I’ve spent the whole day thinking about democracy and its opponents. There seem to be several sets of attitudes on the subject.
I belong to the first category. I live in a fairly democratic society and feel grateful for the privileges and freedom that this system affords me. I want everyone in the world to have the same political freedoms that I enjoy. Within “democracy,” I include the opportunity for free and fair elections; transparent and honest governance under a rule of law; freedom of assembly and of the press; and guaranteed basic rights for minorities. I tend to assume that everyone shares my high regard for democracy, but that is not the case.
The second category consists of the most vocal proponents of democracy today: right-wingers. Oddly, these are conservative people whose everyday social values are harshly reactionary. I am astonished, as someone partial to “social democracy,” to hear them express their incongruous ideas. Despite praising democracy, they believe that societies need bosses — heroes on horseback — just to keep the masses in line. Somehow these right-wingers have apparently appropriated freedom-lovers’ most precious ideal: democracy.
There is a third category: my political allies, who cherish their own freedoms and the human rights of others, nevertheless are reacting against the very word “democracy,” especially when it is followed by the term “promotion.” The “promotion of democracy” no longer refers to assistance given to politically repressed people so they can gain control over the conditions of their own lives. More often now it is equated to a military campaign to foist “our” political system on some reluctant society on the other side of the planet. Democracy promotion equals George W. Bush and the Iraq War. No wonder liberals and leftists today cringe when the word “democracy” is used instead of championing it. “If George Bush is a democrat,” they say, “then I am not.”
So here we have three categories of incoherent opinions — (a) liberals who believe in democracy and generally practice it; (b) right-wingers who claim to be democrats and who promote regime change for all people who do not enjoy democratic freedoms; and (c) left-wingers whose actual political behavior is democratic but who nowadays refuse to call themselves democrats. They are, in fact, embarrassed by the concept.
Yet there’s a fourth category — a second, but illiberal, group of people who oppose democracy: dictators and their supporters. Among them we find such authoritarians or semi-authoritarians as the junta ruling Burma (see photo) and the present rulers of China, North Korea, and Russia. The best one can say of them is that at least their views are coherent. In recent years, such countries have been requiring all civil society organizations and foreign pro-democracy institutions to obtain licenses simply to exist. In these countries journalists are being assassinated and dissidents are beaten or imprisoned. These are the natural enemies of democracy.
Nevertheless, these are not the people who worry me most. I am more troubled by my erstwhile “political allies,” the social democrats who won’t call themselves “democrats.” This group includes two sub-categories, whom I will call the relativists and the “Marxists.”
The relativists are generous-spirited and egalitarian social democrats, but they may be altogether too egalitarian. They buy into the dictators' claim to be simply expressing “Asian values,” which happen to differ from ours. Relativists tolerate the violation of human rights, claiming that all cultures differ and we should not impose our standards on a different society. While they enjoy freedom in our own Western societies, they do not claim it is inherently better than any other political system. “Live and let live,” they say. “We must not violate the sovereignty of Burma by trying to free its people. They are accustomed to being tortured.”
(Believe it or not, I still hear statements like this. A week ago a friend of mine recalled that he had often traveled to the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years. “It wasn't so bad,“ he said. I didn't ask him whether he believes that female genital mutilation is okay in Muslim countries today.)
Finally, there's another type of social democrat who refuses to espouse democracy: the Marxists. They aren't necessarily relativistic, but can be quite fervent (even intolerant) in expressing their opinions. They simply place economic considerations ahead of all other values, and they also attribute the actions of others to materialistic, self-interested motivations. Thus they will discount any assistance or support that a capitalist country (especially the United States) has given to the pro-democracy movement in Burma. Such support is always attributed to financial interests, not human sympathy for the suffering of others. For example, I read today an e-mail essay describing the geo-political interests that are at stake in Burma — both the need for Burma's oil and gas, and the American plan to establish military bases in the region. If the US declares its sympathy for the monk-led demonstrations, a Marxist will explain this orientation entirely in terms of greed and the pursuit of global dominance.
There is a loss of innocence here that troubles me. I can understand dictators who hate democracy. That makes sense to me. It's the other four groups of people who baffle me.
Give the word “democracy” back to me, as a proper part of my political vocabulary. It isn't embarrassing. It's just about the best ideal I can imagine pursuing.