7:32 pm

In the light of my earlier comments that US (or for that matter British) democracy is not necessarily the best system in the world, and the importance of dissent, I think it is apposite to post this article by Peter Preston, a former editor of the Guardian. I wouldn't have had the nerve to post personal views on the subject because I make no claim to know more about it than that gained from reading newspapers. He, on the other hand has decades of observation behind him. And note, Aegis, that he refers to Britain's 'elective dictatorship', so he's not only critical of the US.

In the paper, rather than the website, it was headlined 'The flaws in America's democracy'.

Forget Bin Laden - the president's real enemies are dissenters at home

Peter Preston
Monday April 19, 2004
The Guardian

The event itself has a certain exoticism: two dozen academics from (among other places) Oklahoma and Zimbabwe, Arizona and Peru, gathered in a small Slovenian town to discuss censorship and democracy. But there is nothing exotic about the central question stalking us all. That's as relevant as the morning headlines, as fresh as blood in the sand, or Tony Blair biting his lip. Simply: why is America such a "weak democracy"?

The problem, of course, is best posed by an American. Enter Bob Ivie, professor of communication and culture at Indiana University. It's he who teases out and delineates the "weakness".

That began (in my free-wheeling and fallible extrapolation of his thesis) with the founding fathers. Read Madison and see. They were nervous about "distempered" democracy, about too many roughnecks rocking their elitist boat. So the constitution - far from being one man, one direct part in the action - was a cautious edifice of checks and balances: a lower house, an upper house, a president, all forced to wheel and deal and, at the end, deliver what the system ordained rather than what the voter crudely demanded.

And the years have not been kind to that constitution. It has frozen in mythic immobility. No ferment about reform, no movement. The alterations to the superstructure of this superpower are external, shifts in context. Consider the explosion in media spending; consider the zillions you need to run for anything; consider the dependence on corporate power. Greenback elitism.

The people have a vote (if registered). They can be, and often are, involved in community politics. But real politics is the preserve of the few. And the few, like Marie Antoinette reaching for the ginger biscuits, are perennially edgy about their authority. Television and radio have given the president the added aura of supreme power. They have helped to free him from the web the founding fathers wove. He has a digital bully pulpit now. But he runs what Ivie calls a "rhetorical presidency" - full of "images, phantasms, tropes and insecurity". That means "governance by crisis".

Modern history makes the case. First the mutual phantasm of the cold war, then the dominoes of Vietnam falling. If no more suitable dragon than General Noriega presented itself, there was always a "war on drugs" to wage or forget, as necessary. And today there is that "war on terror". If war is crisis, then war is also the stifling of debate in weak democracies.

Those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" while criticising the Bush administration's methods of fighting terror at home and abroad provide "aid to terrorists". That's attorney general John Ashcroft testifying to the Senate after 9/11. "See how dissent terrorises democracy while political quiescence promotes peace and security," says Ivie dryly. "Democratic dissent has turned oxymoronic."

So today's headlines take over. There stand Messrs Bush and Blair on the White House lawn, vowing eternal devotion to the "historic struggle" for democratic victory in Iraq. They've been there before. Last time Bush declared that "every nation in every region has a decision to make - either you are with us or you are with the terrorists". But now we're beyond nations and shadowy forces lurking in Tom Clancy's dreams. Who are these unwelcome, individual Iraqis on our TV screens, protesting, rampaging, shooting and often dying? Why, says George, they're terrorists. Yes indeed, echoes Tony. He who is not for us is a terrorist. He can and will be killed unless he falls silent. He can and may be locked up indefinitely (like the 762 aliens in US jails) so that silence enfolds him.

Let's be clear where the blank rhetoric of good and evil, white and Arab, democracy and utter destructiveness, is leading us. It is designed to make democratic dissent seem treacherous. It renders argument damnable or deluded. It makes zapping Falluja or Najaf a no-brainer. It means the force-feeding of democracy, or else. And its feebleness - nay, feeble-mindedness - is manifest.

There, just before Tony on the lawn, was Ariel Sharon, an elected leader fighting his patch in a vibrant, often miasmic democracy. He sees Washington's vacuous conflation of terrorist campaigns into some world menace and takes his chance. Easy-peasy. Abdel-Aziz Rantissi equals Osama equals a blind man in a wheelchair, and destroying them all by hi-tech visitation is equally justified. He may not get his perversion of the road map through the Knesset. He may be turfed out for corruption. But at least dissent in Israel is expected, part of life: at least nobody says brute survival in crisis means disengaging brain and hearing aid.

But that is exactly what George Bush says. Crisis means mute obedience. To protest is to betray the master rhetorician reading Dick Cheney's script. He is a leader defined and protected by "war". He must not be troubled by voters protesting in Ashcroft's "free speech zones". Nuance is his enemy. He dare not stop to think.

It won't do. It's a grotesque, creeping parody of democracy. It hangs Blair out to dry because, even in Britain's elective dictatorship, the democratic climate has not yet grown so choking. Blair does have to explain and justify. He cannot just proclaim.

