Democracy Or Not?

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Democracy Or Not?

Chaos
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Like the thread title says: What, in your opinion, is necessary for a political system to be a democracy?

Or, to look at it from the other side, what does a political system calling itself a democracy have to lack, or what does an allegedly democratic government have to do, at the least, in order for means of deposing them other than elections (or some sort of popular referendum like California´s governor recall) to become legitimate?


This question ultimately stems from a press conference I was at - that I helped organize, in fact - back in July ´13, on the situation in Egypt. This was a week or so after Mursi had been deposed; the press conference was planned before Mursi was deposed, and was originally going to be about "Egypt under Mursi", which hastily changed into "Egypt after Mursi. (fun fact: even our resident expert on Egypt learned about Mursi being deposed from me, after I´d seen it on the subway station´s info screen on the way to work)
At that press conference, one of the speakers was Anba Damian, the general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox church in the German-speaking part of Europe. When one of the journalists referring to Mursi being deposed as a "military coup" (which it technically was), Anba Damian ("Anba" is a title, by the way, not a first name) became quite indignant, insisting that the military´s actions were not a coup, but (if I remember his phrasing correctly) "an action taken in support of the expressed will of the Egyptian people after Mursi betrayed the trust they placed in him after the election" - in the waning days of Mursi´s rule, a petition for him to resign had been making the rounds that was reportedly signed by 20-30 million people, which would be around half of Egypt´s adult population. This was after Mursi had spent the year or so that he´d been in power implementing the policies that the Muslim Brotherhood, which he´d claimed during the election to no longer be affiliated with, endorsed, as well as turning a blind eye towards the excesses of Brotherhood fanatics towards Christians and moderate Muslims (I´d add "and atheists", but officially there are no atheists in Egypt, they are all technically Muslims or Christians). Anba Damian complained that the West had supported Mursi even after he started showing his true colors, and were now condemning those who put an end to Mursi´s abuses - of course, we now know how the military taking power from Mursi would end, but we didn´t, back then.



So, what do you think? Not just about the Egyptian example, but in general...
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MattusMaximus
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Another good historical example which raises similar questions is the behavior of President Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War. The vast majority of people praise Lincoln now, but they forget that he did some things during the Civil War which were decidedly un-democratic. For example, he unilaterally suspended habeas corpus in defiance of the federal judiciary. Were his actions justified or in keeping with democratic values?

Cheers - MM
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Re: Democracy Or Not?

Chaos
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MattusMaximus wrote:Another good historical example which raises similar questions is the behavior of President Lincoln during the U.S. Civil War. The vast majority of people praise Lincoln now, but they forget that he did some things during the Civil War which were decidedly un-democratic. For example, he unilaterally suspended habeas corpus in defiance of the federal judiciary. Were his actions justified or in keeping with democratic values?

Cheers - MM



This adds another interesting angle to consideration - that of temporary "excesses" versus taking the political system down a path of supposedly permanent changes.

For example, given Lincoln´s desire of preserving the union, I would assume that he intended to revert these undemocratic measures as soon as he felt he could do so without endangering his overarching goal of keeping the US in one piece, i.e. presumably soon after the war was over.

Generally speaking, wartime is always "stressful" even for a democracy - things happen and are generally considered more acceptable by at least part of the population that would never fly in peacetime. I would like to think that, for one thing, Lincoln would never have done those things you mention if he had had a peacetime presidency, and for another, that if he had done them in peacetime and not in a time of dire crisis, he would have been impeached, deposed by popular uprising, and/or tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.
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JohnLombard
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My own position would be that democracy is a luxury, something that becomes possible only once a society has reached a particular point in their development. I'd argue that democracy is something that all societies should work towards; but that it can actually be detrimental to try to move towards democracy too soon.

In addition, a pure democracy -- that is, rule by majority -- can in practice be just as abusive as a dictatorship. Consider efforts at democracy in Muslim countries, where the majority of people support imposition of Sharia laws. Those laws, if implemented, include laws that are considered by many other countries as fundamental violations of human rights, including punishment (imprisonment, torture, or death) for those who renounce Islam, or say anything critical of Islam.

Or consider the United States and slavery. The United States was born as a democracy, yet as a democracy still practiced slavery (and also denied equal rights to women). If the 'majority' of Americans believed that slavery was acceptable, would that then mean that by majority consensus, forcing some people into slavery would be a valid result of the 'democratic process'?

I think that the question of democracy vs. other forms of government is the wrong way of looking at it. The first goal is not to develop the concept of democracy, but rather to develop the concept of universal human rights and equality. A democracy which lacks that foundation would be arguably worse than a dictatorship that had it.

Once that foundation is in place, then yes, I'd argue that democracy is the most desirable form of government. With the recognition, as mentioned in other posts above, that there may come times when, in order to protect the interests of the democracy, some undemocratic decisions may have to be made. Especially when issues arise where the majority are promoting laws that violate the rights of a minority group.
Re: Democracy Or Not?

