Tag: democracy (page 2 of 2)

Some Good News from Pakistan


Last week, Asma Jahangir was elected to head Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), the leading professional organization for the country’s lawyers. She is a very skilled broker and a committed human rights lawyer (she is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief) and will add a much needed counter force to the increasingly politicized judiciary that is destabilizing the current political system.

We don’t often hear good news from Pakistan these days and it’s easy to forget that there are still some powerful and influential liberal forces in the country. Asma is the real deal and her election is good news. She has a tough (and dangerous) road ahead — the future and strength of Pakistan’s democratic institutions rest on the legitimacy and integrity of its institutional checks and balances and a professional and independent judiciary — but the lawyers movement that she now leads has shown that it can play a significant role in constraining political excesses. I wish her well….

The Problem With Online Petitions

At LGM, I recently suggested that readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions?

Well, because federal agencies don’t care about quantity of comments, only quality, a form letter written by Change.org and submitted by you and 500,000 others is worth exactly one comment no matter how many times it’s sent – precisely the opposite of Congress.

You can probably see the grand irony here. The genius of websites like Change.org is that they make sending a letter to your government easy, thereby potentially increasing the level of citizen participation. But because clicking a form letter is so easy, citizens have powerful disincentives to write substantive comments where such form letters are available, even in cases – federal rule-makings – where such a comment would actually be read and considered valuable. For example, researchers studying the 2004 EPA mercruy rule-making found that the vast majority of comments submitted to the EPA through were are either identical form letters or contained extremely minor modifications.

Not only is this a waste of citizen time and effort, but this influx of meaningless form letters actually makes it harder for federal civil servants to identify the few useful comments sent in by citizens to their government that could actually aid their decision-making about a particular rule.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Anytime you go to signal your opinion on an online petition, first figure out if it’s going to Congress or to a federal agency. If it’s Congress, sheer numbers count and substance is discounted – so save yourself time and simply click yes or no. But if it’s a federal agency – EPA, DoJ, DoT, FCC – be sure to alter the letter as much as possible, and write an informed, substantive comment. For example, if you support prison reform, write about what prison reform rules should look like and why, or ways in which DoJ can actually improve on the NPREC recommendations, and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true for many, many other issues about which progressives care deeply. Biomass for Fuel. Polar Bears. Net neutrality.

Sure, use the above websites to formulate your opinion. Use their online form to submit it. But delete the form letter and put it in your own words. (And not just any words. No emotional rants. No insults in all caps. No accusations of immoral behavior. No threats. It’s not that public officials care about these things; it’s that they couldn’t care less and letters like that just make it harder for them to find the useful, substantive comments that they need to make the best rules.)

Citizens unwilling or unable to take the time to write their own substantive letters can far better serve our democracy if they engage the Congressional process where it’s the absolute numbers of voters taking a certain position that matters, rather than gumming up the rule-making process with duplicative comments. And organizations aiming to increase citizen input to government should be thinking harder about to improve the quality of that participation, not just the quantity.

[cross-posted at LGM]

Pakistan’s Bigger Picture

Terrorist bombings. Government push-back. Nuclear brinkmanship. Drone attacks.

The security situation in Pakistan has become so synonymous with mayhem, violence and the threat of state collapse that the Human Security Report Project has just launched a new blog, the Pakistan Conflict Monitor.

In the context of those developments, the thriving civil society, democratic sentiment and rule of law in many parts of Pakistan are easy to forget. Matt Barlow writes at Current Intelligence about why we should pay as much attention to fashion shows in Karachi as to clashes in Waziristan, in order to grasp the complexity of Pakistan’s changing times.

My Final Two Cents for the Summer

So starting this week I’m going on a six-week blogging hiatus to make an epic road trip west with my kids, visiting friends and family. Prepping for this trip while getting my book to the publisher and doing committee work hasn’t left me much time lately to weigh in on Iran, but by way of a temporary farewell, I decided to leave you with this final thought for the summer:

Is it not high time that the international community established an international regime for governing and adjudicating democratic elections in all countries?


Various international organizations already monitor elections in many transitional contexts on an ad hoc basis, with a fair measure of success; indeed for transitional countries, Judith Kelley argues that international election monitoring has become a norm. But this norm extends only to democratizing countries: current international understandings suggest that the mark of a genuine democracy includes an ability to monitor one’s own elections, so established democracies generally do not consider allowing international monitors to involve themselves in the democratic process, nor do they experience pressure to do so.

Yet this intersubjective understanding among countries seems completely counterintuitive and counterproductive given widespread perceptions among electorates – even in the most established liberal democracies – that the democratic process in their own country is at least somewhat suspect. Increasingly, it seems to me, the expectation of a democratic process, coupled with the perception that elections are rigged or unfair, and coupled with lack of credible evidence one way or the other, leads to the very domestic instability that democracy is expected to pre-empt. Iran is only the latest example.

In a global society that is or proclaims to be inching toward ever greater lip-service to democracy as a constitutive norm of responsible statehood, and in a global system whereby the outcome of elections in one country now have ripple effects around the world, it is quite easy to imagine treating genuine “free and fair domestic elections” as a global public good. This public good – “free and fair elections” is as plausibly and feasibly overseen through an international organization’s collective legitimation function as are various other global social processes, from the adjudication of trade disputes to the development of scientific consensus regarding climate change to the verification of compliance with weapons treaties to the prosecution of war criminals and genocidaries.

Why not elections as well? What if an independent international organization – separate from the United Nations – were created whose mandate it is to monitor national elections in every democracy? What if signing onto such a regime and abiding by its rules (that is, subjecting one’s national elections to international oversight) became understood as a constitutive element of a claim to be a democracy, a way of distinguishing sham democracies from the real McCoy? What if such a bureaucracy adjudicated electoral outcomes, rather than leaving it up to the internal machinations of the governments whose very interests are at stake? What if citizens of every genuine democracy came to expect no less, and came to trust in a disinterested third party to ensure a fair outcome?

I pose this question to readers not so much to invite a discussion about whether such an idea is realistic (the “how do we get there from here?” is another interesting question – but then again, all international regimes existing today would once have seemed infeasible). Rather, I invite a discussion about whether, if implemented, such a regime would not be a positive step for democracy and for global civil society. I think it would: am I wrong, and if so why?

I look forward to reading over the summer, participating in comments from time to time, and picking up the pen once again in the Fall. Ciao for now.

Political theory vs. political science

My Theories of International Relations course spent this week discussing Rousseau, a theorist whose relevance to international relations is a little unclear at first glance. Hobbes and Locke have been — if badly — imported into the canon of IR theory, largely through the use of their definitions of the state of nature as accounts of the international system. Individuals in Hobbes’ state of nature, famously, lead lives that are “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short,” as they are perpetually on guard against someone else’s killing them; IR realists often use this as a description of the relations between sovereign states, notwithstanding Hobbes’ own contrary thoughts on the matter of relations between states. Locke’s state of nature, by contrast, shows up in IR liberals’ account of the international system as primarily characterized by a global commitment problem; individuals for Locke, and states for IR liberals, are rational enough entities to adhere to their contractual agreements unprompted as long as they benefit from those agreements, and problems only arise when benefits are unclear or the terms of the contract itself has to be adjudicated.

I could go on elucidating the parallel, but the point is that Hobbes and Locke have some claim to being included on an IR theory syllabus because of this (mis)appropriation of their thought by contemporary IR scholars. Rousseau is another case, since as far as I know no one uses Rousseau’s account of the state of nature to describe the international system; even Alex Wendt’s tripartite updating of views of the international system uses Kant, not Rousseau, as the alternative to Hobbes and Locke. So what are we to make of poor Rousseau, with his concerns about popular sovereignty and the problem of how to preserve the natural liberty of individuals under conditions of modern social life?

