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January 19, 2007

Needed: A New Rubric for Democracy Promotion
Posted by David Shorr

One more post to conclude this guest stint to cover for Suzanne during her maternity leave. I'm passing the guest blogger baton to Rosa Brooks and look forward to reading her contributions.

After Iraq, the folly of viewing elections as a transformative panacea is plain to see. Democracy can't be achieved in one great leap to the ballot box. There need to be favorable political, social, and economic conditions. This leaves a very important question. The essence of democracy actually is the popular mandate. So if we have to approach it gradually, what is it that we're promoting along the way? What changes can and should societies undergo before they have free, fair, competitive elections?

Bruce Jentleson discussed this question in an American Abroad post last fall, citing Shadi Hamid's American Prospect online article and focusing on good governance as a useful alternative rubric. I often find it useful to approach problems of definition negatively, by contrasting them with their opposite. A passage from Halperin, Siegle, and Weinstein's The Democracy Advantage takes a similar approach, mainly to prevent the word democracy from being watered down:

Another frequent error is to assume that countries that are moving away from authoritarian rule are automatically moving toward democracy...Escaping the tyranny of a totalitarian state is a positive development. However, reduced repression does not necessarily indicate increased democracy.

This is true in the sense that a country must still travel a long developmental distance to go from the easing of repression to the realization of democracy. But shouldn't we be able to put them on the same spectrum? At what point do we say that a country is striving for democracy? What transitions come prior to that, and are they not part of the same liberalization process?

The Princeton Project's final report (a must-read) offers the clearest answer I've seen, yet it too has problems. Slaughter and Ikenberry have a nifty acronym; they propose bringing other nations "up to PAR," which stands for popular, accountable, and rights-regarding. For me, these three concepts range in utility from weaker to stronger in ascending order.

Popular. The problem with popular is its close relationship to democratic, the fulfillment of which is the expressed will of the people through exercise of an electoral franchise. Now maybe this standard could be more useful negatively, as in not unpopular. Even within undemocratic societies there is certainly a spectrum of legitimacy -- with some dictators more reviled than others and, at the extreme, monopolies on power held by a minority, such as South African apartheid.

Accountable. Again, the ultimate lever on accountability is elections. But in this category, we can easily think of other means of holding governments accountable. When the Stanley Foundation had a project on Angola's post-conflict transition a few years ago, we found that opening up the government's poverty reduction plan to a modicum of scrutiny and debate represented a significant step.

Rights-regarding. This is definitely a useful standard for the early phases of liberalization. Newly independant states typically sign human rights treaties and join the associated organizations as some of their first international acts. Some of the most fundamental rights, such as physical safety, relate to severe repression and violent conflict -- while others, such as freedom of the press, come more clearly under the rubric of democratization. To cite another example, the rights of criminal defendants in the Chinese judicial system has been a major focus in that country's gradual liberalization.

Like many others here on DA, I refuse to choose between a more pragmatic foreign policy and the traditional ideal of spreading freedom. We do, however, badly need a new way to talk and think about promoting democracy incrementally.

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Historically, democracies have tended to arise from democratic government by elite groups who then expand the electorate as needed.

So in england it started with a bunch of nobles getting a voice in the government, and that expanded as each new group of citizens got the clout to get themselves included.

Similarly in the USA where the voting public started as only male landowners and expanded in fits to all nonfelon adult citizens.

You mention south africa, where a democracy for whites turned into democracy for citizens.

Democracy starts with people who can't be ignored. It surely seems silly to such people to extend democracy to those who can easily be ignored. We ourselves don't have democracy for felons -- who presumably as serious criminals can't be trusted to want what's good for the system as a whole -- or for illegal aliens similarly. Why would any third world country give full democratic rights to all their uneducated peasants? What argument would persuade them it was good for their country?

