Barrow, Robin, Journal of Thought
The paradox of dictating democracy, of enforcing freedom, of extorting emancipation.
--Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (2004)
I should confess at the outset that this is an unusual kind of paper in that it is not concerned to locate its argument in any particular intellectual tradition and takes certain fairly commonplace assumptions for granted. For instance, at the beginning of the first section I refer to four current political presumptions without providing chapter and verse to establish that they are current; in section four I refer to the fact that there are practical restraints on frank-speaking, but support the claim with only the barest of references; in section five I refer to the long history of interference in the government of others by the United States of America, citing some examples but without providing any detail, and, throughout, I rely on my own authority for what I have to say about Athenian democracy. The reasons for this are that, in my view, all these various claims are fairly uncontentious and that, more importantly, they serve here as premises (sometimes, indeed, mere background) to an argument, and my focus is on the argument set forth.
The crux of that argument is that the value of democracy does not lie in its institutions or its form so much as in other values that the institutions are supposed to serve, in particular equal representation of everybody's interests and freedom, which are themselves partly to be valued for the substantive good that they may contribute to. If this is broadly convincing, it follows that the mere creation of democratic structures is of no necessary importance. If this is broadly convincing, it also follows that education is important in at least two distinct respects: first, current understanding of the nature and value of democracy is confused and in part erroneous and we need to develop a better understanding of it in our schools; secondly, democracy is not likely to flourish in new soil, unless we also educate people in relation to the values that democracy subserves, and gradually initiate them into some experience of democratic ways (although, on this last point, I resist the conclusion that the argument commits us to an entirely democratically organized schooling).
Currently, political rhetoric and practice, throughout the western world, but particularly and most obviously in the United States, are based upon four seemingly unexceptionable propositions: (i) "democracy is an intrinsically good thing," (ii) "we (the speaker) have the truest democracy," (iii) "it is morally legitimate to impose democracy on others," and (iv) "we can effectively do so." What the connection between these various claims is supposed to be is not always entirely clear. Is the reasoning that since democracy is inherently good we are entitled to impose it on others, or is it perhaps that it is because we are the truest democracy that we have some right to dictate to others? Is it that we will succeed, because we are truly democratic, or that success is assured because of the intrinsic goodness in democracy? But in the end the questions of the precise nature and the coherence of the reasoning that links these propositions hardly matters, since each of the four claims is in itself extremely dubious.
Quite why the United States (or anywhere else) should assume that it represents the apotheosis of democracy is unclear. In order to establish any claim to be the quintessential X (e.g., democratic state), two conditions need to be met: there has to be a clear and unequivocal definition of X, and there has to be some evidence to support the contention that one meets the defining characteristics of X. In the case of the United States' claim to being the pre-eminent democracy there is an abundance of argument to suggest that it is not, at least in respect of the sort of criteria for democracy most commonly advanced. Thus, to cite two well-known and obvious points: citizens of the United States do not directly elect their own president (who may as a consequence not have the support of the majority), and the resources required to run for office effectively disbar the majority from a political career. More generally, one does not have to be a Michael Moore (2001) or a Ralph Nader to recognize that corporate and media interests to a very large extent control both the process and the outcome in American politics. (1) This is a far cry from any plausible notion of rule by the people and for the people.
But this brings us to the second point, which is actually more important: there is no agreed definition of democracy, so how can any state claim to be the best example of it? Democracy is a polymorphous concept which is to say that, like gardening or teaching, it may take many different forms and in each case be equally a bona fide instance of democracy (gardening or teaching). Secondly, it is what Gallie (1955) long ago and usefully termed an "essentially contested" concept: largely (but not entirely) because it is inherently evaluative, the question of what constitutes true democracy is forever open to argument. Certainly there are no a priori grounds for assuming that the particular form that democracy takes in the United States (or anywhere else) is "truer," "more democratic than" or "superior to" various other forms that it has taken historically or takes today in other places.
The fact that the concept is essentially contested does not mean, however, that, like Humpty Dumpty, we can make the word mean whatever we want. There is a minimal descriptive content that sets limits on what can count as democracy. More or less uncontentiously "democracy" means "government by the people or their elected representatives," and it is to be contrasted with …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Dictating Democracy. Contributors: Barrow, Robin - Author. Journal title: Journal of Thought. Volume: 42. Issue: 1-2 Publication date: Spring-Summer 2007. Page number: 27+. © 2006 Caddo Gap Press. COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.