On words: democracy & dictatorship

Over at the Sepia Mutiny blog there has been seem dispute over whether Pervez Musharraf's declaration of a state of emergency in Pakistan. Some contributors are appalled, while others are urging caution. One of the posts was titled In defense of a dictator, and it understandably drew a lot of fire from those who make a vociferous case for democracy over the dictator.

But I think there are some problems here. Too much of our discourse is defined by a bipolar framing of the issues between democracy and dicatorship, as if these two states are binary opposites inverted on all characters. When one is forced between these choices of course people naturally choose democracy, ceteris paribus there is no real choice. But the caveat is critical, because in many cases there are trade offs!

Too often "democracy" is just a catchall for all the characteristics which we in the First World see as true & good about our own systems of government. But this simple word hides within it a great deal of diversity. There are constitutional monarchies such as Britain where the legislature has de facto control of all levers of the government, there are republics such as the United States or France where the executive and legislative branches are distinct, while there are parliamentary republics such as India where the president is a symbolic figure and power is vested in the legislature. Additionally, in many nations, such as Germany, no one party generally attains a majority, so coalitions are the rule rather than the exception. But in a first-past-the-post system such as in Britain or Canada a party which obtains a plural majority (the greatest proportion, but less than 50%) can nevertheless dictate policy because it grabs the overwhelming majority of seats. Look what happened recently in Turkey where the reformed Islamist party won only around 46% of the popular vote, but that translated into 62% of the seats. But look closer, despite a substantial increase in the popular vote total it actually lost seats compared to the previous election! That's because what matters are the results within the districts, so small victories well distributed are better than a few landslides, even if the latter yield more total aggregate votes.

I'm bring this up to muddy the waters in terms of what we mean by democracy. Power to the people can manifest in many ways, and in complex proportional representation systems not every vote gets an equal voice, small parties which operate on the hinges of the balance of power can wield disproportionate power. But what about more thorough direct democracy, such as ancient Athens, where the voters dictated directly the course of policy? Athenian democracy was in many ways rather successful, and empowered the lower orders and gave them a measure of dignity unknown in other political systems (appropriate caveats for the the fact that women, slaves and metics had no say). But it was not a sort of liberal order which we might wish to emulate. Consider the trial of Socrates, a citizen who was accused of corrupting youth and blaspheming the religious sensibility of the polis. This shows clearly that the communal will can be directed toward illiberal ends, and this sort of behavior explains why democracy was a word of insult for most of 2,000 years. It was synonymous with mob rule at the expense of order and personal liberty. Rightly or wrongly the fear of mob rule was one reason that the American republic had its democratic aspects somewhat diluted and attenuated, there were property qualifications for eligibility to vote, and Senators were elected indirectly via state legislatures so as to be at a further remove from popular sentiments.

Though the American system has moved in a more thorough democratic direction since its inception, it still retains a strong non-democratic streak through the judiciary. Unlike systems where parliamentary supremacy results in a more direct expression of popular will, the mixed government system in the United States can often be at cross purposes. And the judicial branch not only checks the powers of the executive and legislative branch, it can affect change itself. Consider Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education, these two cases illustrate how the court can alternatively offer up the imprimatur of legitimacy toward popular will (which in the late 19th century trended toward a more thorough white supremacist regime) or overrule the majority sentiment and impose policies which contradict the impulses of both the democratically elected executive and legislative branches (president Dwight Eisenhower enforced Brown vs. Board of Education, but admitted that appointing chief justice Earl Warren was the biggest mistake of his tenure). Today we can agree that segregation was morally wrong, but its persistence into the 1960s attests to its popularity with the majority population.

In other words, democracy is democracy. It is not liberty. It is not morality. It is not freedom. It is not justice. It can be all these things, but it can also be bigotry, hate or repression. We should keep this in mind before cheering that the will of the populace sweep all before it. In 1780 the elite dominated parliament in the United Kingdom attempted to ease some of the penalties imposed upon the British Catholic population. In response many in the Protestant majority erupted in an orgy of riots. This sort of ugliness is not an isolated case. The Terror is another case where popular enthusiasm and the strong human tendency to socially conform resulted in brutality and violence. The list goes on. This is not to deny the benefits of democratic rule, the responsiveness of a government which is beholden to the citizenry, it is to suggest that humans are no angels, and a form of government is simply a tool, and tools can be used for good or evil.

