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Jonathan Power: Democracy Gone to Seed?

The confused situation in Honduras, where elected president Manuel Zelaya has been shown the door by the army and the supreme court, and in Iran, where thousands in the street protest an election they view as bogus, are not especially easy to solve with the simple shout: "Obey the rules of democracy." To many across the developing world, it seems that the West once again is being holier than thou. But is democracy such an intrinsic wonder? “Democracy,” wrote historian Norman Davies, in his monumental study Europe, “has few values of its own: it is as good or bad as the principles of the people who operate it. In the hands of liberal and tolerant people, it will produce a liberal and tolerant government; in the hands of cannibals, a government of cannibals. In Germany in 1933-4 it produced a Nazi government because the prevailing culture of Germany’s voters did not give priority to the exclusion of gangsters.” The Nazis, in three out of the five elections they contested, increased both their popular vote and their election of deputies. In time, they became the largest party in the Reichstag. Despite the party’s street violence and the murders of its opponents, the then-chancellor, Franz von Papen, decided to make Hitler chancellor and himself his deputy. Two years later, Hitler called a plebiscite to approve his elevation to the new position of Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor. He gained 90 percent of the vote—a democratic means to facist ends. Maybe Berthold Brecht was right. We have to change the people. Democracy was a Greek idea. But it did not last and was forgotten for some 2,000 years, until Enlightenment thinkers resurrected the idea, blending their classical knowledge with a romanticized image of ancient Athens. But not all were so taken by these new thoughts. De Tocqueville wrote about “the tyranny of the majority.” Edmund Burke called the democracy of the French Revolution “the most shameless thing in the world.” Democracy returned to the world stage during the struggle for American independence and the founding of the American republic, although at first the Greek idea was anathema to its leaders. Next, it appeared in France, born amid the struggles of the French Revolution and its turbulent aftermath. At the end of World War II, there were only six practicing democracies in the entire world. Before the war, democracy was never the norm and only became more widespread in Europe because of the resurgence of liberal values that tried to make sense out of the carnage of two horrific world wars, and because of the creation of the precursor of the European Union. Later, in the 1960s, there was the birth of the human rights movement, led by the founding of Amnesty International, now one of the world’s most influential lobbies. The presidency of Jimmy Carter pushed the idea of democracy to the fore, especially in Latin America and Africa. Modern day democracy is in many ways a poor shadow of the Greek version. The Greeks made everyone equal before the law and enacted a meritocracy. As Pericles, Greece’s greatest orator, said, democracy is also about taste, responsiveness to beauty, sobriety of judgment and respect for wisdom, discretion and generosity. The Greeks' code of ethics, as the philosopher Bernard Williams has argued, was enforced not by the sense of sin but of shame at not living up to these high values. But even in a meritocracy, not all things are equal. Even Plato didn’t approve of democracy’s commitment to the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. He believed that in the best form of government philosophers would rule. In newly liberated America, democracy had its detractors too. The most influential was James Madison, who believed that America was too big for effective democracy. Over the centuries, democracy has continued on its onward path filling the United States with a belly of self-esteem. But, in France, the early ideas on democracy, supported strongly by Robespierre, ended with the dictatorship of Napoleon and before too long the restoration of the dynastic monarchy. Only later did democracy slowly emerge in practice. Today, there are many examples of the weaknesses of democracy. In Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Russia where democracy has advanced in recent years, there are horrific abuses of human rights and widespread corruption. In the United States under President George W. Bush, torture was carried out in secret, and even now President Barack Obama prevaricates about bringing its initiators to justice. Recently, in Britain a good part of Parliament has been shown to have been corrupted by over-claiming on expenses. How the United States and Britain can believe they can persuade the non-democratic world to be more democratic sometimes beggars belief. No one who has studied the course of democracy can dare claim it is here to stay. If we want democracy to continue we will have to fight for its integrity—and recall that it is, like us, always fallible. Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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