Many countries around the world are struggling with “democracy.” They struggle to obtain it, or to understand it, or to be able to say that they have it when really it is the furthest thing from their minds.
Fledgling democracies tend to focus on the right to vote as the ne plus ultra of democracy, and there is a common belief that “free and fair” elections are the real hallmark of democracy. Is that a fair judgment? Should I be challenged for thinking so? There is a lot of this focus on elections around, that much can at least be said. Although it is certainly true that the elections component is important, it is also certainly true that there is a lot more to it than that.
I believe that the emphasis on elections is wrong, and I believe that there is a widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of elections. Democracy does not equal majority rule, that’s the key thing to remember. Being elected as an individual, or being voted into power as a political party, does not mean that you have a mandate to do whatever you feel like doing. Neither should it mean that you are free to institute any program just because you included it as part of your platform in the run up to the election.
This folly of “election as mandate,” or “we were elected so now we run the joint,” has been on display since the beginning of democracy, with results that run from mere mischief to real horror. There have been many recent examples of political parties being voted into power only to change the constitution of the country to oppress political opponents and stack the deck in their own favor, with an eye to achieving permanent power. There have even been recent examples of political parties being voted in on a platform of ending democracy and returning to some kind of authoritarian rule. Hitler was, in fact, elected, and some of us remember how that worked out.
Elections, the right to vote, representative democracy, these things only mean that each citizen’s voice will be heard, within the limits set by an agreed-upon democratic constitution. No particular majority’s wishes will be honored above the rights, privileges and freedoms set forth in the country’s constitution. No particular majority will receive ascendancy over any resulting minority.
It is critical to remember two things about democracy:
1. Democracy does not spring forth fully formed on a seashell (like the goddess Venus was supposed to have); it must be worked on and perfected over a period of years, sometimes many years; and
2. Democracy, once it has been achieved, must be diligently watched over and jealously guarded, lest it be lost.
More important than the voting process is the creation of durable democratic institutions within a framework that treats all citizens equally, whether rich or poor, black, white or Puerto Rican. (Forgive my use of a phrase popular in my youth, when those were pretty much the choices in New York City.)
These institutions must include, but are not limited to:
The Law: The law, and its enforcement, must be neutral in its purposes and impartially applied. Police, the courts, and legislatures themselves must be subject to democratic controls that will discourage abuse.
Commerce: There was once something called “the covenant of good faith and fair dealing,” and it was once implied in all contracts and indeed in all commercial transactions. It was a good idea, and I would like to see it more generally honored today.
Politics: Governments and political parties should be set up to encourage people to work together, and to compromise when appropriate. Differing parties and institutions should be guided towards cooperation. Self-dealing must be clearly defined and forbidden. Corruption in all of its forms should be ruthlessly stamped out.
Equal Opportunity: Artificial preferences and discrimination must be avoided. There should be institutions in place to spot these problems when they occur, and, even better, to spot them in the development phase and avoid them in the first place.
Rights: Any democratic constitution confers on citizens certain rights, and someone should be constantly watching to make sure that these rights are not eroded or lost.
Freedoms: Another class of gifts from any benevolent constitution that must be guarded.
Religion: The adherents of any institution of religion should have the right to observe their customs, as long as they do not infringe upon the rights of citizens that do not observe those particular customs. So there must be not only freedom of religion, but freedom from religion.
Education: Education in any democracy must be universal, accessible and effective. That is to say, it must be freely given to all; affordable to all; and it must provide the raw materials for gainful employment and the understanding of a common identity as citizens.
Which brings us back to point two, above. Once you have gotten your democracy up and running it is of critical importance to be vigilant. People in many countries today look up to the United States as a mature democracy that is worth emulating, and it is well that they should. But among the lessons that they may learn must be a careful analysis of the weakening of democratic institutions in America over the last twenty or thirty years. As for education, quality education is no longer universal; higher education is no longer generally affordable; and even the effectiveness of education is questionable. As for religion, adherents of various faiths are trying our patience on a daily basis, demanding a spread of their particular beliefs into the public sphere, in many cases with government assistance. As for our rights and freedoms, well, does anyone besides me fondly recall probable cause? Ooooops! It was good while it lasted. As for equal opportunity, there is a good argument that the current tax codes are an artificial preference for the very wealthy. There are also recent voting laws and discriminatory statutes to consider. As for politics, can anyone tell me why anyone who enters politics these days, and is successful over time, can expect to become very wealthy in the process? And why has “compromise” been allowed to become a curse word? As for the law, has anyone besides me noticed that America is no longer protecting the have-nots from the haves, but has switched over to protecting the haves from the have-nots?
These things slip away if we are not constantly on guard against the loss.
So good luck to fledgling democracies around the world. Choose your democratic institutions well, and invest them with all of the necessary power. And good luck as well to the so-called mature democracies of the world. Your continued existence is threatened. A little more caution is in order.