Democracy: a health check
By Dan Smith
Global Beat Syndicate
WASHINGTON--Freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of worship. Is it enough, too much? Is any of it worthwhile without freedom from fear? Some of these were critical underlying questions in our recent national elections, and the answers underscore strong divides in our country today.
More broadly, answers may depend on who you are and where and when you live.
Some months ago, during the week of June 28, 2004, came the turnover of sovereignty--two days ahead of schedule--to the interim Iraqi government; it was also a week from the 228 th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, making it a fitting occasion to highlight what democracy is and is not--and when.
Abraham Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is a solid definition of democracy. Its historical opposite was the authoritarian plutocracy that ruled ancient Greece and, later, ancient Rome. In both places, ordinary people, economically crushed and demeaned, lost their fear of the oligarchs and rebelled in sufficient numbers to claim control of the administrative organs of governance and, by extension, of their lives and their freedoms.
But that is ancient. What is the state of democracy today?
In its last survey, issued 12 months ago, Freedom House listed 88 countries and 2.8 billion people as "free," places where people enjoy substantial rights. Another 55 countries and 1.3 billion people are "partially free." But 49 countries encompassing 2.2 billion people are "not free," and have few basic political rights or civil liberties. Nonetheless, the "trend" was positive: 25 countries registered advances; only 13 recording setbacks in democratic practices
"Properly" practiced, democracy is the institutional guarantee of a "level playing field" for the exercise of a people's freedoms. It enables majority rule to exist side-by-side with minority rights and helps regulate and adjudicate relationships between individuals without resort to violence. And as the standard-bearer of human dignity and the principle of the greatest equality of opportunity for the greatest number, democracy struggles to find the optimum balance among limits on government's power, maximum individual liberties, and obligations of a caring society to aid those unable to care for themselves.
But democracy, because it is "practiced," cannot be static. It is always dependent on time, place, and history. In Iraq, with the "official end" of the U.S.-led occupation, people are divided about the desirability of exercising the freedoms they were granted when Saddam Hussein fell. Some say that, until the armed insurgency ends, they would prefer fewer freedoms and more security. The new prime minister of the interim government, Dr. Iyad Allawi, thinks perhaps some level of "martial law" might be needed--with implications for freedom of press, speech, and assembly. Culturally, the equality of women, especially in the more conservative countryside, is under pressure from the male-dominated tribal and clan structure.
Events also can shape democracy's evolution, especially events that create or are exploited to engender mass fear. Here it is not Iraq but the U.S. that stands out, because in the aftermath of 9/11, many people were all too eager to surrender freedom from government intrusion and regulation for an ephemeral "security." Only in 2003 did significant numbers of Americans begin to question the panic reaction that produced the so-called USAPATRIOT Act, examining what they gave up, and questioning the additional intrusive powers the government was seeking.
The hard lesson of history is that unless it is safeguarded by an alert, involved citizenry, democracy can be lost through inept leadership, subverted by a new oligarchy, or wrested away by conquest. Afghanistan is still teetering and the course Iraq's Kurds and Sunnis pursue could make or break democracy in Iraq. President Bush's dream of Iraq as a catalyst for democratic reform in the Islamic world is now fragile.
As for the United States? Daniel Webster said, "Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. It is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters." To which might be added the distinction Lincoln drew: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy."