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Pure Onsense

The Keys to Democracy

Scott Zuke

(March, 2011)  Imagine if we were to scour history and divide all changeovers of political power into two columns: in column A we put all those in which an autocracy was replaced by a stable democracy or republic, and in column B we place all those where one autocracy replaced another. The balance would not be at all favorable; we would likely need some extra pages to hold everything in column B, and maybe even split it into sections to distinguish conquests, violent internal coups, as well as peaceful monarchical successions.

As much as we cherish our place in column A, it is comparatively lonely, especially if we exclude the last half century of international democratic sprawl. Suffice to say, history gives us reason to look on the current turmoil enveloping the Middle East with cautious optimism at best, and concern or even outright fear at worst.

Are the democratic revolutions occurring there likely to achieve their aims, or are they merely introducing an instability that will open the door for new autocratic rulers to seize power and create new problems for the people and for our own interests in the region? Why are we, the supposed beacon of the virtues of rule by and for the people, so hesitant to support these revolutions and so pessimistic about the capacity of others to rule themselves as we rule ourselves???

America has a complicated view of democracy, born of the negative opinions toward it held by the Founding Fathers and perpetuated by the republican system of government they established with the Constitution. Adams, Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson all have famous quotes attributed to them criticizing democracy as inherently violent, unstable, and short-lived. Nevertheless, today people casually refer to America as a democracy, we see democratic governments (some only in name, of course) spreading to every corner of the globe, and we staunchly defend our "democratic principles" of free and open political participation. ??

The disconnect is due to the multitude of definitions for "democracy." The Founders were speaking of "pure democracy," also sometimes referred to as "direct democracy," an extreme system of government in which all the people actively participate with equal voice. The model they looked to was ancient Athens, where the demos, or the people of the city-state, held the power to rule (-kratia) more or less directly.

There was a fairly intricate system of representation based on 1-year appointments to public office, but what is worth noting here is that virtually every citizen capable of serving in office was able to do so at one time or another. They were all able to attend the Assembly (ekklesia) at will and vote on various important matters. Obviously the relatively small size of the city-state allowed for more direct participation than is possible in modern nations.

The Founding Fathers lacked much of the archaeological evidence of ancient Athens that has led modern scholars to view Athenian democracy far more favorably than was fashionable in their time, but thatís for another discussion. Today, political democracy means something quite different from pure democracy, something like the capacity of people to rule themselves through whatever constitutional framework they consent to. This implies that people have some means of effective political participation, typically in the form of frequent, fair, and open elections.

In addition to political democracy, there is also a more normative definition that deals with an overarching principle of open and active public discourse and deliberative decision-makingódemocracy, in short, as a way of life or as a characteristic of social institutions. Families, for example, can be more or less democratic in this sense. Some are "ruled" by patriarchs or matriarchs, and others make a conscious effort to consult spouses, children, and extended family in making decisions that may affect them directly or indirectly.

However the term is used, democracy, I argue, is fundamentally tied to a conception of autonomy (from autos, "self," and nomos, "law"). To say that a country isnít "ready" for democracy is to say that its people are not fully autonomous or capable of self-legislation. Someone else needs to watch over them and protect them from their inability to make fully rational decisions.

Consider the case of a rebellious teenager. Hormones aside, teenagers face the difficulty of transitioning from childhood to adulthood, essentially a transition from limited to near full autonomy. The challenge for the parent is to determine how to balance paternalistic protectionism with the need to promote the teenís autonomous functioning. Does the parent hold off on handing over the car keys in order to protect them from their own inexperience, or does she accept the risk of letting the child drive in order to acquire experience and independence? Can the teen be trusted to be safe and responsible with his newly acquired autonomy? Is there any choice but to grant that trust and hope for the best?

We face a similar question now towards Egypt, a country that (perhaps not coincidentally) happens to be populated heavily by teenagers. Over half of the population is under the age of 25. It is young in a democratic sense as well. Thirty years under autocratic rule has the affect of an overbearing parent: the people have felt the irrepressible urge for independence and have rebelled against their oppressor, but they nevertheless lack valuable experience in self-determination. Can they be trusted to rule themselves? And just as important, do we have any choice but trust them to do so? I donít think we do.

Like teenagers, young democracies may make bad decisions and head in directions that lead them into harm or to compromising the very autonomy they have just acquired. We are understandably concerned that a people not fully "prepared" for democratic freedom could end up electing their own dictator. History has shown this to be a distinct possibility. But the answer is not to refuse them the opportunity to make critical decisions; rather, it is to be there to support and advise them however we can without compromising their autonomous decision-making, and hope for a positive outcome.

Read other article by Scott Zuke