And there's one more oxymoron pending. Bringing democracy to Iraq? What democracy is that? One mullah, one vote? One pipeline, one ministry? One assassination, one empty seat? Will there be TV ads for Ahmed Chalabi, rubber chicken suppers and hanging chads? Will dissent be our mortal enemy there, too? Greetings from Piran. The clouds over Istria are hanging heavy.


Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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THAT'S BECAUSE WE AREN'T A DEMOCRACY!

Postby Q » Mon Apr 19, 2004 8:16 pm

Or atleast we aren't supposed to be one.

Do that many people really confuse constitutional republic with democracy?
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Postby Prodigal Son » Mon Apr 19, 2004 9:36 pm

'Fraid not. Yes, we vote for our MPs, and they are indeed responsible to us. But supreme power lies with the monarch, not with 'a body of citizens', and MPs have to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen (or maybe 'the Crown'), not to us. We're not actually citizens of great Britain either, we're subjects, though we are citizens of the EU.

So in the broad sense of the term, we, and the other constitutional monarchies, are representative democracies but certainly not, unfortunately, republics. Which was the original point I was disputing -- merely in the interests of accuracy. I was surprised that someone who represents himself as an academic or scholar (academic parlor games, nerdy social science types, scholars) should make such a fundamental error.

As I said, I'm a republican.


You say potato, I say patato. :-) I use the term "democracy" in the sense you use here -- represenatives chosen by the people to make and enforce laws -- i.e. representative democracies. Since effective power lies in the hands of those controlling democratic institutions, whether a nation is a "republic" or a "constitututional monarchy" really makes no difference in most instances...especially in the question I posed in this thread. Different roads lead to the same destination. Different flavors of the same dish. I doubt very much the present people of Britain would put up with a monarch that suddenly dissolved parliament. The Queen knows this and so, of course, does nothing to mititage the power of Parliament. Just because she has formal power does not mean she has real power. It's been this way in Britain for quite some time has it not? Effectivelly since the days of the English Civil War -- but especially after the assumption of the crown by William and Mary of Orange in 1688 (I believe that's the date).

In the United States government officials swear to "uphold, protect, and defend, the constitution" rather than the Queen, but again the outcome is the same since that effectively means, as in the UK, political actors work within and through democratic institutions like elected legislatures. Brits place sovereignty in a king or queen, yanks place it in the "people" with the Constitution being the written expression of that sovereignty -- but sovereign power is held by and wielded through elected governments. Yanks could say uphold, protect, and defend an American Emperor, and Brits could swear fealty to a constitution, but that makes no real difference in present circumstances. Potato, Patato, Tomato, Tamato.

I'm sorry I didn't make myself more clear.
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Postby Penta » Mon Apr 19, 2004 9:45 pm

Fine. It was just the misuse of republic I was bitching about, not any of the rest of your points. Some people (not you) have so little understanding of the differences between countries and systems, I didn't want that compounded.
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Postby Prodigal Son » Mon Apr 19, 2004 10:01 pm

Penta,

I disagree with most of what that article says. First, the first phenomenon described -- rally round the flag -- is not just an an artifact of American democracy, british democracy, or, indeed, democracy in general. All societies tend to rally around one another when presented with a real (or imagined threat). You might expect this to be a big problem for democracies, but it is actually less problematic than theorized. Social scientists have found "rally" effects, but what pols do with it is not terribly clear nor certain. Authoritarian states use this tactic just as, if not more often.

More powerful is the second phenomena described -- basically a framing of policy in terms of loss avoidance. Psychological theory and much empirical evidence indicates people are consistently willing to take expensive risks to avoid losses, but do very little in order to make an equivalent gain. Thus this is a problem, but one endemic to all societies, not just the United States or Britain. Indeed, I would suggest that the second, though powerful, is diminishing as people are able to use different sources of information with which to make judgements about future policy outcomes. You think it's bad now...just think how it was during the 1950s or Vietnam when a nearly monolithic, establishment media in the US consistently presented only one view of the Red Menace. Forums like this and folks like RYP make a difference.

Second, you (or the article) call the United States a "weak" democracy because needed reforms often are long delayed or never get enacted at all. Actually, I suggest this its greatest strength. Democracies that cannot constrain themselves to NOT change things from change of government to change of government often find they lose the support of those needed to make democracy work. Remember, some of the biggest supporters of the early Latin American dictatorships were the professional and middle classes, folks fearful their position and livelihood in society would be expropriated by a government directed and controlled by the masses. Similarly, the Nazis gained influence in Germany because they promised the "established" classes they would be defened from the Reds. Despite its flaws, the US constitution remains vital because it places out of the reach of govenment many things that would be dangerous if changed too often -- property rights for instance, or distribution of wealth.

Anyway, checks and balances are useful insofar that they limit the power of government to do anything...and whether it is appropriate depends upon the type of society using it. A big, diverse country like the United States needs such a system because there is far less agreement over what proper policy should be. Smaller, less diverse democracies -- i.e. European countries -- can put up with fewer constraints on government because their elected representatives are far more likely to reflect what the median (average) voter wants, meaning its likely government decisions result in sizable numbers of people getting upset over the outcome.
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