It would be tempting to attribute the disaster spreading across the Middle East to a brief flirtation with democracy snake oil, but for the better part of the last century the political class of the United States could talk of nothing else. Nearly every war was fought was to spread democracy, protect democracy or worship at the altar of democracy.
For much of the 20th Century it was the working assumption of the sort of men who got up to give speeches in crowded halls that it was democracy that made America special. But it is not so much that democracy made America special, as America made democracy special and workable. And that is because democracy only works when government is limited. When government power isn’t limited, then democracy is just tyranny with a popular vote behind it.
In a poignant historical irony, American democracy went into a prolonged decline just as its political class was busy speechifying about the importance of exporting it abroad. Government authority was increasingly centralized and elections began to come down not to ideas, but to divided groups fighting it out in a zero sum struggle for total control of each other’s lives. American democracy has been exported to Iraq. And Iraqi democracy was exported to America.
With unlimited authority vested in the government, we no longer have elections to decide policy, but to determine whether an oppressive social and cultural agenda complete with a loss of civil rights will be forced on the rest of the country. And our last election was as polarized as an Iraqi election and with a similar outcome.
Democracy was never the solution for the Middle East; a region that is properly multicultural in the sense of being a collection of quarreling tribes, religious factions and ethnic groups. And all that democracy accomplished was to give the majority another tool for oppressing the minority. Instead of bloody revolts leading to dictatorships, there were bloody revolts leading to elections which then led to dictatorships. And only a fool or Thomas Friedman would consider the addition of this extra step to be any kind of improvement.
A multicultural society does not invalidate government by popular vote unless that society is also so split along tribal lines that elections are decided based on the rate at which races and religious groups make up that society. When demographics become valid predictors of political outcomes, then democracy becomes theocracy and ethnocracy. And the only alternative is to resort to reserved political offices for different groups in Beirut style.
There are two elements that make democracy livable. Limited government and national character. And the former depends on the latter. Dispense with the national character and you lose the limited government and democracy becomes a slow descent into tyranny, accompanied by the spectacle of hollow elections.
The Muslim world lacked either limited government or national character and so the democracy experiments there were doomed to become one type of horror show or another. The two dominant streams of political ideology in the region are Socialist and Islamist. The difference between the two is that the Socialists are mildly Islamist and the Islamists are mildly Socialist. Both of them however have no tradition of respect for the law and are motivated by utopian programs based on absolute power.
There was never going to be a good outcome. Understanding that democracy would no more solve the region’s problems than shooting a rabid dog full of PCP would improve its mood was as easy as looking at the dominant political movements that were going to compete in such an election. Each of those movements, aside from hating America, also has no ability or interest in working with anyone outside their narrow agenda except in temporary alliances that would end in the inevitable betrayal.
American leaders were ill-prepared to grasp this because the Republicans were still besotted with an idealistic vision of American democracy propounded by the Democratic Party in the first half of the last century and utterly incapable of understanding that democracy is a tool and it only works in the hands of a people of good character.
No major Republican leader has spoken against the democracy export business because questioning the export of democracy to another country also questions the character of the people there. Republicans talk about American Exceptionalism, but limit it to the country’s political systems. In such a narrow reading, America is superior because its political systems are superior, not because its people are any different or better than anyone else.
But people define systems more than systems define people. Democracy works differently in Phoenix than it does in Detroit and democracy in Cairo works differently than it does in Tokyo. The ballot box is a Rorschach inkblot, an open space that people interpret and make use of in their own way. For some people the ballot box is a means of controlling one’s masters. For others it’s a way of appointing masters who will control and steal from other people on their behalf.
The Democratic Party could understand the expected outcome, but could not be expected to see anything wrong with it. The Muslim Brotherhood was just doing what they were trying to do; take power and then exploit the election to rewrite the laws, destroy any existing checks and balances and use an economic crisis and temporary rule to ram an entire cultural agenda down the throats of the country in order to transform it into a place more to their liking.
A fanatical ideology that disguises its intentions well enough to make it past the polling places and into the government is democracy’s silver bullet; whether it’s fired from a gun wielded by the left or by the Muslim Brotherhood. And if there is a large enough electorate cheering it on, then democracy becomes populist tyranny. It becomes what all unlimited power does, regardless of whether it’s wielded by men who seized power with bloody axes or after a vote count, it becomes unlimited repression.
Limited government is the missing ingredient in such democracies, but limited government is also the first up against the wall after the democratic revolution has been completed. Fanatics don’t believe in limiting their own power. They believe that the only way to make things right is with unlimited power. They cannot be trusted because they do not put any principle or value above getting their own way. The law means nothing to them, truth and honor even less, ethics is a dead letter and as radicals they have no long term investment in the republic and don’t mind if it perishes while they tear down its values and institutions.
Limited government embodies respect for the individual, for the values of one’s neighbors and their right to keep living their lives the way that they always have. If you believe in the essential decency of people, then you are also willing to leave them alone. If however you do not believe that people will make the right decisions on their own, then you invariably reject limited government.
The individual as a moral entity is at the heart of limited government. The left, which denies the individual, viewing him only as a representative of a race or a class, of a brainwashed polity in thrall to movements and false beliefs that must be crushed, has no room for limited government. Neither does Islam, which rejects human free will, for the moral imperative of the Jihad and the forced conversion of infidels.
Democracy without the individual means as much as a million monkeys composing Shakespeare. Without the individual, the ballot box is only a tool for collectivist impulses and identities, for a makeshift insecure majority imposing its will on a minority or a coalition of insecure minorities doing the same thing to a majority. There is nothing special or exceptional about such behavior. And it is arguable whether it is more moral for such a display to take place through the vehicle of democracy, rather than open riot and repression. The latter at least do not bother to disguise what they are.
Limited government deriving from individual freedom is the only thing that lifts democracy above the violence of the mob. The Muslim world never had that and so its experiments with democracy were doomed to be nothing more than a baton being passed from one form of tyranny to another. More tragically, the United States which once had it is losing both the limited government and the individual freedom. And that means that democracy in America is bound to follow the same path as in the Muslim world, where democracy becomes only another way of taking over a country.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam.··He blogs at Sultan Knish.