Thursday, January 13, 2005

Culture of Democracy

In this post I attempted to outline a schematic of democratic government. But, as I said at the time, this merely defines the necessary components of the democratic process. Practical implementation requires much more than a rudimentary roadmap. Like any other system of government, democracy must operate within terms defined by the society it will govern. If it fails to respect the cultural values and expectations of its citizens, it simply won't last. Therefore, I thought that it would be appropriate to investigate the cultural requirements of democratic government, so that we might gain insight into its prospects in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

As you'll recall from my earlier post, free choice is inconsistent with restricted access to information. For this reason, democratic societies must be comfortable with fairly lax restrictions on expression. This is a fairly easy sell with respect to political expression. However, free expression must extend to some degree into nearly every aspect of human existence. Here things tend to get quite dicey. Taboo subjects exist in all cultures and there were always be resistance to allowing public discourse of them. But failing to allow informational exchange prevents free choice from being exercised in these arenas. Complete liberty isn't required (and is problematic in its own right), but each restriction leaves democracy weaker.

The next cultural hurdle that must be traversed is the acceptance of the requisite restrictions on government and others. Free choice can be eliminated by coercion. Ergo, laws are required to prevent agreement through coercion. Elected representatives are not able to truly reflect the will of the people if their power is challenged by nonelected institutions. Constitutional protection of democratic process and its components is necessary to prevent its undoing by unscrupulous officials. Each of these issues demonstrates the need for limiting the scope of acceptable governmental and institutional activity.

The net and, for many, problematic effect is that it assumes the supremacy of human law. Secular cultures will readily accept this restriction. On the other hand, cultures with a higher component of religiosity will find this to be a much more difficult sell. The more fundamentalist the culture, the less likely citizens will be willing to submit religious teachings to earthly regulation. This is not to say that religion and democracy are incompatible. But it demonstrates that conflict will potentially arise and that the resolution of same may determine the efficacy of local democratic rule.

Perhaps the most noble aspect of the democratic system is its egalitarianism. This notion is the bedrock of the democratic ideal. Simply put, without the notion of "one-man, one-vote", democracy does not exist. This phrase, though, reveals much. Of course, the phrase should be "one-person, one-vote." Women, racial and religious minorities, and people of all socioeconomic strata must be represented equally within the electoral process. Cultures that do not accept the parity of minorities are unlikely to allow democracy its full bloom.

Finally, members of a democratic society must be able to peacefully accept electoral defeat. Many factors determine how willing individuals will be to submit to the democratic process: the perceived legitimacy of an election, the reliability of the election schedule, the protections against majority overreaching, etc. In point of fact, this particular aspect of democratic culture strengthens with the perceived success of the process over time. But, a base of acceptance must exist at conception. Without it almost any neonatal democracy would perish before it could establish a trust quorum with its citizenry.

These issues represent some of the primary roadblocks to the cultural acceptance of democratic rule. This is not intended as a complete list, but rather an opening framework for understanding the complexity of establishing democratic government. Hopefully, its presentation has been somewhat enlightening.

I would make two final points.

First, as with process, none of the issues raised above are binary in nature. They represent the degree to which any given culture can be democratic in the ideal sense. Cultures that cannot wholly accept democratic principles are not absolutely forbidden from attempting to employ democratic systems. It merely means that their system will begin its evolution further from the absolute ideal. And, because democratic principles, once unleashed, have a tendency to expand within a society, even a foot in the door leaves open the possibility that a truly democratic society might ultimately emerge. Thus, I would argue, a little democracy is better than none at all.

And finally, lest this be seen as an ethnocentric rant against less civilized cultures, take a moment to examine our own system through the lens provided. Fundamentalist Christians frequently object to laws they perceive to be in conflict with Christian teaching. Historically egalitarianism has been more talk than action, with more than half of the population legally barred from participation until the early 20th century. In practice minority participation was heavily limited until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And looking at Florida during the 2000 election, it is clear that we still have work to do on this issue. Traditionally we accept the results of elections. But it appears that this is becoming less, rather than more, true as many are prone to questioning the legitimacy of the election process. We may be a shining example of democracy for the world to emulate, but they might learn as much from our failings as from our successes.

Click here to read Part IV
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