Last week there were two major elections, in Venezuela and Russia, and looking back on them together offers a moment to discuss democracy and US foreign policy of democracy promotion.

This allows us to ask the question—are Russia and Venezuela really democracies? The US has been highly critical of Hugo Chavez and his political revolution in Venezuela, and somewhat less critical of Vladimir Putin and his power grab in Russia. Both purport to be democracies, but the US is challenging that assertion in each case. The elections mark a chance to interrogate our notions about the definition and status of democracy.

In some respects, the mere having of elections might be sufficient to label them democracies. One thing that I’ve noticed of late is the tendency to dumb-down democracy to the mere holding of elections. If you are elected, then you are the legitimate leader, and therefore anything you do is legitimate. As an illustration, recall the declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan. It was roundly condemned in the US, but differently by various people. I had my class do a short discourse analysis assignment on this, and one thing that came up was the difference in how the democrats vs. Bush called for a return to the status-quo ante. Bush simply said: take off the uniform and be elected as a civilian president. Others, however, called for the restoration of the constitution, the restoration of the Supreme Court, and the freeing of jailed opposition leaders. Bush did not. Likewise, think back a few years to Iraq, the purple finger day as they voted in the present government. Iraq had an election and that secured US victory. They voted for a government, and that was all that mattered. Bush, and thus the US, seems to be saying that so long as you are elected, you are a legitimate democratic leader.

This inclination by the Bush Administration has emerged in domestic politics as well, as Bush says don’t question my methods on anti-terrorism, torture, or domestic spying. Don’t oppose my appointments or my war. I won the election, I get to do what I want, end of story. This assertion of executive power has been a stated agenda of VP Cheney, and has served to annoy many a member of Congress.

What is lost in all this is the more nuanced, complex, and messy definition of democracy that includes representative government, rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights, and fairness and equality of all before the law. Bush certainly doesn’t talk about any of this in Iraq. We talk about security, violence, and the elected government. Not discussed is the status of the rule of Iraqi law or the development of national political institutions. These elements are important constitutive elements of a functioning democracy. Democracy is not just about how one attains power (election) but also how one exercises power (laws, institutions) and the limits of that power (laws, rights, checks and balances). Most importantly, democracy locates the source of power within the people, not the leader, allowing the people to transfer power to an opposition without compromising the integrity of the state.

It seems that we’re learning that Chavez’s Venezuela some important parts of this—much more so than Putin’s Russia. Both Chavez and Putin had turned the respective elections into mechanisms that would allow them to hold onto power longer then they are currently allowed under the present rules. Chavez offering constitutional amendments that would permit him an additional term, Putin offering his name at the head of his party’s list such that he might become prime minister after his presidential term is through.

One of the most important moments in a democracy is allowing power to flow back and forth between opposing factions vying for power. It is why George Washington is deservedly an American hero and icon—he set the tone of voluntary giving up the office to a successor, of peacefully passing power from one leader to the next. With his acceptance of the legitimacy of the No vote on the current round of constitutional ‘reforms,’ Chavez has allowed the opposition to win. That’s a positive signal. Putin, on the other hand, bullied and harassed opposition parties he was already poised to trounce.

The real question about the status of democracy in both countries can only be answered at the end of each presidential term. Does each man give up power and pass it on to a successor? Can you really see Chavez handing over power to an opposing government after losing an election. Putin? As much as many didn’t like it (and I’d imagine he really didn’t like it), Clinton gave power to Bush, just as Bush will give power to Clinton or Obama or whoever wins the upcoming US presidential election. Genuine democracies recognize the value of the system and the rights of others to play fairly within the system.

The great failing of the US which occupies so much of the discussion here and elsewhere on this front, is to extol so much of the virtues of democracy, like Bush’s second inaugural, and then abandon those principles in the face of immediate gain or need.

But, I think its valid to ask, so what? Is the US the only country, is Bush the only leader, who offers platitudes of freedom and democracy and then turns on those statements the next day? Why do people get more upset when the US fails to live up to its words than any other country in the world?

I think there are 2 reasons for this.

The first is US Hegemony. The US is not like other nations, its the one that set up this system where Democracy is the preferred system of government, and only the can really change it. The US, as an agent of a liberal hegemony, has made it so that all major international institutions, forums and agendas advance the banner of democracy. Consequently, the US version and views and statements of democracy matter more than others.

The second is disappointment. Despite the fact that so many people don’t like the US (check any global opinion survey) many still want to move here or send their kids to school here. Why? Because, I think, people know that many Americans are largely good folks, and that in daily life, these principles of democracy are better expressed here, by the average American, on a routine basis than just about anywhere in the world. Despite all the structural impediments to advancement often discussed, it is still possible for anyone here to succeed in a way that simply isn’t possible nearly anywhere else in the world. I think people are more disappointed in US failures to live up to those foreign policy platitudes because they know we can, and sometimes do, when others just cannot. Its not all idle talk from the US, and hence the disappointment and betrayal when it can’t live up to the standards it sets for itself and others.

In other words, lots of nations are hypocritical in foreign policy statements, but few to the degree that Americans are. The US always criticizes in the name of such democratic ideals, the US calls for action in the name of such ideals, and much more so than other states who are much more comfortable talking about interests instead of ideals. So, the US talks an idealistic game, but then shirks away in the face of criticism that it violates its own ideals by alliances with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the like.

Or, perhaps there’s a third reason—people really do believe in these American principles of democracy and are deeply pained and hurt to see them thrown under the bus in the name of interest and stability. It certainly could lead if we, as a nation, truly believe those principles, or if those who do are simply fools and patsies for taking them seriously. Indeed, if more Americans were genuinely troubled by compromises in our democracy principles, perhaps the US wouldn’t violate them so much.*

Which brings us back to Chavez and Putin. In both cases, the US will criticize the general direction of the government of each country—probably more heavily Venezuela than Russia. And yet, Chavez, for all the criticism by Bush, is probably the more democratic of the two (or three, if you want to toss in Pakistan—really, more than a lot of US allies) while Putin is the more authoritarian, and taking his country down a more authoritarian path. But, really, what can the US do to Russia? What can the US do in Pakistan? Iraq? Iran?

Democracy is more than just holding elections. Its messy, its hard, and it takes a while to figure out and put into practice. In that time, polities can and do develop the institutions, structures, and processes that make a genuine democracy feel democratic, even in non-election years. Its not something that one can adequately judge moment to moment, it requires a close look nuance and the chain of unfolding events. Perhaps its time to put some of that nuance back into US foreign policy.

*significant debt owed to anonymous friend for inspiring this discussion