ESSAY ON THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY
Jay B. Gaskill
The Fukuyama Wave Meets the Rocky Beach
I believe that intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama who argue that democracy is the single model of social organization destined to replace all others are essentially right. But the transition process can easily fail. Which is another way of saying that social progress can always give way to a dark age. Given the tenuous nature of democratic trends in areas ripped apart with civil war, terrorism, and strong anti-democratic forces, we would do well to define our terms very carefully, and to more deeply understand the powerful forces operating in the Third World (and even in our own culture) that threaten the “Fukuyama trend”.
The entire world is in transition. The developed parts of it, principally the nations of the so called “West”, have achieved multi-generational democracies, while most of the world’s population still lives under regimes that are thinly disguised vestiges of 8th century, pre-democratic autocracies.
There is always a local transitional moment, that chaotic time period before the achievement of any democracy in a given place but after the demise of the predecessor regime. Whenever the identifiable trajectory of change is toward a more democratic situation a new transitional model tends to emerge. This model is proto-democracy.
Chaos accompanies these transitions. In these situations it can fairly be said that democracy is civil war by other means. In fact, this is one definition of a proto-democracy. The realization of Fukuyama’s dream will be hard fought, and the outcome in most of the world will be problematic for the entire 21st century.
Some Broad Definitions.
Democracy may be defined in the most general sense as a model of governance whose authority is derived from elections in which participation is not limited by class, political power or social standing. But that definition is inadequate. The achievement of any working, stable democracy under real world conditions requires at least five elements. All of these must be supported by a consensus within a critical mass of the affected populations, and are accompanied by necessary supportive cultural norms and skill sets. These norms and skill sets are still missing in large populations.
As we go through the following list of elements, three things should be apparent:
(a) Democracy need not be direct and immediate, but can – and almost always does – rely on elected representatives accountable to the electorate via periodic elections.
(b) The biggest enemy of democracy in the current world situation is militant tribalism, especially the Islamist variant.
(c) The cultural obstacles in the entire Third World are aggravated by various forms of militant tribalism (the code word here is “ethnic conflict). Militant tribalism generates strongly held anti-democratic norms, except possibly within the smaller tribal units. The situation is further complicated by the absence of the necessary supportive technologies and skill sets. The simplest example of this kind of problem is the absence of widespread literacy in large populations.
Five Elements of Viable Democratic Governance
A viable mechanism that produces objectively verifiable election results at regular intervals such that the process cannot merely be cancelled by the winners of the prior election.
Sufficient civil order (think of violent tribal rivalries) that an election can be carried out in practical terms such that the will of a decisive majority of the people can reasonably be determined.
An implementing legal system that accords primary legitimacy, authority, and official power to the majority’s will (via its elected representatives or otherwise) as determined by valid elections.
A modality of governance that gives all significant minorities and their allied groups an ongoing representative voice in policy formation (thus obviating the incentive for civil war by providing a stake in the process).
A modality of governance that always allows minority opinion to be heard and debated (allowing for the possible exception of the overt incitement to a civil war against democracy itself as inadmissible advocacy).
Thus democracy is not federalism, as such, though it is equally compatible with its adoption or non-adoption. And democracy requires robust protections for speech and political communication, though not necessarily to the same degree expected by US citizens.
The central, democratic authority, therefore, may or may not allow for autonomy, semi-autonomy, or even the division of subordinate local authority in matters of law, policy or governance. It may or may not tolerate all speech equally. These are questions of democratic style.
The Sixth Element
I am worried by Fukuyama’s reliance on the ultimate utility of democracy as a guarantor of success. Because ideas matter in history, their source and ultimate authority also matters. As I hint below in a brief sketch of the American Enlightenment, it matters greatly whether one’s values are rooted outside utility calculation, whim, or tribal ethos. The men and women in Britain who gave blood, sweat and tears to oppose the Nazis didn’t fight for Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number.” They fought for God and country.
