You Do Believe In Democracy, Don’t You?

Acquiescence to the candidacy of Donald Trump in the name of “democracy” is sloppy thinking

Simplistic and unrealistic beliefs in democracy can get people killed.  Bad things can happen when well-meaning people misapply good ideas.  Ross Douthat says, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times that Americans, including our “officially neutral press…speak and think in the language of Democracy without appreciating the deeper wisdom of the American system.”

“You do believe in democracy, don’t you?” was a question Paul Wolfowitz, then US Deputy Secretary of Defense, posed to Paul Bremer, before he became head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq according to Neil Swidey’s recent Boston Globe profile of  Bremer.  Bremer later concluded that Wolfowitz wanted to be sure Bremer was not “infected” by the State Department’s “defeatist” thinking that democracy is not possible in the Middle East.  Wolfowitz's slack triumphalism turned out to be more dangerous.

Sloppy thinking has consequences.  It is defeatist to believe that liberty and justice are not possible someday, for all people, everywhere.  However, the shallow understanding of democracy and of political-economics more generally cost 4,500 American lives in Iraq and many more Iraqi lives and cost American taxpayers nearly $1 trillion.  Our inept conduct in Iraq helped spawn a new adversary, ISIS, now wreaking havoc on three continents.

The American system embodies a deep wisdom in its intricate government structures and its partisan, non-governmental institutions.  Our founding fathers designed our democratic republic to reduce the risk of abuses of power.  Our party institutions, which the founders did not anticipate precisely, have evolved with similar rules, checks on power, and balances of powers.  Political conduct is further regulated by complex state and federal systems, including government-run party elections, which have grown from attempts to adapt and improve the way our democracy functions.

Democracy provides legitimacy to government.  Our system creates incentives for elites to compete for power through popular support, providing some degree of consent of the governed.  Republican (little “r”) structures improve the likelihood that liberty and justice will result.

The wisely crafted structures of our democratic republic separate and disperse power across layers of representation and deliberation according to written rules and procedures.  These republican structures allow us to know when democratic decisions are actually final (for instance with requirements of plurality, majority, or super-majority votes), protect minorities who might otherwise become rebels, and allow democratic governance to function at scale, through representation.

Democracy has a moral underpinning –the self-evident truth that all men are created equal; that individuals of our human species have morally equivalent claims upon each other.  Thus, people have an equal right to a say in their government.  But limits to democracy have an equally strong foundation, in that people are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

You can’t just believe in democracy.  You have to work at it, using all the levers of our deeply wise system, including party rules that limit and moderate power.  Democracy does not robotically produce good results (although there is a certain type of wisdom in crowds, if individuals have diverse sources of information).  Nor does it function in an vacuum outside of the real political-economics of belief and information, coercion, and production.  Neither our party institutions nor our governments run on autopilot.  As I write this, on an election day, it should be obvious that our American system has some serious defects, but our problems are compounded by a shallow understanding of how and why our system has worked in the past.


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