I’ve just agreed to engage in a debate at my university. I’ll be defending the value of democracy. One might expect the validity of my position to be taken for granted, with no opposition. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Indeed, I know that I’ll have a hard time. The only thing my opponent needs to do is refer to the United_States and ask whether it’s a democratic country.
“Yes,” I’ll say.
“I rest my case,” he’ll say.
“But the United States is unique,” I’ll reply. “You can’t conclude that it represents democracy in general.”
“I don’t know.”
If the debate is not to crash in this disastrous way, I must be able to explain the pathologies that are so apparent in the US today. (Explain them, not justify them, for there can be no justification or denial of the facts.) And my explanation cannot in any way blame democracy itself — if, indeed, I decide to concede that the US is still a democracy — a view that is widely and plausibly contested.
Not only was the presidential_election of 2000 stolen, but some sound scholarship suggests that so was the 2004 election, though in a different way. In 2000 the popular vote favored the Democrats but Bush won by capturing the electoral college. In 2004, the popular vote favored Bush, though Kerry might well have carried the electoral college, had there been no hanky-panky.
To bring America up to world-standards of democracy through electoral_reform requires more than abolishing the electoral_college. At a minimum it also requires abolishing the first-past-the-post system, which pretty much limits to two the number of significant political parties and therefore limits the range of choice.
There are dozens of other democratic states today with more responsive systems of governance than the United States. Still, I will not argue that it is an undemocratic country. If George W. Bush did not actually win the last two elections, he at least achieved a close tie and it is not obvious that his opponents would have governed very differently, had they won.
What I must argue is that political decisions made democratically are not necessarily any better substantively than those made by other processes. The current policies made by the US government prove that. All that it takes to prove the point is to find one single instance of a democracy that (a) refuses to sign the international covenant on the rights_of_the_child; (b) opposes the International_Criminal_Court; (c) opposes the Millennium_Development_Goals; (d) opposes on principle the responsibility of the international community to protect citizens whose own government abuses them; (e) refuses to sign the Kyoto Accords; (f) refuses to provide medical care to all its citizens; and (g) cuts funding for the maintenance of essential services and infrastructure (such as levees in New_Orleans) while cutting taxes for the wealthy and paying for wars that it initiates against foreign countries. And we all know where to find such a country.
I must therefore concede, at the outset of the debate, that substantively, the domestic policies of democratic countries are not necessarily better than those of dictatorships. Thus Castro’s Cuba — a repressive regime that violates its citizens’ civil rights routinely — nevertheless makes health care and free education available to all — policies that surpass the standards of many richer democratic societies.
Despite all the imperfections of democracy, societies all around the world are adopting it as their form of governance. Everywhere, it is gaining popularity. Even blatantly repressive regimes commonly claim to be representative and accountable, for there is no other commonly accepted basis of legitimacy. The demand for democratization is based on this simple claim: “We want to make our own decisions. Even if we do make mistakes, they will be our own mistakes, and if we choose to do so, we can then revise our policies.”
As arguments go, that one entirely suffices.
Nevertheless, there are two other persuasive grounds for favoring democracy. First, it limits both warfare and the violent repression of citizens by their own governments. And second, it is especially conducive to economic development. I’ll develop both of these points in my debate and in other blog posts.