These issues are deeply philosophical, well beyond the scope of this essay. But I need to point out that when the democratic emperor has no clothes, he will not be respected. The philosophical underpinnings of democracy need to much stronger than “it just works better” to get us through the current crisis. The founders of the American experiment got that part right. Democracy requires not only an implementing legal system, in the American case one inherited directly from the English, but an underlying meta-normative structure that supports the whole project. Democracy was, for the founders, an institution solidly founded on natural law, the set of authentically universal norms that were powerful enough to apply with equal force to the governed and those who would aspire to rule. Theism, deism, and secular universalism converged in the natural law consensus to form a solid normative foundation for the daring new idea that individuals could gather together and self govern as free individuals.
The Threat of Tribalism
The developed “West” has been infected with “post-modernism”, a loosely defined world view that might be more truthfully described as “post-Enlightenment” because of its sharp departure from key features of the 18th Century Enlightenment consensus. The uniquely American version of the Enlightenment (Jefferson, Franklin and Hamilton, among other founding personalities, were enlightenment intellectuals) was the philosophical basis for the modern democratic movement. The two essential Enlightenment premises that support the modern democratic model are: (a) the assertion that the innately free individual, including his/her natural aims and agendas (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) is the normative touchstone for all governmental authority (consent of the governed); and (b) the assertion that a natural moral order that transcends regents and governments from which the basis of the first premise emerges (as in endowed by the creator with certain natural rights). It is important in this short sketch to recall that the American and French versions of the Enlightenment shared a common rejection of class privilege but differed on the matter of “equality”. The French became obsessed with the project of erasing natural differences between individuals to achieve a (non-achievable) equality in fact, while the American version accepted these differences as subsumed in the equality of equal endowment of natural rights (all are endowed with the right to life, etc., and are equal in that “first condition” sense). These versions are in competition to this day.
Post-modernism is an attack on the natural law underpinnings of the Enlightenment because of its inherent subjectivity. Thus, the intelligentsia opened the doors to neo-tribalism, by disarming us against the general notion that “collectives” (i.e., human sub-groups, especially “victim” collectives, but by extension races and other groupings) had equal normative standing or even greater standing than individuals. A tendency to revert to atavism always lurks under the safeguards of modern civilization and tribalism (as the notion that loyalty, right and wrong are primarily tribal in nature) has rushed through the opening created by the post-modern intellectuals. The cultural and normative underpinnings of Western democracy are being attacked by tribalism’s powerful ally, cultural relativism, as if by a powerful computer virus. American culture was partially inoculated as a result of the commitment of its founders to the natural law branch of the Enlightenment.
Most of the world is still ruled by the tribalist mindset and it is no small matter to change such an ingrained patter of thinking. When an equally deeply ingrained tribal religion mutates into the ideology of conquest, the future of democracy cannot be taken for granted. This is the challenge of Islamo-fascism.
A proto-democracy can be defined as a governance structure with some democratic or quasi-democratic elements that is authentically in the process of moving to achieve all five essential elements above. To qualify as authentic we would normally expect to see concrete steps in play that are reasonably designed to implement elements 1 and 3 at the earliest practicable stages.
Based on these criteria, we can say that the provisional government of Iraq is a proto-democracy, but the established government of mainland China is not.
The government of post-Soviet Russia is, by this test, an authentic, though fragile and developing democracy, as are India, Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina.
Is our democracy secure? We are at sea in an 18th century wooden vessel. The moral and cultural relativists who came after the shipwrights are merrily chipping away belowdeck. In case you haven’t noticed, the ship has listed to the left and we are taking water. In Part Two, I explore the challenges posed by the terror war.
Several cultural and political forces, all promoted or permitted by the post-modern ethos, threaten to degrade and ultimately destabilize American democracy:
Delivered Voters: The exploitation of large sub-groups of vulnerable, easily manipulated voters: especially tribal sub-populations barely assimilated and not fully acculturated, controlled by their tribal leaders. This is a reversion to early American urban democratic abuses in which local ethnic bosses “delivered” whole elections. Large scale Islamist immigration in Europe is the canary in this mine. Importation of populations who are not part of the prevailing democratic consensus can gain the franchise and radically alter the democratic model.
