Close window  |  View original article

Losing the Conditions for Democracy At Home And Abroad

Democracy won't grow in rocky ground.

By Will Offensicht  |  July 9, 2013

As part of its efforts to be a "shining city on a hill," America has spent considerable energy promoting democracy all 'round the world.  Having observed that planting democracy seldom works well, we're reminded that any democracy collapses soon after voters start expecting government to pay for their needs instead of earning their own way.

So some sense of civic loyalty and limits on personal or collective greed are an absolute requirement for democracy to work, but that's not the only important element often missing from places where we naively try to plant democracy.  Recent events in the Middle East have illustrated that mutual trust is an even more fundamental condition - and they also shed light on what's happening here at home.


About a year ago, Muhammad Morsi, backed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, won the Egyptian presidency by about 51% to 49%.  The Brotherhood had spent the previous 40 years as an underground opposition to the tyranny of President Mubarak, and their organizational skills allowed them to achieve a genuine victory in a more or less free and fair election.

Unfortunately, as Muslim fundamentalists, the Brotherhood believe that their most important goal is imposing sharia law on Egypt as rapidly as possible.  Islamic purity was so important to the Brotherhood that instead of trying to build up independent courts, media, civil service, army, and police that check the power of government in viable democracies, the Morsi administration labored to undermine them.  The President rammed through a Constitution that didn't recognize the rights of non-Muslims.  Copts, Christians, and minority Muslim sects had their churches burned and many were murdered.

In addition, the Morsi administration wasn't able to do anything about the deteriorating economic situation.  Having spent so many years in opposition, the Brotherhood lacked the skills needed to govern.  But even if they'd known what to do, their ideology decreed that Muslim purity was far more important than mere economics.

The Muslim Brothers, once in power, weren't able to strive toward a pluralistic society with a functioning economy and didn't even really bother trying; they spent all their energy imposing the oppressive tyranny that is Islam.  As the Wall Street Journal put it, Mr Morsi "had all of Mr. Mubarak's contempt for civil liberties with none of his talents for governance."

When the Brotherhood's opponents started rioting, protests swelled until the army decided to take over.  Egypt is now torn by mob violence.

Brotherhood supporters argue that Mr. Morsi should have been permitted to fill out the term to which he was, in fact, duly elected.  Non-Islamist opponents  argue that he'd forfeited his right to rule through incompetence and religious intolerance, implying lack of respect for the institutions and process of democracy itself.  In effect, they argued that Egypt had mistakenly elected a would-by tyrant and that they had a basic human right to get rid of him by fair means or foul.


The nation of Georgia was carved out of part of the Soviet Union after the collapse of Communism.  They survived a Soviet invasion and seemed to be on a course of prosperity based on using a market system instead of socialist practices.

Governance was a problem, however.  With all of their former Communist rulers discredited, Georgia attempted a capitalistic democracy.  Mikhail Saakashvili, the first president, presided over a fair amount of economic growth.  He survived the war with Russia and fired all the traffic cops to fight corruption.  During a decade in office, however, he lost his tolerance for opposition and became so oppressive that the voters threw him out.

The new president decided to destroy him and all his friends.  Criminal charges were brought against many of the former president's associates.  They all swear that the charges are politically motivated; the new administration claims that they were all crooks.

Despite their demonstrated skills of governance and economic administration, Georgia does not appear to be able to operate a functioning democracy.  For democracy to work, both sides have to accept the legitimacy of the other side and not try to wipe them out when it's their turn on top.

Ingredients for Democracy

These democratic missteps suggest that there are several types of trust which are vital to democracy:

Trust in voting - people have to believe that votes are counted accurately and that the election results actually reflect the sentiments of the voters.  This hasn't been true in big American cities such as Chicago for a long time.  Even supposedly more honest states such as New Hampshire have tainted voting - a significant number of Ron Paul votes were discarded by polling supervisors.  Every year, Americans lose another smidgen of confidence that only qualified people are voting and that the count is honest.  Most other countries never had any confidence in the first place, often with good reason.  This lets losers plauisbly scream fraud and denies winners the aura of legitimacy.

Trust in the political process - people need to believe that officials will follow the existing rules and established procedures when making changes.  Much as Mr. Obama bypasses Congress using executive orders and agency rules, the Morsi administration took over the courts, subverted Egypt's parliament, and essentially ruled by decree.  Our governmental agencies and branches were expressly designed to slow down the pace of change; if someone is promising rapid and profound change, that's a promise to hold our Constitution and form of government in contempt.  The whole point of having a Constitution is to limit what government is allowed to do; any politician who wants to do "whatever it takes" is automatically un-American and tyrannical, regardless of whatever good intentions he might have.

Trust in opposing politicians - elected officials want to believe that they won't be prosecuted after losing an election.  Some politicians commit serious crimes and belong in jail, of course, but most commit petty venality at best and don't really deserve prison when they lose reelection.  The politicization of the IRS and Justice Department and the long history of "enemies lists" going back to Pres. Roosevelt and Pres. Nixon don't give anyone a warm feeling that it's safe to disagree with the administration, nor can elected politicans be confident that their enemies won't use the law to unjustly destroy them.  That sort of political battle almost always winds up with both sides resorting to real violence, as we've seen from Yugoslavia to Turkey to Iraq to Central America and now Egypt.

Trust in government employees - citizens have to be able to believe that they'll be treated fairly, albeit rudely and incompetently, by civil servants.  It was bad enough to observe Presidents using government power to harass their enemies; it was worse to find out that IRS employees selectively attack political groups that threaten to cut their budget.  Every conservative now who is ever audited by the IRS will accuse them of picking on him for his political beliefs, and if we ever have another Republican president, so will every liberal.  A few years of this and our tax system will resemble that of many southern European countries, where most citizens believe that the tax authorities are utterly corrupt anyway and feel that there's nothing wrong in lying to and cheating them.  For all that we hate paying taxes, it's a fact that we have to pay something, and if most people don't, the system will collapse in chaos which never ends well.

Trust in the courts - when disputes arise, citizens need to be able to trust that the court system will resolve them in a reasonably cost-effective and impartial manner.  In Egpyt, China, and many post-Soviet countries, powerful officials are able to direct court verdicts regardless of the facts.  In spite of that, many European lawyers would rather face legal action in Chinese courts than in America because the American legal process has become so expensive and so uncertain; at least in China you can pay a bribe and be done with it.

Trust in the right to disagree - during their year in power, the Muslim Brotherhood made it clear that they had no regard for the rights of non-Muslims, or even of Muslims who disagreed with them about subtle details of Islamic doctrine.  Just as Joe the Plumber was destroyed for embarassing Mr. Obama and wealthy individuals who suported Mr. Romney were publicly attacked by Mr. Obama and subjected to unusual IRS and BATF audits, the Morsi administration convicted many non-government agency employees on clearly bogus charges.

Lack of trust turns politics into a blood sport where losers are destroyed economically and sometimes killed.  Widespread distrust in many societies all over the world suggests that it's even harder to plant democracy than we'd thought.

Does that mean that the Middle East has no alternatives to tyranny, and can only pick between the theocratic and secular varieties?  It sure looks that way.

What about America?  Having given away our republic, are we going to keep our democracy?  Or is that even possible anymore?