What is Democracy? (50): The I-Did-It-My-Way Syndrome

In discussions about the promotion of democracy in those parts of the world where it hasn’t been (firmly) established yet, the skeptical side of the argument usually advances either or both of the following positions:

  • Democracy is a political form typical of the West and undesirable or impossible elsewhere.
  • Democracy is a political concept which is defined in different ways according to the culture in which it is applied. When promoting democratic government in certain places, we are in fact promoting standard Western democracy when we should in fact be promoting something quite different.

The first position often includes references to cultural or religious preconditions for democracy which are claimed to be absent in certain countries (notably Muslim countries, which supposedly have a hard time accepting the separation of state and religion, the rule of law, gender equality and other elements of democracy). Or it includes arguments about economic preconditions which are absent (democracy being OK for the wealthy West, but not for countries which have other, more urgent economic concerns). And, finally, the size of countries, or their ethnic mix, is said to make democracy very difficult to achieve, or to make it an element which can undermine national harmony and stability. Democracy is viewed as something which reinforces communal or tribal antagonism because the different political parties tend to be formed along ethnic or tribal dividing lines. As a consequence, these parties see it as their role to defend the communal interest and nothing else, and once they are in power they tend to do so by discriminating against other communities. In such countries, democracy degenerates into an ethnic census.

The second position doesn’t reject the possibility or desirability of democracy in certain countries, but claims that the western definition of democracy can’t and shouldn’t be imposed outside of the West without taking into account the local, cultural, historical and social circumstances. There should be different models of democracy for different parts of the world. The western model is not a panacea and is not adapted to all circumstances.

Needless to say that this second position tends to collapse into the first one: if democracy is a very open concept that can include very different procedures, rules and institutions, then it can also exclude elements of democracy which we normally see as essential parts of democracy. An “African democracy” or “Asian democracy” or whatever, may turn out to be not very democratic. Indeed, such concepts are often mere smokescreens used by dictators weary of rejecting democracy altogether.

However, there is some element of truth in both positions. Democracy is undoubtedly tied to certain preconditions, and is impossible without those. And, in certain specific circumstances, such as a war or a national emergency, democracy – or full democracy – may be – temporarily – undesirable. Moreover, countries have to be able to follow their own path and to organize their societies according to their own views and traditions, and not according to those of the West. The Western model isn’t by definition the only desirable one, or the best one. It is not up to the West to decide what is and what is not politically acceptable in countries with entirely different traditions. Democracy can take different forms. Even among Western countries, there are vast differences between the types of democracy that are applied.

It’s wrong to copy the specifically Western view of democracy “à la lettre” in the rest of the world. Within certain limits, we have to take local and cultural aspects into consideration and we have to be flexible where we can. But there are limits. A democracy can’t be just anything. Otherwise we would be defending nihilism. If some elements are missing – such as freedom of speech, association and assembly, regular, fair and free elections, the rule of law etc. – then we can hardly speak of democracy.

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