Voter Fraud via “Delivered Non-Voters” especially the registration of illegal immigrants, felons, children, drug addicts, and non-residents. As the former, easily exploited and manipulated populations become more assimilated, educated and less amenable to being “delivered” there arose a “vote market” for replacement voters, hence this development.
More Voter Fraud. The possibility of other, more sinister forms of fraud has been raised by touch screen, unverified absentee, and internet voting. All these forms of fraud tend to delegitimize a particular democratic process, leading to decreasing voter turnout, close elections being decided by an even smaller pool of voters, and a general disenchantment with the process.
Centralized control of the media. At its zenith during the 70’s and 80’s, the dominant media spoke with a single voice such that headlines, magazine covers and lead stories on the evening news were as well coordinated as oil prices. The advent of the internet and information radio (as lower cost points of public access for opinion and discussion) has mitigated this centralization tendency.
The de facto monopoly of professional politicians. Political life is increasingly the province of the former interns and assistants of elected or appointed officials who, after a period of apprenticeship, are placed in an open seat where they become part of the interlinked cohort of like-minded office holders. Term limits is a feeble attempt to control this pattern, producing the unintended side effect of musical chair office holders. In California, for example, a former governor, now mayor, negotiates with an attorney general, himself a former assembly member, who now wants to be governor, allowing the to-be-former mayor, former governor (are you following this?) to try his hand at being AG. Only charismatic Hollywood actors seem to be able to break the pattern. On lower levels the term limits dance is even more prevalent. These developments are directly related to low voter turnout which presages high voter burnout.
None of these threats to American democracy are irreversible and, to date, none directly threaten the institution itself. But during a time of peril, it becomes even more important that democracy play to its greatest strength: that its leaders are recognized as fully legitimate because they represent the people’s best choice.
Our War For Survival
A commonplace point of agreement between some on the right and left is a slogan: that George W. Bush has “won the war and lost the peace”. This is patent nonsense. We have not won the war and we had no peace to lose. Afghanistan and Iraq are just early, multi front battles in a larger war against Western democracy that we did not seek but must not lose.
Given our reduced military resources, downsized since the end of the Cold War (cut 2 and ½ divisions following Gulf War, Phase1) and the limitations of domestic politics, this president has moved more boldly, forcefully and effectively to respond to the threat than any plausible alternative in either party. Only when the next president is elected, (presumably when Mr. Bush is reelected), can we expect further action of the kind the situation calls for. The furor surrounding Mr. Bush’s first election was just one more of the ongoing challenges to existing democratic systems of governance in the world. There was, in effect, a second, de facto election for president in the immediate wake of 9-11, during which the questions surrounding W’s legitimacy were effectively forgotten. Mr. Bush moved as forthrightly as any president with a mandate. But a democratic leader at war needs the particular legitimacy that the democratic process itself confers. The country needs a much more decisive election outcome this time, more secure presidential authority as a result, and an even stronger response to the challenge we face from radical Islam.
A Review of the Overall Crisis
We (this is the large “we” consisting of the US and of all the other targets of the current jihad whether they have awakened to their peril or not) are in two decade struggle. This is nothing less a battle for the survival of Western democratic civilization. It is a struggle that fully qualifies as a “World War” and one that we, as a civilization, must not even seem to be losing, nor is it one in which we should even think of writing off some of the jihad’s targets, just because their nations are foolish, intractable, remote, or all three. We democracies may eventually all stand together. For now, it appears that the US, Great Britain, and a handful of smaller countries must lead out.
