The Limits of Democracy

I read Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. I find the idea of localism attractive, but as both a regular reader and a rootless cosmpolitan, I will also be the first to note that the local is not an idea, it is a place. And Jennifer and I have not yet found the place where we are willing to call our home.

Mostly I love the site for its suspicion of the big, whether that be the big state or the big corporation. But I also like its intellectual suspicion of ideology, especially democracy, and John Medaille (in an otherwise somewhat silly posting on Egypt) says something better than I have been able, so far, to say:

We in the West have a mythical belief in the power of democracy to cure kleptocracy and to bring peace. These myths are held in the face of the facts. Far from being peaceful, the 20th century, the bloodiest in history, was characterized by a series of wars to make the world safe for democracy. Which we did, but we made democracy unsafe for the world. And it is true that we have very little criminal corruption in this country for the simple reason that we have legalized it. The backward politicians of the Middle East take bribes; our enlightened politicians take campaign contributions and plush jobs on retirement. Getting caught with your hand in the till is a sign of low imagination, since there are plenty of legal ways to accomplish the same thing.

Democracy legitimates the ruling class in a way that no other form of government can. But it is not necessarily “democratic” in the sense of expressing the “will of the people,” assuming they have a unified will.

Medaille hints at, but fails to really say, that both world wars were the product of “popular” governments — that is, mass government done in the name of “the people governed.” Dictatorship in the 19th and 20th century is always done in the name of “the people,” and has always justified itself that way. (Americans, because of our heritage, confuse monarchy and dictatorship.) The First World War especially was a conflict of relatively democratic societies (Germany was as much a democratic state as Britain, as much a monarchy, and in the contingency of war, as much a dictatorship), a war of democracies against each other (with the exception of Russia). He also notes that the economic problems prompting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are simply insoluble through political means. I’ve long noted that the promise made by social democracy that the economy would be politically accountable is a false promise, one of many made by social democracy that is so beguiling that reality itself cannot even begin to scratch at the promise itself. Much less dent it.

(His jibe at “legalized” corruption, however, skirts the matter — if it’s legal, is it corruption?)

But there are days when it is good to know that I am not alone in my deep and abiding suspicion of democratic governance.