Which begs the question, what is good or evil? Too often the black-white dichotomy between democracy & dictatorship elides over the questions of what the government should do, and what values we hold dear. Government is a means toward the ends, and process is certainly important, but we must not forget that at the end of the day all this is predicated on a particular set of values. Just as the populace of England as a whole was likely more bigoted on questions of religious freedom than its relatively lax upper class in the late 18th century, so many nations have ruling classes which impose toleration by fiat rather than a reflection of popular will. Note that the ancient Iraqi Christian community is emigrating from that nation, ruled by a democratically elected majority Shia regime, to Syria, which is dominated by a small ruling elite of the minority Alawite sect. As a religious minority the Alawites impose a degree of pluralism and tolerance which makes room for Christians. This seems unlikely to persist if the Sunni majority came to power and was able to impose its will. The tendency toward intolerance to minorities is not necessarily a silver bullet refutation of democracy. Rather, it is a point which one must hold in mind and weigh against the sum totality of one's values.

And just as democracy is often a gray and muddled affair, so the term dictatorship is often problematic. There is a wide quantitative range across authoritarian governments. Compare the systems in China and North Korea. Both are notionally Communist autocracies, but the Chinese government offers a great deal of private liberty and economic opportunity, while the North Korean government remains more purely totalitarian. Another case is Iran, where universal suffrage exists along with an autocratic veto imposed by a clerical elite. In other nations the military looms in the background and has an intimidating affect on elected governments. This is case the in Turkey or Fiji, where soldiers on occasion emerge from the barracks to "correct" perceived deviations on the part of elected governments.

The manichaean division between the democratic and dictatorial is like the Lord, Liar or Lunatic argument in regards to the nature of Jesus Christ. The normal objection to the framing of this argument is that constraining the options weighs the die. Increasing the space of possibilities may result in vastly different assessments of the probabilities of the options. Similarly, if one expands the definitions and characterizations from simple democracy vs. dictatorship to a more multivalent characterization of the nature of a political system there is likely going to be a more nuanced and less knee-jerk response to the choices offered. Finally, there is the issue that many debates about complex social topics are embedded in assumptions. Often these assumptions aren't explicitly stated, and so individuals may misconstrue the position of their interlocutor because they don't grasp their underlying axioms. In a discussion about politics these axioms are values. Unstated they lead to dialogues which are actually two simultaneous monologues.


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Excellent post.

I am heartily sick of talk about democracy in places where it might not be possible, or suitable.

But here is something I think President Romney might insist upon, gently and diplomatically, with a decent respect for the opinions of mankind: Accountable government with transparent procedures. How does that sound for a start?

There is no doubt a similar fuzziness between "freedom" and "slavery" (compare a Spartan freeman to a Mameluke slave -- there was doubtless a greater difference between, say, the life of a South Carolina field hand planing rice, and that of a Virginia slave in a skilled trade; I recommend this account). Not polar opposites in every case on every point, but a broad distinction still worth making.

By Joseph W.` (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

Now that I think of it, Wilfred Funk made this point generally with respect to political words in this book - "democracy" and "freedom" were among his many examples - but no doubt it was being noted long before.

By Joseph W. (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

yeah, it's a pretty obvious point. but rhetorically the need to offer up manichaean dichotomies is pretty much unavoidable.

Things are complicated even further by our requiring the creation of democratic governments that are friendly to our interests, which often doesn't reflect the will of the people at all.

We've become quite good at doublethink.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

Caledonian, are you saying that the U.S. has required the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan to ally with us? That isn't so; they could toss us out tomorrow, and out we would go (with respect to Iraq, we've been quite explicit about this). But I may be misunderstanding you.

Mind you, a government that doesn't threaten the neighbors (as Saddam's regime did) or support anti-U.S. terrorism (as the Taliban did), and that has no interest in doing so, may be better for our interests even if it and its people aren't particularly friendly to us. So the distinction you make by this choice of words is worth making.

By Joseph W. (not verified) on 07 Nov 2007 #permalink

That isn't so; they could toss us out tomorrow, and out we would go (with respect to Iraq, we've been quite explicit about this). But I may be misunderstanding you.

shades of gray. this is correct de jure, but less so de facto. especially in afghanistan.

We have a history of destabiling countries that democratically elect leaders / governments we don't like. Sometimes even arranging for undemocratic dictators who would favor our interests to come to power.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Razib, I grant ye, I didn't find public pronouncements like this and this on Afghanistan - we'll see what happens if it comes up. (And Caledonian wasn't saying that we "required" Iraq and Afghanistan to be pro-US, as I thought he was, so the point I was making is beside the point anyway.)

Caledonian, then it seems you weren't talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather this, and possibly this or that.

But as no one in the current debate is briefing himself for any of those events (the people denouncing Musharraf in the argument Razib cites certainly are not), I don't see how they "complicate" the issue of what democracy means, or when and where it helps our interests now.

By Joseph W. (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

The issue isn't the meaning of 'democracy', the issue is what we mean when we use the shibboleth 'democracy', which often has nothing to do with the actual concept.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 08 Nov 2007 #permalink

Mencius Moldbug has a crazy post on the hubbub here. I think part of it is mocking my assertion in an e-mail to him that unlike in the Shah's Iran the left in Pakistan is not any sort of significant threat in comparison to the Islamists.