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Author Topic: What is "Democracy"?  (Read 7551 times)
Power User
Posts: 7838

« on: January 31, 2007, 04:45:21 PM »

I am not sure this simple question has not been discussed here before. 

We here from some that the mission of the USA is to spread "Democracy".   But exactly what is it we are spreading?  It may not be an *American brand* of democracy with separation of Church and State or rights that also protect the minority, freedom of speech, free capatilist markets, and more.

To see how this can backfire just look at places where Hamas, Hezballah, Ahmadinijan (sp.?) have won elections.

I like the two contrasting maps of nations declaring themselves democracies and the *defacto* map of countries that are more truly democratic.   It is comical to look at some of the countries on the map that claim they are democracies.
« Reply #1 on: January 31, 2007, 08:25:33 PM »

To see how this can backfire just look at places where Hamas, Hezballah, Ahmadinijan (sp.?) have won elections.

What do you mean exactly by backfire?

I would not consider Lebanon or Iran representative democracies, so I'm not sure if they can be considered democratic failures.

If a country was truly democratically representative, would you consider an electoral win by "undesirable" factions a backfire? If that is the case, would some people not consider our own recent election a backfire?

RE: The Middle East, I've always considered the idea of introducing democracy to a monotheistic, tribe based society as an exercise in futility.

I am not on the offensive here, just not sure if I completely understand the question.
Power User
Posts: 7838

« Reply #2 on: January 31, 2007, 09:42:16 PM »

***I would not consider Lebanon or Iran representative democracies, so I'm not sure if they can be considered democratic failures***

I thought the Hamas and Hezbollah have members who were elected to representative government?  I thought Ahmadinajad was elected?


I was just trying to make the point that when W. talks of spreading "Democracy" it sounds warm and fuzzy and has political and sound bite buzz but I am not clear it makes a lot of sense.   Perhaps he should be talking more in terms of "free" elections.   Perhaps he needs to define to us actually what it is he is exporting?

I think your point about the electoral college is consistent with what I am trying to say - that "democracy" or majority rule can be turned into many different versions of government.  Another example is that some could say that capatilism actually encourages the authority of the a wealthy minority over the less majority - which also is intermingled in our system of government (money talks).

I guess I should have paid more attention in political science class in college.  What a complicated task trying to get this to work in Iraq.   How could it not take decades?   

Power User
Posts: 42528

« Reply #3 on: January 31, 2007, 11:24:18 PM »

I'll take a stab at a two random of pieces of this:

1) The United States of America is a REPUBLIC i.e. rights exiost independent of majority vote.

2)  Yes Hamas was elected.  This maby be a good thing because
            a) for Israel negotiating with the PLO was a joke because the PLO had no ability to deliver Hamas's consent to anything it
                negotiated, and
            b) unlike when it was a "non-state actor" Hamas is now responsible for its actions.  Witness the pressure that has been 
                brought to bear by the discontinuance of subidies to the Palestinian govt because it is headed by Hamas.

Power User
Posts: 9483

« Reply #4 on: January 31, 2007, 11:42:14 PM »

Taking my rambling shot at the question - we're spreading 'democracy', but what is it we are spreading when you see Hamas 'elected' as a ruling political party, etc. Hugo Chavez was 'elected'. Saddam won sham 'elections'.  Some countries have elections but don't allow unapproved parties or candidates. Some countries call elections suddenly when it's convenient and some cancel elections and hold power. Even Hitler and Nazi rise to power had some origin in the electoral process. 

Pure democracy has some pure meaning such as every citizen voting on every issue and you risk tyranny of the majority(as Crafty just wrote).  I take 'democracy' in the spreading sense as meaning loosely some form of self rule. From our point of view I guess we are looking for a lot of good qualities in new republics based on what we value, but want it to be their idea in their own form.

So my answer is that democracy, such as the 3 national elections in Iraq, is step one in freedom, not the end-all solution.  Giving people a taste of freedom and self-rule where none has existed in their lifetime is the beginning.  That doesn't mean the security issue is solved or that capital markets are free or that basic freedoms will be protected or that tyranny won't return.

I just believe that the first step toward freedom is amazingly important. It was impressive to see the recently freed republics of Europe such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria identify with the cause of Iraqi freedom.  My daughter and I saw Pres. Bush up close at a campaign appearance in Oct. 2004 they day that Afghans first headed to the polls, with a 75% turnout and women included, not just rule by men, much less the taliban and al Qaeda.  For me it was a quite an emotional feeling to connect the freeing of these many millions of people we've never seen or met with the choices and political efforts that we make here.  In iraq, I am very proud that Saddam got a fair trial and is now dead.  We didn't achieve US independence without war and outside help, and it wouldn't have happened in these new countries either without help.