Imagine my surprise, then, when this month’s chosen article for our faculty-and-PhD-student IR theory reading group here on campus — the lead article in the 2009 issue of International Organization, co-authored by none other than chart-topping influential scholar of IR Robert O. Keohane — turned out to contain precisely the kind of reflection that would have been strengthened by a dose of Rousseau. I say “would have been” because, sadly, Rousseau is nowhere in evidence in the piece. Instead, we are treated to a somewhat stilted conceptual discussion about aspects of democracy, a discussion which then abruptly turns into a set of testable hypotheses about the correlation between the public’s attentiveness to an issue and the extent to which the issue is governed by a multilateral international organization. The problem here is that these two tasks — philosophical reflection on the character of democracy and the testing of hypothetical claims about how an issue-area is governed globally — have basically nothing to do with one another. This makes it doubly odd that Rousseau doesn’t show up, since Rousseau is very clear on the difference between an exercise in philosophical legitimation and a concrete, empirical study of some specific issue or society. Keohane to the contrary, whether some institution is democratic or not is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research will even in principle put an end to the philosophical question of whether some institution is democratic or not. Rousseau knew this; it’s too bad that Keohane, and most of the rest of the IR field, has forgotten it.

The central puzzle in the IO article concerns what is sometimes called the “democratic deficit” displayed by international organizations. Unlike a state government, the traditional argument runs, which is directly accountable to their public and which can be directly influenced by the public’s actions, international organizations are distant from the public and for the most part insulated from popular agitation. The people can’t vote on what the IMF or the WTO or various organs of the UN do, which makes those institutions look “undemocratic” if by democratic we mean repsponsive to the people’s moment-to-moment express wishes. Keohane and his co-authors argue that participation is actually only one component of democracy, and that participation is not even the most important component; combating special interests, protection minority rights, and encouraging collective deliberation are, if anything, more important components of democratic practice. They call this “constitutional democracy,” and suggest that the basic idea is that popular rule can be enhanced by “complex procedural requirements” (p. 9). They are obviously not the first to suggest this, and James Madison shows up fairly often in the piece, along with more modern constitutional liberals like Robert Dahl or E. E. Schattschneider. The novelty here is extending the argument beyond the boundaries of the sovereign territorial state, and suggesting that multilateral international organizations, although relatively immunized from direct popular participation, can be likewise constitutionally democratic.

Here’s the first place where Rousseau might have been helpful. On p. 15, the authors make the following rather convoluted series of claims:

While constitutional democracy in our conception emphatically does not imply that the government should act as the majority prefers at any given time (that is, it is not government by poll or plebiscite) the essence of democracy is that in the long run, after due deliberation, the people rule. It would therefore be undemocratic for an elite multilateral institution, cosmopolitan and working in what its members considered the good of all, to override repeated demonstrations of informed, rights-regarding, fairly represented popular will. This would be benign technocracy, perhaps, but not democracy.

What is convoluted here is that the authors seem to lack a solid grounding for the argument that something insulated from direct public participation can nonetheless represent rule by the people; as a result, they have to blur the boundaries by suggesting that an institution can prove its democratic character by being responsive, at least in the long run, to what the people claim to want. But this, in turn, means that the only difference between a constitutional institution and a regular one is that the constitutional institution is somewhat slower to respond — and the qualitative distinction between constitutional democracy and participatory democracy collapses. One might easily imagine any given popular movement calling for greater “democracy” when facing a multilateral international organization, being told that the organization is looking after long-run interests, and replying by simply insisting that the timeline be accelerated and the institution conform to the public expression of its will in the moment, because there is no significant or fundamental difference between responding to the people’s declared wishes now or in a few months/years. And Keohane and his coauthors explicitly reject the argument that it is sufficient for an organization to be acting in the people’s actual interests even if the people don’t know what those interests are; democracy, it appears, can mean nothing but doing what the people say that they want.

Enter Rousseau, who famously distinguishes between the sovereign and the government: the sovereign is the people assembled as a whole, whereas the government is what the sovereign establishes in order to handle day-to-day business. The sovereign, so to speak, only acts constitutionally, establishing the rules of the game and the parameters for governing; actual ruling is carried out by the government, which has to remain within the parameters established by the sovereign (which speaks with the General Will as opposed to any particular interest — indeed, as opposed to the “will of all,” i.e. what everyone says that they want at any given moment). The government derives its mandate and its authority from the act of collective, or general, will, and what makes it “democratic” is not whether it is at all responsive to the people at any given moment, but whether it is adhering to the constitutional mandate that it was given at the outset. If the people want to re-do that mandate, Rousseau suggests, all they have to do is to assemble as the sovereign, and the government automatically disbands because its jurisdiction ceases; then the sovereign can establish a new constitution and government, complete with “censorial tribunals” and other mechanisms designed to prevent the government from getting too far away from the constitution.

