Magazine article The American Prospect

What Democracy Looks Like

Magazine article The American Prospect

What Democracy Looks Like

Article excerpt

Virtually all the leaders who met in Quebec to expand trade were democratically elected, while `the people' in the streets clamoring for `justice' were self-appointed or paid union activists.

--THOMAS FRIEDMAN, New York Times, April 24, 2001

Last month representatives from 34 countries gathered in Quebec City to discuss the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a hemisphere-wide version of NAFTA that if implemented would create the world's largest free trade zone. Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 protesters descended on the Canadian City to demonstrate against the FTAA. Despite the considerable turnout, critics were quick to write off the three-day demonstration as one more stop on a traveling road show for self-righteous college students. Particularly irksome to the summit's defenders was the protesters' claim to represent democracy in action (a documentary about last year's mass protests in Seattle against the global-trade movement is called This Is What Democracy Looks Like, and activism in Quebec City last month included a two-day forum called the People's Summit). Free trade zealot Thomas Friedman was joined in mocking the movement's democratic rhetoric by such influential centrists as Fareed Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic.

"Until we come up with some better institution, sneered sympathetic Slate columnist Anne Applebaum, governments "are still the legitimate representatives of their peoples' interests abroad.... With thousands of marching protesters outside in the streets, and a handful of officials skulking inside the buildings, it might have been easy to forget who had a popular mandate--and who did not)' Leaving aside the issue of whether the officials themselves have anything like a "popular mandate" (remember Florida?), the real question is what the critics mean by democracy. Where, for example, do speech, assembly, and petition fit in? By their standard, George Wallace, as an elected governor of Alabama, would be hailed as a democratic spokesman and Martin Luther King, Jr., dismissed as a "self-appointed" showman.

The right to assembly--to gather and make your voice heard through a megaphone rather than through a ballot box--is arguably as important to the democratic system as the right to vote. The dismantling of Jim Crow laws owes much to rallies like the 250,000-strong March on Washington in 1963, and the promotion of gay rights to demonstrations like the April 2000 Millennium March on Washington for Equality. …

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