Now back to bad, elected governments, such as Hamas.  Democracy is ugly, but better than the alternatives. Capitalism and free markets are ugly but better than the alternatives.  I grew up in a Goldwater-Reagan type Republican family in a state (Minnesota) completely dominated by the Democrat-Farmer-Labor party of Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, etc. and a country run by Lyndon Johnson and huge Democratic congressional majorities.  Of course it didn't seem like self rule when you keep losing elections and live under someone else's tax code and spending programs and court system.  The difference was that you always knew you could change minds; you didn't have shoot the oppressors.  Through 1984, Minnesota was America's most liberal state as Reagan won all the other 49. The liberal issues were the same as today IMO: reverse the tax cuts and pacify the enemy.  Eighteen years later Walter Mondale was defeated in his home state and a tax cut supporting Republican took the Senate's most liberal seat of Paul Wellstone. (This year we sent a Wellstone-clone to take the other senate seat, oh well.)

My point is that the process of getting it right, from anyone's point of view, is a long, long, long process and we never quite get it right. (I see that same point made with "How could it not take decades?")  In America, we didn't free slaves until seventy-some years after the bill of rights went into effect.

I was asked the same spreading democracy question previously by another friend in the same context - I think the implication was the a benevolent dictatorship might have been preferable to the actual choice of the people. In the case of Iraq, we installed the interim government of english-speaking American Paul Bremer while the first elections were scheduled.  Considering the criticisms we face now, can you imagine what world and Iraqi opinion would be now if the American installed government was the permanent solution?

Now back to good government and real freedoms.  Heritage makes a freedom index ranking of 161 countries.  I'm sure their criteria aren't perfect, but I like the thought process.

Some politician suggested an 'Association of Democracies' as an international rival for the UN's tolerance for illegitimate regimes.  It makes sense to me.
« Reply #5 on: February 01, 2007, 11:34:17 AM »

o.k., gotcha!

IMHO a liberal democracy is what our president and most others are trying to present to the world.

Liberal democracies are representative (people electing their representatives), hold free and fair elections and include the protection of minorities, the rule of law, a separation of powers, and protection of liberties (thus the name liberal) of speech, assembly, religion, and property.

As DougMacG writes:

From our point of view I guess we are looking for a lot of good qualities in new republics based on what we value, but want it to be their idea in their own form.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. Having the open society that we do, it is only natural that we want others to experience the same freedoms, rights, and privileges that we enjoy. I think that the difficulties begin when we introduce these beliefs to individuals or societies that have no grasp of what it means to have these rights and privileges. Part of the problem is that we are quick to throw out the word "democracy" without explaining its benefits. We understand the word because we live it everyday.

For example, I spent some time in Vietnam a few years ago. Everyone I ran into was excited to meet someone from the United States. When talk turned to the political arena, 99% of the individuals I spoke to admired us not for our democracy, but for our capitalism. To them, freedom meant the ability to hold your own stake in something. They voted in elections, had relative freedom of movement, and were able to speak freely, but being a "businessman" meant financial independence, which in turn meant complete freedom from reliance on the government.

So, our success in spreading democracy will have a lot to do with our ability to explain the word in all of its forms
Dog Pound
Power User
Posts: 105

« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2007, 01:18:36 PM »

Below is an edited except from "On Industrialism" by G.K. Chesterton.

The essence of democracy is very simple. If ten men are wrecked together on a desert island, the community consists of those ten men, their welfare is the social object, and normally their will is the social law. Which of them has a natural claim to rule the rest? If a man's talents are used for the community, then he is the servant of the community; which is, in that sense, his sovereign. If his talents are used against the community by stealing rum or poisoning water, why should the community submit to him?  In such a simple case, everybody can see the advantage of government by consent. The trouble with democracy is not democracy. It is certain artificial anti-democratic things that have, in fact, thrust themselves into the modern world to thwart and destroy democracy.

Basically, the mark of a democracy is that the leaders are lead servants of the community.

The entire essay is at

I don't know how many of them it would have taken to whip my ass, but I knew how many they were going to use. That's a handy little piece of information.
- Ron White
Posts: 34

« Reply #7 on: June 30, 2007, 01:51:43 AM »

At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution in 1787, a Scottish history professor by the name of Alexander Tyler had this to say about "The Fall of the Athenian Republic" over 2,000 years previous to that date:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse (generous gifts) from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy,(which is) always followed by a dictatorship.

"The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith;
from spiritual faith to great courage;
from great courage to Liberty;
from Liberty to abundance;
from abundance to complacency;
from complacency to apathy;
from apathy to dependence;
from dependence back into bondage."

"Democracy never lasts long,
it soon wastes itself,
exhausts and murders itself.
There never was a democracy yet
that did not commit suicide."

                        Samuel Adams

Quotes are from

Until Americans re-learn the difference between a democracy and a republic, we will be doomed.  The fact our President wants to spread democracy around the world by using force should be against everything we stand for....
Power User
Posts: 15533

« Reply #8 on: June 30, 2007, 02:47:01 AM »

In the modern language, when people say "democracy" they mean a "liberal democracy" as defined in SB Mig's post below, not the "mob rule" definition.
Posts: 9

« Reply #9 on: July 26, 2007, 01:20:13 PM »

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what is for dinner. Pure democracy is always dangerous for those in the minority, whiih is why we have a constitutional republic and a bill of rights to keep (ideally, anyway) a tyranny of the majority from occurring.
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