My point here is not that Rousseau is necessarily correct about any of this. In particular, there is a key ambiguity involving how one ascertains whether an expression of will is truly general and hence constitutional, as well as a particularly thorny problem involving the relationship of a general will to standards established by other groups of people or to claims about universally valid norms. Instead, my point is that introducing Rousseau into the discussion would help to clarify the issues involved — if the authority of a multilateral international organization can be traced to a constitutional document or expression of a general will, that puts a different spin on the whole debate. But no Rousseau in the article means no considerations of this sort, so we are left with a bit of a conceptual muddle.

The other thing that Rousseau does for the discussion is that he makes it clear that discussions about democratic legitimacy are philosophical discussions, not empirical ones. It is clearly not a realistic expectation that a government would disband simply because the people showed up as a unit and told it to disband; that said, Rousseau’s point is not that this is a feasible empirical scenario, but that the jurisdiction of the government ceases when the people assemble as the sovereign — if it remains in power, it does so by sheer force of arms, deprived of the legitimacy it enjoyed when it was operating under a popular constitution. Rousseau is not operating in the sphere of empirical facts, but in the sphere of moral principles, which is where a discussion about democratic legitimacy ought to be carried out. This is because when one boils it down, principles like “rights” and “authority” are something other than merely empirical objects. The validity of a claim to authority depends not on the simple claim itself (or, parenthetically, even on whether the claim is accepted; we can easily imagine a claim being accepted even though it is not, strictly speaking, morally correct — and it doesn’t matter which system of morality one uses to evaluate that correctness), but on whether the claim is defensible within some moral frame of reference. Whether a government is legitimate and whether a government behaves in some particular way are different kinds of issues, and Rousseau — like most political philosophers — troubles himself with questions of legitimacy, leaving questions of behavior for others.

Not so Keohane and his coauthors. After their conceptual discussion, which takes up most of the length of the article, they proceed to elucidate an empirical research agenda characterized by observable implications and testable hypotheses:

In areas of the highest priority to the public, where relevant publics are very highly organized and attentive, multilateralism will tend to be subject to more directly participatory democracy, whereas where publics are less organized and attentive, nonparticipatory mechanisms will be used.

Ignore for a moment that this formulation is basically tautological, unless there were some way to determine the public’s priorities without observing how they act in various issue-areas. And ignore the fact that this formulation shifts the focus away from whether an organization immunized from public participation is democratic to how particular issue-areas are governed by the public, and in so doing basically presumes away the entire animating question of the first two-thirds of the article (since “the public” is governing the issue-area in either case, by this definition). The most profound problem here is that this hypothetical proposition has nothing, diddly-squat, nada to do with the conceptual discussion that preceded it. The empirical proposition that publics act on their interests, and that those interests can be correlated with particular kinds of organizational outcomes and arrangements, is completely separate from the conceptual question of whether a nonparticipatory organization can be a democratic organization. One simply doesn’t matter to the other, because they operate in different conceptual spheres: whether something is democratic is a moral or philosophical (or political) question, while the effect of a certain kind and degree of public attentiveness on how an issue-area is governed is an empirical or causal (or scientific) question. Neither has any implications whatsoever for the other.

Now, it is of course always possible to claim that because democracy means being attentive to the (to steal a phrase from Madison) “permanent and aggregate interests of the community,” we can ascertain whether an institution is democratic by determining whether it upholds those interests. (The authors reject that option.) Or we could claim that democracy means responsiveness to the people’s will in the long term, and see whether an institution was democratic by determining whether it was in the long term repsonsive to the will of the people over whom it governs. But neither of these operations would settle the question of what democracy means, or whether an institution is democratic in some global or universal sense. Regardless of the results of any given empirical assessment of an institution, someone else could come in with a different definition of “democracy” and demonstrate that according to that definition, the institution either was or was not democratic. Empirical measures can’t resolve the debate unless we have prior agreement on the relevant conceptual standards; hence, empirical tests of hypotheses, or empirical traces of process, can’t tell us whether constitutional democracy is “actually” democracy — which is what the article seems to suggest. Rather, political philosophy inhabits its own sphere, separate from empirical controversies about how things factually hang together.

