Keywords: Democratic peace; Bush; minorities; Tocqueville; tyranny of the majority; Kant; Federalist Papers; war; proportional representation; Churchill; habeas corpus.
Democracy is the worst form of government -- except all the others that have been tried.
— Winston Churchill
Damn! It has happened again. I just had a phone conversation with R.L. — a smart sociology graduate student in Texas. The topic of “Democratic Peace” came up. I could hear him wince, right over the phone. That drives me nuts because I’m a devout democrat. My interlocutor’s argument went like this: Bush and his cronies justify their policies by saying that they are spreading democracy, even imposing it on countries that never had it before. Hence, though R.L. doesn’t really oppose democracy, he dislikes arguing in favor of it. It’s tainted. He mentioned a political scientist who is claiming that democracy exacerbates inter-ethnic conflict and gives disproportionate power to majorities, to the detriment of minorities.
What else is new? That’s what Alexis de Tocqueville argued, and he had a point. If you think of democracy merely as “majority rule,” the tyranny of the majority will be one likely outcome. My definition of democracy has to include provisions, not only for opposition political parties, but for protecting the rights of minorities. A constitutional Bill of Rights helps with that, and we also require a strong, independent judiciary, a free press, and institutionalized checks and balances to limit the power of elected officials.
I worry about democracy nowadays, not least in the country that pretends to own it: the United States. It’s not being defended, but rather subverted, by George W. Bush, who is accumulating excessive power in the presidency. With it, he has just abolished, for example, the right of habeas corpus for suspected terrorists, who may even be tortured (gently). Minorities are inherently vulnerable in a democracy, so the struggle toward freedom will never be finally achieved. It must be protected vigilantly – especially from any leader who uses its rhetoric in every sentence.
The danger to democracy comes from those who lead the “crusade for democracy” — who use it to justify attacking other, non-democratic states. They have given it a bad name among liberals.
But what would liberals choose instead? Churchill was right. Democracy is the worst system of government -- except all the others.
I’m updating my entry on sociological studies for the Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict with the collaboration of the graduate student in Texas. I want to strengthen the section on Democratic Peace, but that’s the part that made him nervous. A lot of studies have been published since my article came out and, taken together, they add greatly to the evidence for the theory. Kant had it right. (See photo.) Democratic states almost never go to war against other democratic states.
Why does this finding upset liberals? I don’t understand it. Why should we fear that democracy will strengthen reactionary or aggressive politicians? Apparently both the right and the left suppose that it does.
Personally, I’m overjoyed by the finding. If it holds true in the future, that gives us a way to get international peace on earth: by fostering democracy around the world. If all countries become democracies — voila! — none of them will fight each other.
But evidently we need to remind people what the theory doesn’t say. First, it does not claim that democracies always behave benevolently toward all other states. One only has to look at recent US foreign policy to realize that.
Second, it doesn’t say that any state should impose democracy on other countries by force. That would be an oxymoron; if the people don’t choose it for themselves, it won’t be a democracy. However, I consider it perfectly fair – indeed, a duty — to HELP other societies win democracy by ousting their dictators nonviolently.
Third, it doesn’t say that any existing society enjoys perfect democracy. When it comes to inventing political institutions, humankind is still in the Paleolithic age. The Federalist Papers are but an instruction manual for creating superior arrowheads and stone knives, and the US is no longer chipping the best flint tools. Most European democracies are superior now because they have proportional representation and do not exclude minority political opinions from parliamentary representation.
As a left-liberal peacenik, I celebrate the prospect of democracy. It’s continuing to spread and, these days, that’s the most hopeful sign of progress that I can see. Let’s celebrate together.