Chaos
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JohnLombard wrote:My own position would be that democracy is a luxury, something that becomes possible only once a society has reached a particular point in their development. I'd argue that democracy is something that all societies should work towards; but that it can actually be detrimental to try to move towards democracy too soon.

In addition, a pure democracy -- that is, rule by majority -- can in practice be just as abusive as a dictatorship. Consider efforts at democracy in Muslim countries, where the majority of people support imposition of Sharia laws. Those laws, if implemented, include laws that are considered by many other countries as fundamental violations of human rights, including punishment (imprisonment, torture, or death) for those who renounce Islam, or say anything critical of Islam.

Or consider the United States and slavery. The United States was born as a democracy, yet as a democracy still practiced slavery (and also denied equal rights to women). If the 'majority' of Americans believed that slavery was acceptable, would that then mean that by majority consensus, forcing some people into slavery would be a valid result of the 'democratic process'?

I think that the question of democracy vs. other forms of government is the wrong way of looking at it. The first goal is not to develop the concept of democracy, but rather to develop the concept of universal human rights and equality. A democracy which lacks that foundation would be arguably worse than a dictatorship that had it.


Those are very good and interesting points. And I´d add "an appreciation of the importance of the separation of church and state" to the list of things a society should develop before democracy can really work.

By the way: In the defense of Muslims, I should point out that, while you usually get very strong support for "introduction of Sharia law" in most Muslim countries, that does not by any means indicate support for a hardcore Islamic theocracy, Saudi or Iranian style or an abomination like Pakistan´s blasphemy law. I´d wager that relatively few of those who "support the introduction of Sharia law" actually mean the Platonic ideal of Sharia as espoused by some of the more hardcore Islamists - a lot of these people are probably thinking of a body of laws based on Islamic traditions, the same way most in the West think of their body of laws being based on the Christian tradition, which obviously does not mean they support some of the more colorful laws in the Bible.

Once that foundation is in place, then yes, I'd argue that democracy is the most desirable form of government. With the recognition, as mentioned in other posts above, that there may come times when, in order to protect the interests of the democracy, some undemocratic decisions may have to be made. Especially when issues arise where the majority are promoting laws that violate the rights of a minority group.


Interestingly enough, that part is actually enshrined in the German constitution - well, the interim (60-odd yeard and counting) "basic law" that was to serve until a re-unified Germany got a permanent constitution. Anyway, in Article 20 (4) it says "All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available." Meaning that, for example, if a dictator were to come to power, we´d actually be explicitly permitted to assassinate him - this section was written specifically in reaction the fact that, technically, all the people who tried to assassinate Hitler were guilty of various very serious crimes according to the Weimar Republic´s laws, and those conspirators and would-be tyrannicides still alive after 1945 should technically have been prosecuted for these crimes.
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JohnLombard
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Chaos wrote:Interestingly enough, that part is actually enshrined in the German constitution - well, the interim (60-odd yeard and counting) "basic law" that was to serve until a re-unified Germany got a permanent constitution. Anyway, in Article 20 (4) it says "All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available." Meaning that, for example, if a dictator were to come to power, we´d actually be explicitly permitted to assassinate him - this section was written specifically in reaction the fact that, technically, all the people who tried to assassinate Hitler were guilty of various very serious crimes according to the Weimar Republic´s laws, and those conspirators and would-be tyrannicides still alive after 1945 should technically have been prosecuted for these crimes.

Hmmm...not sure that I'd agree with that particular idea. For example, if such a law existed in the U.S., there are quite a few right-wing nutcases today who'd argue that such a law gave them the 'right' to assassinate Obama. I'd prefer something more like the Nuremberg doctrine that every individual has the right to refuse to obey laws or orders which would cause them to violate their conscience or international law.
Re: Democracy Or Not?

Chaos
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JohnLombard wrote:
Chaos wrote:Interestingly enough, that part is actually enshrined in the German constitution - well, the interim (60-odd yeard and counting) "basic law" that was to serve until a re-unified Germany got a permanent constitution. Anyway, in Article 20 (4) it says "All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available." Meaning that, for example, if a dictator were to come to power, we´d actually be explicitly permitted to assassinate him - this section was written specifically in reaction the fact that, technically, all the people who tried to assassinate Hitler were guilty of various very serious crimes according to the Weimar Republic´s laws, and those conspirators and would-be tyrannicides still alive after 1945 should technically have been prosecuted for these crimes.

Hmmm...not sure that I'd agree with that particular idea. For example, if such a law existed in the U.S., there are quite a few right-wing nutcases today who'd argue that such a law gave them the 'right' to assassinate Obama.


The key part is "if no other remedy is available". The US still has elections, for example. My reading of this as a judicial layman is that "extraordinary measures" for removing politicians become legal only after the ordinary measures have been abolished - in practice, once a national election has been cancelled.