Just to be clear: what bothers me in the article is the fact that the authors appear to be trying to assimilate philosophical investigation/discussion to empirical research. It does not, however, follow that I think that philosophical discussion can actually resolve the question of what “democracy” is; I actually don’t think that it can, and I would rather characterize any discussion of “democracy” as a political discussion, and any resolution to that discussion as a contingent political settlement. But that’s a separate issue. My point for the moment is that I don’t think that Keohane and his coauthors can actually do what they are setting out to do, which is to resolve a philosophical controversy with empirical data. And when the lead article in the most important journal in our field, co-authored by the most influential person in our field, promulgates this kind of methodological confusion, I feel that it merits an extended response. In the end, you just can’t get there from here; the best way to get where they want to go is not to start where they start, and not to imagine that empirical social science can do things that it simply cannot, constitutively, do.

From the Mouths of Junior Citizens

Peter recently urged me to report from the Pittsburgh grassroots on the Pennsylvania primary. Well, word from Frick International Studies Academy in Pittsburgh is that middle-schoolers are split on who they hope will win tomorrow, and the divisions cut across grade-level.

According to my twelve-year old daughter, lunchroom polls at Frick last week reported a majority of 6th-graders support Obama; a majority of 7th-graders support Clinton. The big issue in the lunchroom: neither race nor gender but which candidate will do most to reverse President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which is generally thought to “suck.”

If accurate, what can we conclude from this?

A) That it’s a close race in both age groups and the variation is simply chance.

B) That parents who tend to send their kids to an International Studies Magnet school care about foreign policy and multiculturalism, and are therefore likelier to be Obama supporters; 6th graders ally with their parents, but 7th graders, slightly older and sassier, use politics to rebel against them.

C) That citizens over the age of 12 are at least as qualified to vote in our Presidential elections as certain adults. At least my daughter’s classmates are talking about the issues, rather than making a big deal over fashion choices, what someone’s neighbor said, or who’s the bigger “copycat.”

Twitterpated by Bittergate

An unusually empirical op-ed in the New York Times today tests Obama’s hypothesis that “wedge issues take prominence” when voters are frustrated by “difficult times.” Larry Bartels uses polling data to demonstrate that in fact, more small-town working class voters believe the government can be trusted than urban voters making more that $60,000 a year, and the small town working class is also least likely to vote on social issues. David Park articulates a similar finding over at The Monkey Cage.

To be fair, Obama’s remarks were aimed at describing variation over time within a demographic, not variation across demographics. And if the analysis is true, it would seem to confirm his general observation, though it would mean he got the demographic wrong. Either way, we now have an opportunity to see whether Obama, on the face of new evidence not previously at his disposal, will “cling” to his former intuition, or revise his understanding in light of the facts.

Not that it matters. Only the media (and Obama’s opponents) are obsessed with his remarks – and judging by last night’s debate, with equally petty concerns such as flag lapels or politically incorrect comments by people he knows. (“Does your pastor love America as much as you do?” What conceivable bearing does such a question have on a Presidential race?) Obama himself would rather focus on more substantive issues, and not just when it serves him: he passed up several chances to attack Hillary over similar gaffes like the sniper fire at the Tuzla airport:

““Clinton deserves the right to make some errors one in a while. What’s important is to make sure we don’t get so obsessed with gaffes that we lose sight of the fact that this is a defining moment in our history.”

Judging by comments on ABCNews’ website after the first half of the debate, most viewers agree with Obama. Some excerpts:

“Last night’s “debate” was a disgusting, mind-numbing display of unprofessional, tabloid style journalism. Clearly, ABC looks down on voters if it thinks we want to listen to this garbage.”

“ABC should be ashamed. What about the great issues that Americans (according to all the polls) are really concerned about? Truly sad.”

