Democracy Promotion: Done Right, A Progressive Cause
Democracy is a vision of governance that rests equally upon the conviction that worthy ideas can come from anyone, and upon the conviction that humans are inherently fallible. Pernicious ideas can also come from anyone, and there will be times when pernicious ideas will dominate our politics and our policies. We will get things wrong, repeatedly. And this is why we need democracy. Only if we build into our political systems a capacity for change and self-correction, a capacity for new ideas to emerge and old ones to be rejected, can we hope to make it through the inevitably recurring dark periods.
This is why progressives should care about promoting democracy: not out of any triumphalist conviction that we (America, the West) are the best of the best, but rather out of humility. We—and our American democracy—are manifestly imperfect. We more or less wiped out our continent’s indigenous population and marginalized the survivors. We enslaved millions of our fellow human beings, denied women the right to hold property and vote, and withheld basic civil rights from African Americans.
We have made progress, but it has been slow and uneven, and as a nation we’re hardly out of the woods. We incarcerate a higher percentage of our population than any other country, and felony disenfranchisement laws continue to deny the vote to millions of mostly black men. We have not yet found a way to solve the problem of money in politics; as wealth inequalities grow, we increasingly inhabit a democracy in which some are distinctly more equal than others. Here, ironically, our own free-expression doctrines have come back to bite us; in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that limits on corporate campaign spending amount to infringements on the free-expression rights of corporations.
Our democracy remains deeply flawed, and continues to produce bad policies with impressive regularity. The Bush Administration’s pursuit of democracy through military force was one of those bad ideas our democracy managed to produce. Our (thankfully brief) official embrace of torture was another. Our democracy enabled all of it—but our democracy also ultimately enabled its repudiation.
Democracy, after all, has allowed us to change our Constitution repeatedly over time to create a more inclusive polity. Democracy has enabled and empowered political extremism, but it has also allowed us to protect moderates and minorities. Democracy let us start foolish wars, but it also let us elect leaders capable of stopping them.
In this sense, democracy is an inevitable concomitant to a belief in human fallibility. And it is on this basis that progressives should champion democracy: because democracy is the only form of governance to enshrine the capacity for self-correction, debate, and argument. Democracy is what lets us struggle through our mistakes and learn. Democracy is no guarantor of wise political decision-making, but lack of democracy correlates with stagnation and conflict. There is ample empirical evidence for this claim: Democracies are far more likely than autocracies or failed states to be prosperous, stable, and safe. Democracies form the backbone of the international institutions that, while imperfect, have helped minimize and manage conflict since World War II. Democracies produce and export far fewer violent extremists than repressive societies.
This understanding of democracy suggests that promoting democracy abroad can be both principled and pragmatic. Democracy is a human fail-safe. Things can go badly wrong in democracies, but it is hard for them to go badly wrong forever.
A Humbler, More Patient Power
This approach to democracy promotion is the polar opposite of Bush-era triumphalism, and it has certain practical corollaries. If we support democracy because we’re imperfect, it follows that the project of promoting democracy abroad needs to be undertaken with honesty, humility, patience, and realism.
Honesty involves acknowledging our own past mistakes and hypocrisies, and admitting that we will make new mistakes in the future. Humility is related—we still have not solved all our problems here at home, and it would indeed be hubristic to imagine that we can solve someone else’s problems with speed or ease.
This point has been made before by many thoughtful commentators, but it bears additional repetition. To put it bluntly, when it comes to fostering democracy abroad, we really don’t know what we’re doing much of the time. What sort of democracy is best? What sort of electoral and party system? What checks and balances? What rights, for whom, how understood? What role does support for civil society play, and how shall we identify and define “civil society”? What role do legal and judicial institutions play in buttressing nascent democracies? Can we create that most elusive thing of all, “political will”? How should these challenges be prioritized? We often offer an a-cultural, technocratic approach to these and a multitude of other issues, and yet we know remarkably little about what is useful and what is not.
There is no one more thoughtful on these issues than Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who concludes ruefully in his book, Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion, that “we are still largely groping in the semi-darkness, bumping into a lot of things, gradually discerning the outlines of the major pieces of furniture in the room, and hoping to do more good than harm.” I would add that we usually do most harm when we are most convinced we are doing good. (Consider Latin America in the 1980s, or Iraq in 2003.)
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