Besides, there are already plenty of nutcases who argue that they already have the right to assassinate Obama - the only reason they don´t do it is because behind all the hatred and "patriotism" they´re a bunch of craven cowards.

I'd prefer something more like the Nuremberg doctrine that every individual has the right to refuse to obey laws or orders which would cause them to violate their conscience or international law.


We have that, too.

Not that this wouldn´t cause all manner of grief in the US, either. How long do you think it´s going to be before every freaking hardcore right-winger decides that obeying any inconvenient laws while a Democrat is president would violate their conscience?


The problem in this case, I think, is not bad or too broad or too far-reaching laws - it´s the complete absence of the mindset necessary for a democracy to function in a significant portion of the US electorate.
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arthwollipot
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"Democracy is the worst form of government - apart from all those others that have been tried from time to time."
- Winston Churchill (attrib)
Re: Democracy Or Not?

magpie
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I say you need several things for a democracy to exist.
1. A large middle class. These people have more money than they need to buy the essentials to live. They do not have enough money to have on their payroll powerful people
2. An educated population. These people do not follow leaders just because they  can speak. They want people who have decent policies.
3. Free press. The opposition must have a voice.
4. An independent justice system. Otherwise the opposition would be arrested and charged with trumped up charges or sued.
5. Respect for minority groups. Otherwise JohnLombard would be right and it  becomes in practice just as abusive as a dictatorship. 

Edit. 6. A history of democracy. It helps that the country has had democracy in the past. Then people know it is a good system.
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Horatius
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magpie wrote:
Edit. 6. A history of democracy. It helps that the country has had democracy in the past. Then people know it is a good system.

I think this is the most important part. Democracy works when people believe it will work, and that belief can only really come about after seeing it work.

That's a bit of a cart and horse problem though, isn't it?

Most of our recent attempts to create democracy by fiat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have largely failed because we forgot that our own democracies evolved over literally centuries, and were not simply imposed from the top down. That gave us time to learn that democracy can work, that people in power really will step down if voted out of office, rather than just ignore the vote. Similarly, the people who are voted out can learn that it's not a disaster, they can go back to private life, and get on with living, without fear of being disposed of by the winners. Once you get used to the idea that you can vote for Mayor, and have a peaceful transition of power, it's easier to believe that you can vote for a governor, or a president.

As it is, far too many people see democracy as a winner-take-all system, in which whoever wins the first election gets it all, and will quickly set themselves up as President-for-Life.
Re: Democracy Or Not?

Chaos
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I don´t think a history of democracy is necessary for democracy to work - otherwise, whichever was the fist democracy ever could not have worked because of its lack of history of democracy.

What is, however, necessary, is the trust of the population that the democracy will work - that the ones who won will run for re-election in a couple of years, the the ones who lost will not initiate a coup to seize power, and so on. Granted, a history of democracy is one way of developing that trust, but it is not the only way.
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MattusMaximus
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Another interesting data point that I'd like to mention is that when examining the history of how democracy develops, there are some pretty prominent examples of democracy being quite limited in its inception. For example, in the United States, the only people who could vote at the beginning of the Republic (it's technically a representative republic, even to this day, not a true democracy) were land-holding, white men. A similar arrangement existed in the democracy of the ancient Greeks. I think we often forget these things in our modern age of ideally viewing liberal democracies as places where everyone has an equal voice.
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Horatius
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MattusMaximus wrote:Another interesting data point that I'd like to mention is that when examining the history of how democracy develops, there are some pretty prominent examples of democracy being quite limited in its inception. For example, in the United States, the only people who could vote at the beginning of the Republic (it's technically a representative republic, even to this day, not a true democracy) were land-holding, white men. A similar arrangement existed in the democracy of the ancient Greeks. I think we often forget these things in our modern age of ideally viewing liberal democracies as places where everyone has an equal voice.

Yes, this is what I was getting at with the history of democracy issue. Pretty much every functional national-level democracy we can name has a long history of the evolution of democracy, from an initial small scale, to the eventual near-universal suffrage national level democracy. Event the example of the US built on earlier experience of local democracy for mayors and the like, and the history of Parliament in England, where so many early settlers were from.

The initial seed of democracy was always pretty small, and we culd probably find a few counter examples of such seeds failing to grow. But if you look at the functional democracies we're trying to reproduce, they're all based on long histories of slow development.
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Horatius
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An interesting case study of how to create democracy would be Germany.

http://www.democracyweb.org/rule/germany.php

Over the last 150 years, they've gone from first establishing an Empire, with some features of democracy, to a completely failed post-WWI democracy that lead to the rise of the Nazis, and only after being completely smashed in WWII and occupied for  decades afterwards by countries that had a long history of democracy, did they finally get a system that seems to be stable.

Compare that to us trying to get democracy going in Afghanistan, in a matter of a few years.
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