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Is democracy liberal?

James Napier | Monday, March 1, 2010

George W. Bush liked to talk about democracy and its many virtues. He even went so far as to make promoting democracy a central component of American foreign policy. I mention this because on March 7, Iraq will finally hold the elections that had originally been scheduled for Jan. 15.

Contemplating the many issues at stake in this election, I began to wonder if democracy is actually all that great. This is not to say Iraq’s nascent democracy is hopeless — if anything, the past few months have shown Iraq has and will have rough patches but can work through its issues in a legal and productive manner (though there are many problems still to work out). Rather, my question should be seen more simply as investigating whether there are virtues inherent in democracy.

Often, we attach high-minded ideals of freedom of speech, human rights and other liberal ideas with democracy. In reality, these are concepts that are not integral to democracy but to liberal democracies like the United States and Great Britain. A democracy does not fundamentally ensure any rights, as a democratic government is merely one which is elected by the general populace — or perhaps a portion of the populace. Democracy can encourage political awareness amongst the populace which in turn can encourage freedom of speech and other liberal ideas. However, there is no guarantee that this will happen.

History abounds with ill-liberal democracies and democratically-elected governments destroying the very constitutions which allowed them to be elected in the first place. The most famous case occurred in Germany in 1932 and we all know how that turned out. Though Hitler never gained a majority vote, his rise to power illustrates how a democratic government can be manipulated into a dictatorship. Other, more recent cases are Russia and Venezuela. Neither country is overtly authoritarian nor threatening to become so. However, neither country is exactly full of liberalism and free ideas. In Russia, there is little question Vladimir Putin is running the show. Also, given the many reporters killed in Russia over the past several years, I would not recommend anyone interested in pursuing a journalism career move to Russia. On the other hand, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was very much legally elected and also very much abuses his power to strangle any opposition.

The point here is that casting votes does nothing to secure freedoms. If the above cases are unconvincing, just look at Hamas’ 2006 election in the Gaza Strip. The group’s entire platform is opposed to anything even approaching liberal ideas. And their actions are nothing short of atrocious. When living in Egypt, I met a young Palestinian who was captured and tortured by Hamas on three separate occasions within a two-year time span. At that time, he was living with family and going to school Gaza. The reason they tortured him? Money.

Freedom is not secured by casting a vote but by fighting for it. This does not necessarily mean violence — very rarely, in fact. Rather, one fights for his or her rights through education, laws, interest groups and civil disobedience. The most important of these four ways to fight is education because an intelligent public is more difficult to dupe and less likely to easily give up their rights. Essentially, if one desires a liberal democracy, do not support democracy but liberal institutions — places that encourage a person to think for him or herself. Most particularly, this means promoting higher education.

It is easy for a an elected official to destroy a country. It is much harder for a government to ignore or subvert a well-educated and politically aware public. And history has shown that education and political awareness often go hand in hand. Of course, whether promoting liberalism or democracy, the United States must make a conscious effort to work with and listen to its friends and allies. Perhaps this is the most important lesson as America’s politicians and pundits wait in anticipation for the results of Iraq’s March 7 elections.


James Napier is a senior history major. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.