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All content © 2002-2005 Anne Zook

April 23, 2004
Is Democracy too much work?

Re-reading this article, I find myself wondering.

UNITED NATIONS, New York Latin America has freed itself from the military coups and dictatorships that long blighted its public life but now faces a fresh challenge to political stability from deep popular disenchantment with democratic government, according to a new United Nations report.

The report, a harsh self-analysis compiled by Latin American authors and being made public Wednesday in Lima, notes that while the region is the only one in the developing world to be governed almost wholly by democratically chosen leaders, those leaders are increasingly unable to finish their terms in office.

As evidence that the weakness of democratic governments in Latin America is breeding nostalgia for the strongman rule of the past, 55 percent of people surveyed say they would support the replacement of a democratic government with an "authoritarian" regime if it could produce economic benefits.

Fifty-eight percent of those questioned said they agreed that leaders "may go beyond the law" if they have to and 56 percent said they felt that economic development was more important than maintaining democracy.

"With an assessment this lousy, the impact could be quite amazing, and we really have to move very quickly to prevent a major crisis politically speaking," said Enrique Berruga Filloy, Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations.

"This shows that democracy is not something that has taken hold of people's minds as strongly as we had thought it would," he said.

First, let's note that "going beyond the law" something a majority of those polled agreed a government could do if it felt it necessary, is a vague and imprecise phrase. Which law? How far beyond?

Second, let's note that this article didn't say people were willing to trade freedom of speech or freedom of the press for economic prosperity. It's implied, but not said, so we can't be certain it's a choice the people were given.

"There seems to be some sort of democratic exhaustion, people are fatiqued, they think things take too long," the ambassador added.

And I find myself wondering…why? Were these people seeing democracy as some kind of magic trick? You install it and whoosh! life is suddenly peachy? Yes, it's work. Anything worthwhile usually is. Worthwhile things usually take quite a bit of time, too.

And it's work because certain more developed Western countries maybe haven't given some of the fledgling democracies all of the support they could have.

The report, portrayed by its sponsor, the UN Development Program, as "written by and for Latin Americans," involved opinion surveys of 18,643 citizens and lengthy interviews with 231 political, economic, social and cultural figures, including 41 current or former presidents and vice presidents.

It argues that while unhappiness with political leadership is traditional in Latin America, people who now complain are looking at democratic governments and ending up faulting democracy itself.

Voter turnout is falling across the region, especially among the young, while civil unrest is on the rise, with protest actions threatening elected leaders.

Since 2000, four elected presidents in the 18 countries surveyed were forced to step down before the end of their terms because of plunges in public support, and others may now be in peril.

As nearly as I can tell, economic prosperity, or the lack thereof, seems to be behind a lot of the unhappiness, but it's not reasonable to pretend that a country without a highly developed infrastructure of roads and industry is suddenly going to become a democratic paradise.

Democracy provides opportunity. It's up to the people, not the government (although the government should be a full and willing helper) to actually build the society they want. Democracy isn't an abstract. It's just a bunch of people working toward a shared goal.

The report acknowledges separate circumstances in different countries, among them class conflict, the disenfranchisement of indigenous populations, popular reaction against debt burdens and guerrilla warfare. But it argues that there is a broadly shared political culture and social structure that transcends them.

"The common denominators of this phenomenon outweigh the many national differences," it says.

You can arrive at a single destination via many roads. The fact that these countries are experiencing similar outcomes doesn't mean much when you begin to consider the problem in terms of solutions.

For instance…guerilla warfare and class conflicts are very, very different problems.

Class conflicts, to a certain extent, will always be with us because human beings have a natural propensity to divide themselves into social groups. In spite of Conservative protests, it really is necessary to legislate equality in order to protect those pushed to the bottom of the heap. Among other things, civilization is about overcoming the less attractive components of our natures.

Guerrilla warfare, on the other hand…which country, what warfare, and over what do they fight?

The report attributes the erosion of confidence in elected governments to slow economic growth, profound social inequality and ineffective legal systems and social services. Despite gains in human rights from the days of dictatorship, most Latin Americans, it says, still cannot expect equal treatment before the law because of abusive police practices, politicized judiciaries and widespread corruption.

Okay, that's clear enough. Corruption and abusive police forces. The abusive police force, while probably of more immediate concern to the citizens, is a problem that has to be solved from the top down. Creation of a more equal society starts with legislation (as I said above). Effective legal and social systems…legislation.

Under this admittedly simplistic analysis, we see that corruption in politics is the root of the evil. The next step would be examining each country and seeing who is supporting those regimes…who keeps them in power?

Next, re-reading this analysis, Fables of Reconstruction, about the potential for successful democracy in Iraq makes me wonder about the issues listed above (corruption inthe government we're installing, the many Iraqi militias functioning as guerrilla fighters, etc.) and others. If you haven't read it yet, you really should.

I may spend a significant part of the weekend re-reading parts of The Last Best Hope.

Posted by AnneZook at 01:16 PM


Comments

I admit to my students that Latin American history is something of a blur to me, that it never really interested me because the issues are so different from the issues which I address in my main areas of interest. I've gotten better at it over the last few years, as I survey the textbooks and read my students' essays and learn to listen to the news more carefully. But it ought to be a required subject, in depth and with high standards, for anyone thinking of involving themselves or their country in foreign policy.

I think the short answer to the question "where did they get the idea that democracy would solve their problems?" is: "from us." We've been pushing them hard in that direction (when we haven't been supporting anti-communist fascist thugs) and arguing from the example of our own experience that democracy and development are linked phenomena, and that the institutions of democracy naturally create the culture of democracy (which also creates the culture of investment and development) without any other intervening cultural development. We've been telling them this for years.

Posted by: Jonathan Dresner at April 23, 2004 03:08 PM

Implicit in my remarks, but probably not implicit enough, was much the same thought. I know very little about Latin American history and I should know more.

I've commented on our "say one thing, act another way" foreign policy before and would like to discuss it in more depth but, again, a knowledge of Latin American politics and our history of involvement would be necessary.

You bring up some good points that I hadn't thought of. Like the relationship between the "institutions" of democracy and the "culture" of democracy. There's a world of complexity in that idea.

I suspect you're right and it's never been our (foreign) policy to discuss the potential pitfalls and detours of starting a democracy.

Posted by: Anne at April 23, 2004 04:31 PM

They've had what, 10, 12 years of being allowed to run their own countries for their own benefit after spending a good bit of the Cold War as proxy-war pawns, and the prior centuries as sporadicaly sovereign colonies - mainly alternating between political/military subserviance and economic subservience.

They haven't had much chance to own their countries and economies. Under the circumstances, they are doing astoundingly well.

Civil wars that killed tens of thousands and seemed unsolvable have evaporated. Economies based on theft and corruption have been replaced by economies tainted by theft and corruption. Domination by thugs posing as govornments has been replaced by govornments troubled by thuggery.

Lots of problems, lots of work to be done. But now it is being done.

Posted by: Mike at April 29, 2004 11:07 AM

It is, and I don't doubt that democracy can eventually become successful in those countries. But there's a serious possibility that people are going to tire of waiting for it - that they've been, as previously discussed, sold a bill of goods.

Also, for the record, I consider much of what's happening in Latin America today to be much more than regimes "tainted" with corruption.

Posted by: Anne at April 29, 2004 12:43 PM