“Everyone associated with that debate last night from ABC should be severely reprimanded and/or fired immediately – and a full public apology issued to the candidates and the american public as a whole.”

Perhaps this explains why the “bittergate” controversy has not affected Obama’s poll numbers for the worse. Americans are sick of mudslinging and of having their intelligence insulted. My hunch: voters this time ’round want a candidate who can be trusted and will speak to the issues rather than a cowboy(girl?) President capable of throwing punches incessantly but unable to get his/her story straight.

Elections, Democracy, and USFP

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

Darkness ahead

Next Sunday, Russians are expected to go to the polls and overwhelmingly endorse the candidates of the pro-Putin party, Edinaya Rossiya.* What I find surprising is the level to which the government feels it needs to engage in electoral hanky-panky: all signs suggest that Edinaya Rossiya would receive a comfortable majority, even without the blatant manipulation of the system. Kommersant reports that a recent poll shows that it is very likely that no party besides Edinaya Rossiya will clear the 7% threshold for Duma representation–in that case, a “loyal opposition” may actually need to be manufactured to preserve the pretense of a multiparty system. Is this a dictator’s fear that his popularity is merely illusory? Or is it based in a belief that greater legitimacy is derived from a manipulated landslide than a clean victory? It’s hard to tell from the outside.

Whatever the cause, the Russian state has thrown its considerable resources behind Edinaya Rossiya. Riot police break up the pathetically small opposition demonstrations and arrest the participants for creating “public disturbances”. Opposition parties find it next-to-impossible to register their candidates. One of the primary opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces, had millions of copies of their campaign literature seized around the country on pathetically flimsy justifications. The government announced that it would restrict the number of OSCE election observers to 70 (compared to over 400 in the last Duma elections), then dragged their feet for so long on issuing visas to the observers that the OSCE simply cancelled the mission. In recent weeks, there have been “spontaneous” demonstrations around Russia by an organization calling itself “Za Putina” (For Putin), which is apparently dominated by Edinaya Rossiya members.

The rhetoric of the campaign is also notable for its strong flavor of Russian nationalism, the theme of the restoration of Russian greatness, and a focus on the person of Vladimir Putin that borders on a personality cult, with Putin cast as a father-figure reminiscent of the Little Father Tsar or Papa Joe Stalin. Edinaya Rossiya has adopted the slogan “Putin’s Plan is Russia’s Victory,” though few Russian voters admit to having any concrete idea as to what Putin’s mysterious plan might actually be. At campaign rallies, Putin has claimed that opposition groups are treacherous and unpatriotic–receiving their marching order from “foreign powers” who want Russia to be “a weak and feeble state”. Today, he accused the United States of meddling in the Russian election by pressuring the OSCE to drop plans for election-monitoring (those same monitors who couldn’t get their visas) in order to delegitimize the election.

I have never believed that Vladimir Putin was a committed democrat. I have long taken the view that he has authoritarian tendencies that have steered Russia in a non-democratic direction. Never before, though, have I felt so pessimistic about Russia’s political future. With this election, it is quite possible that we will see the consolidation of true authoritarianism in Russia. The rhetoric of confrontation with the West is rising, and US officials seem completely at a loss as to how to effectively reduce tensions. Sixteen years ago, we breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War, and then turned our attention elsewhere. We’ve hardly turned it back since, and it shows.

* Edinaya Rossiya is usually translated as United Russia; I noticed the other day, though, that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty translates it as Unified Russia, which I like because it carries a slightly different nuance that better reflects the orientation of the party. “United” in English has the connotation of joining and coming together, but this is represented by altogether different words in Russian (soedinyonniy is used for “United States”, while “obedinyonniy” is used for “United Nations”). Ediniy, on the other hand, has alternate meanings of “indivisible” and “common” (as in “shared”).

Kevin Tillman’s Letter

Pat Tillman’s brother Kevin has published a stirring letter in which he makes his case for a change of leadership on November 7th. A portion is presented below:

Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.

Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.

Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.

In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.

Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.

Brother and Friend of Pat Tillman,
Kevin Tillman

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