Democracy Grows Only In Well-Prepared Ground

Columns / Aug. 26, 2010 2:16pm EDT

By Haviland Smith

Over the past decade, we have heard constant calls from the White House for the spread of our “democracy” around the world.

Webster defines democracy as “1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”.

Therefore, what is being pushed as our export item is “majority rule”. However, our own Founding Fathers viewed “majority rule” as synonymous with “rule by the rabble” and wanted no part of it.

In fact, neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution contains any mention of “democracy”. It is absent because the Founders thought of “democracy” as something to be avoided.

What the Founders were really supporting were the liberal underpinnings that were needed to support a system which functioned on the basis of free elections, without the peril of rule by a non-benevolent majority. They were not talking about “liberal” in contrast to “conservative”, but rather about the nature of our organizations and attitudes.

The Webster definition of “liberal” that is relevant here is: “of or constituting a political party associated with ideals of individual, especially, economic freedom, greater individual participation in government, and constitutional, political, and administrative reforms designed to secure these objectives”.

Those liberal underpinnings—laws, behaviors and the belief structures that govern individual behavior—are the foundation of the system the Founders wanted to create. All of these underpinnings are critical to the establishment and success of liberal democracy.

The other critical element is the existence of a supporting constitution. That constitution has to protect individual rights, establish rules for elections and lawmaking, guarantee a free press and create an independent judiciary. Those things must be guaranteed if any liberal democracy is to succeed.

A liberal democracy with the appropriate rules, as envisaged by the founders, is the primary means that the citizenry has to protect itself against the state. If it is properly designed, it will not only do that, but it will guarantee the same protections to all its citizens, unlike the European systems from which it evolved.

The reason the founders shied so strongly away from “democracy” is because they realized that unless those liberal underpinnings were in place, functioning and ingrained in the national psyche, there was little hope that the evils of democracy or mob rule could be contained. For that to happen, those liberal underpinnings had to enjoy not only a successful history in the country, but the general acceptance of the population as well.

There are a lot of reasons why today’s ongoing talk about spreading democracy is counterproductive and self-delusional. When we say that is our goal, what we are really saying is that all that’s needed for democracy is free elections.

We make no mention of the requirement for liberal preconditions to take hold before there is any hope for liberal democracy. So, as we have just now done in both Iraq and Afghanistan, we say we have pulled off “free” elections and that everything is OK because of that. Democracy is on the march!

The main problem with this is that “democracy” exists in many places where, although elections are in place, none of the necessary liberal underpinnings are in sight. Look at just about any one-party, self-designated “democratic” government in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America or Asia, where “free” elections are how the decision is made who rules. There are dozens of states like Cuba, Venezuela, Singapore, China and Russia that hold regular elections but nevertheless cannot be called liberal democracies.

Exporting “democracy” to a state that has no liberal underpinnings is ultimately likely to consign that state to a perpetual absence of liberal democracy. Mob rule never voluntarily gives up its power. Thus, the simple goal of wishing and trying, as we have for the past decade, to “export democracy” in the absence of the critical liberal preconditions, probably will prove to be terminally damaging to the worldwide development of liberal democracies.

The successful promotion and nurturing of the critical liberal preconditions that necessarily precede the establishment of liberal democracies is probably impossible in many parts of the world, almost certainly in Islam. Yet, we persist. Our export of democracy and subsequent inevitable involvement in nation-building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where we judge “success” based on the existence of free elections, is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He is a former long time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.


Return to top