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Incivility in Democracy: The Case of Turkey and the US

By Nick Danforth

If there is one thing other countries often don't understand about American democracy, it’s how well it doesn't work. Sure, they get that there are times it doesn’t run smoothly. But these conversations tend to focus on our democracy's high-profile flaws – from poll taxes to that awkward Florida recount. That is, the kind of flaws we often succeed in fixing.

Missing from the conversation is an awareness of the low-level dysfunction, the venality, the corruption, the hypocrisy, the name-calling, and the lies, that we treat as a normal, if regrettable, part of the democratic process. In my time following Turkish politics, it’s clear that the absence of a discussion about these things fosters a sense of idealism about democracy that, perversely, can be an obstacle to democratization.

To begin with the most extreme example: In justifying its coups, the Turkish military has routinely claimed that Turkey's civilian leaders have failed the people. Instead of acting like statesmen and pursuing the national interest, they have only sought personal and partisan advantage at one another's expense. They have been petty, duplicitous, etc. Though some of these accusations are merely self-serving, they are often seen as convincing critiques in the eyes of the population. And why shouldn’t they be? These charges are, as often as not, true. What people miss is the fact that if established democracies responded with a coup every time their politicians conduct themselves in a petty and duplicitous manner, there wouldn't be any established democracies at all.

Then there is the matter of freedom of speech. Asked about a billion dollar tax fine imposed on an opposition media group, a visiting MP from the governing Justice and Development Party responded by insisting the matter was completely apolitical. Then he added, "There is a problem though, when newspapers think they can try to influence politics instead of just reporting facts, and someone has to teach them they can't." In the U.S., many politicians have been enamored with  this same idea—if only the press wasn't so resolutely and perpetually hostile to my administration. Our system works—to the extent that it does—not because our journalists are any more upright or our politicians any thicker skinned than their Turkish counterparts, but, rather, because we have established a precedent that not only upholds the media's right to publish controversial truths and pointed criticism, but also unhinged, baseless accusations. Experience has shown that letting the government enforce objectivity almost always results in a media biased in the government's favor. 

Over the past several years, Turkey has been divided by an ongoing investigation into alleged plots against the country's Islamist-leaning, democratically elected government. The investigation has been difficult for democracy advocates because the list of people accused has included many who are almost certainly guilty, but also many who are almost certainly innocent, charged only because of their opposition to the government. Watching this case unfold during an American election year highlights the depressing genius of our own system. We have perfected the art of regularly accusing our opponents of treason, and often genuinely believing it, without taking the logical next step and putting them on trial for their crimes. When talking heads debate whether or Obama's recent open-mic gaffe was an impeachable offense or Ted Nugent makes semi-coherent threats, we bemoan our loss of civility, then ignore them.  Other nations sometimes fail to see that this banal rhetoric is an unavoidable part of our system, not grounds for replacing it.

With this in mind, perhaps we should amend our democratization reading lists to include, somewhere between de Toqueville and Larry Diamond, the tale "Forewarned" by English satirist H. H. Munro (better known today as Saki). Writing in 1911, in the era when the English earned their enduring reputation for politeness, Munro tells the story of Alethia Debchance, a sheltered country girl on her way to visit a cousin who is running for parliament. On the train, she learns that the cousin is not only an "unscrupulous, unprincipled character, of a low order of intelligence, yet cunning withal,” but worse, "responsible for most of the misery, disease, poverty, and ignorance with which the country was afflicted." When she later overhears an errand boy threaten to hang her cousin on the sour apple tree, she fears for her safety and flees back to the country. Her life, the story concludes, was "saved by the fearless outspokenness of the local Press." The joke, in short, is on anyone who doesn't realize a degree of controlled visciousness is an eduring part of the game. 

As we do our best to promote civility in politics, and remain appropriately grateful that our country is spared the very real violence that others have to face, we should step back and remind ourselves, along with anyone else watching from abroad, that democracy—the beautiful system that it is—has always been a nasty, mean-spirited business. As embarrassing as it sometimes is, recognizing this will only make it easier for others to replicate our model and to not overreact when politics gets ugly, brutish, and personal.

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Nick Danforth is a doctoral student in history at Georgetown University.

[Picture courtesy of cercamon]

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