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THE INDEX — December 9, 2009

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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.”

THE INDEX — July 22, 2009

Venezuelan officials have rejected an expulsion order issued on Tuesday by Honduras’s interim government, which gives Venezuelan diplomats until Friday to  leave the country.

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