The genesis of the struggle is an awakened pan-nationalist fervor among an atavistic, dysfunctional and largely mentally disturbed population centered in the Middle East. There are other such populations in the world, of course – after all this is a description of normal life of an earlier period. But local conditions have isolated these other peoples and societies to a degree that has permitted the West to “allow time to do its thing”. This mindset might be described as evolutionary isolationism, the general notion that primitive civilizations will eventually progress “at their own pace”, and that the wisest policy of the more developed nations is benign non-interference. Leaving aside the dubious wisdom of this form of isolationism when the world is ever more tightly bound by the technologies of transport and communications, the Middle East is a manifestly different case.
Geography, economic realities and the fungibility of deadly technologies have conspired to force the West out of its isolationism. For the foreseeable future, the architects of a world jihad are in a position to seize control of the economic jugular of the West. By virtue of geographic and economic position, the jihadists, should they capture even one significant oil producing state, are potentially capable of arming themselves with true WMD’s, the kind capable of wiping out large populations at a distance. In a single master stroke, all who stand in the way of jihad would have to defer, or suffer the gravest consequences. And, as I reiterate below, the particular mindset we face– promoting, as it does, suicidal aggression as virtue –makes the overall threat dramatically more deadly. Consider: The Russians and the Chinese were deterrable. A well armed jihad proto-state may not be.
We did not take this growing threat seriously in its earlier stages for several reasons, all of which are founded in our collective complacency, lack of foresight, and stubborn failure to grasp the magnitude of the unique danger posed when a truly atavistic fanaticism is coupled with large scale 21st century weapons technology.
The West has been complacent on more than the narrowly materialistic level. The creature comforts that are the gift of modernity are less disabling than the modernist notion that we Westerners have arrived at the apex of a natural progression of thought, and that the primitive world, suffused as it is with superstition and outmoded religious beliefs, will simply fall like rotten fruit when exposed to our scientist, materialist “values”. Ironically, the post-modern reality is spreading the notion that no values are worth risking comfort much less life itself to preserve. Hence, a profound weakening of value commitment more accurately defines the current Western ethos. Populations seduced by the current level of comfort and complacency are very difficult to rouse to self defense, particularly when the threat is striking elsewhere or can somehow be temporarily contained, or (when all else fails) can simply be denied. The modern jihad architects of the current war were not blind to this weakness.
As long as the restive Middle East population was divided and ruled by tribal leaders whose regimes we in the West could “tame” via mutually beneficial economic relationships, the potential threat was ignored. This space is far too limited to chronicle the last 100 years of Middle Eastern history, but suffice it to say that the emergence of a virulent pan Arab nationalism fueled and ignited by a fascistic ideology based on Islam should not have been surprising.
Even now, the biggest obstacle to a truly pan-Arab force remains the Arab inter-tribal rivalries (recalling the “religious” differences among major Arab groups are tribal at root and that religions function as tribal ideologies). But the developments of the last few years are troubling. At last a single scapegoat and rallying point has emerged capable of uniting the pan-Arab jihad. It is no accident that the terrorists have taken the war directly to the West, and principally seek to humiliate and gravely damage the single most powerful representative of the decadent Western civilization they seek to replace. We are a useful enemy.
To his enduring credit, and in spite of his rhetorical deficiencies, President, George W. Bush swiftly arrived at a core understanding of the true nature and scope of the threat. The isolationist tendencies of the Administration collapsed overnight when the WTC Towers fell, the Pentagon was struck, and the White house (or Congress or FBI Headquarters – we my never know which) were narrowly spared. He and his national security team saw that we faced a huge interlinked terrorist network with covert and overt state support whose overriding purpose was to create a pan-Arab Islamist empire, a proto-state governing the entire Middle Eastern region, armed with nuclear weapons, standing triumphantly over the smoking cinders of the hated Israel and in control of most of the world’s petroleum supply. And he and his team (one of the most savvy and accomplished national security teams in decades, whatever the flaws in the intelligence apparatus) also saw that the pattern of terrorist attacks was designed and intended to disable all forces that stand in the way of the Islamist proto-state. We know the list: the U.S., Israel, the non-compliant Arab States, and Europe.