But in a country where the army can take over at any time, it makes very good sense to make voters out of all the soldiers. Or at least all the officers first, and maybe add the enlisted men later. The government desperately needs the support of the army, and army elections keep them honest about whether they have it. Hard to organise a coup against a government that's elected by the soldiers. When the majority of them voted for it....

When the soldiers are all represented, then all the soldiers' families are indirectly represented. it isn't perfect democracy but it's a start. And then as other interest groups prove they can't be ignored, they get to vote too. It doesn't have to start out as an ideological thing, an ideal for people who believe in democracy. It shouldn't start that way. Democracy for those who can't be ignored is deadly practical. And we have examples of it expanding from there.

The popular mandate at any one point in time may be only the essence of mob rule, not of democracy.

The endurance of the popular mandate over many years is what distinguishes the world's democracies. To produce such endurance a number of things are needed, for example procedures to secure orderly transitions from one head of government to another. But the most essential concept that must be accepted involves limitations on the power of the state.

Acceptance of this concept is a very high hurdle in those countries where the only national institutions are state institutions, and where property rights are not well established. The broad and easy path in such countries leads to the concentration of power, not its dispersal, and power concentrated is most easily exercised through orders given from above, not through seeking consent from, and inviting the participation in government of, the people.

American liberals and Europeans tend to be a little oblivious to this consideration. They emphasize elections (which can be faked or manipulated) and protest against human rights abuses as if these occurred in a vacuum. In so doing they labor over the doors and windows of a house the foundation of which has not been laid. Democracy requires citizens, not "masses"; citizens require rights, most of all to property, that are theirs and theirs alone; and for these rights to mean anything there must be agreement about the many things the state may not do.

This is a statement of general principles, and is not intended as a specific prescription for the many complexities that may be found in individual countries. There are countries (China, for example) where "the state" is not in all respects a unitary entity. In other countries, for example some of those in Latin America, the future of democracy can be impaired by the state's infirmities as well as by its excesses. And Americans would be well advised to understand that establishing and sustaining a stable democracy is very demanding of a country's citizens, not just of its government's officials. Not all countries have people who are up to it, and the number of those that don't is not a small one.

But if one were looking for the place to start "spreading freedom incrementally," it seems clear enough that restricting the power and scope of that entity most likely to threaten freedom -- which is the state -- is it.

This is true in the sense that a country must still travel a long developmental distance to go from the easing of repression to the realization of democracy. But shouldn't we be able to put them on the same spectrum? At what point do we say that a country is striving for democracy? What transitions come prior to that, and are they not part of the same liberalization process?

Why is it important to conceptualize these problems in terms of "transition points" along a pre-conceived developmental "spectrum" with its metaphor of a linear scale of political improvement in the direction of some far off and idealized end state?

If we succeed in getting a country to solve a few of its most obvious and pressing problems, and work constructively with other countries to alleviate problems of global scope and prevent any of the many calamities that persistently threaten us, does it matter whether they are "striving for democracy"? What if they are just striving to improve the daily lives of their people, and taking practical steps to do so?

And I don't see why we should be taking lessons from entities like the the Princeton Project on "democracy promotion." I didn't notice a lot of Appalachian coal miners, western ranchers, Wisconsin dairy farmers, Michigan auto workers, Walmart workers, Maine fishermen, Virginia sailors, hotel housekeepers or white collar suburban nine-to-fivers on the panel that produced that report. Instead, the chief consultants and contributors to the report were the usual collection of Wise Ones, representing the various powerful institutional governing elites, think tanks and academic centers who have traditionally ruled over US foreign policy.

Loosening the concentration of power is a very good conceptual frame. Of course the power of the state itself is not the only place where power can be concentrated. Privileged elites can enjoy other advantages to the disadvantage of everyone else.

I take the point that trying to plot a linear course or spectrum brings problems of its own. I'm not ready to reject the ideas of elites because they are elite. And as a resident of not one, but two states in the Midwest, I actually talk to people in many of Dan's categories. In fact, I had a Wisconsin dairy farmer in my home just the other day.

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