“W” has set US policy resolutely on the following course (the stability of which depends on the disgraceful domestic political disruptions unprecedented in time of war):
Hardening our domestic defenses. This is a work in progress, at best, and is beset with bureaucratic inertia, civil liberties lawsuits, and the seeming political inability to take strong measures to control our borders and to limit immigration. Those problems acknowledged, in the real world of politics, my earlier observation holds for both election cycles: Mr. Bush did more than any plausible alternative in either party.
Forcing other regimes to deny all aid and comfort to terrorist efforts. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are fully justified uses of military force on this count alone, even if nation building falters. The demonstration of American power in support of the “Bush doctrine” has had a salutary effect.
Preventing overtly hostile regimes (Iran & Korea) from acquiring a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. Another work in progress. For domestic political reasons this will happen via military action, if it does, early in a second term.
Establishing a semi-permanent US military base in the region not beholden to the Saudis or any other unreliable regime. This is a state Pentagon goal and awaits developments in Iraq.
Planting the democratic seeds of the counter-jihad in the region. This single effort, with all the attendant problems, contains the key to averting the Islamist proto-state. It may be the single most astute choice this administration has made, provided the resources needed to guide Iraq along the proto-democracy course are not denied.
To imagine that we have the raw capacity to “solve” the jihad problem with nuclear weapons is a video game fantasy. The “country sized glass parking lot” solution (only half seriously proposed by a friend) will not be a realistic option, either in moral or practical terms. Only a comparable Cold War threat to our own cities could possibly justify such a massive scale of threat response. In the real world, the infliction of casualties in the millions, risking collateral catastrophic economic damage to the world’s economy, could only come about as a necessary and proportional response to a massive threat of similar scope under profound emergency conditions. In my judgment, that simply isn’t going to happen.
But large scale military actions and brutal, intense small scale actions will certainly be necessary.
For example, the time will come that we, a peaceful democracy, will consider employing tactical nuclear weapons, including neutron bombs, to neutralize a nuclear threat that can’t reasonably be safely eliminated by other means. The North Koreans have most of Seoul within artillery and rocket range. Possible friendly casualties following a North Korean response to a US attack might exceed one million. Any military action against the North would necessarily have a preemption component for these batteries north of Seoul. This logic might well justify the use of tactical nuclear bombs.
In the larger Middle East we will most certainly have to use massive military force once, twice, or three times again. For a time, Iran seemed poised to mutate in a peaceful and democratic direction. A civil war may be needed. If the mullahs in charge press forward with nuclear weapons development, we may not be able to wait out the coming political revolution.
As a democracy, we are probably unable to reinstitute the draft in the absence of another 9-11 scale attack. Fortunately, the modern military has traded technology for soldiers, amplifying the effective destructive power on the ground of 1,000 soldiers a thousand fold. But the stark truth is that we lack the field strength to simultaneously occupy two countries the size of Iraq and Iran, yet we have the power to utterly destroy the military capability of every nation in the region. And this is a step we may yet be forced to take.
Under these complex circumstances, we should not so quickly fault our president for proceeding with care. He is one of the few leaders actually capable of ordering the kinds of serious military action that will probably be needed. This is a struggle for nothing less than the survival of the democratic model of governance in the world. We’ve planted a single seed in the Middle East. The contest has just begun.
9-24-04 about 3,600 words
Copyright © 2004 by Jay B. Gaskill
 In his seminal book, The End of History, Fukuyama made a convincing case that the democratic model is indeed the wave of the future; that democracy will eventually replace all competing authoritarian regimes because of its ultimate social utility in facilitating peaceful interactions within the social structure and providing a way for societies to achieve regime change without violent struggle; i.e., democracy, more than any other model of social organization has solved the “succession problem” that has dogged all totalitarian dictatorships.
 A practical definition of critical mass: A sufficient supermajority of adults within a democratically governed area (sharing the essential democratic consensus) that those not sharing the consensus are a marginal factor in policy making. A crude number: critical mass is 85%. A critical qualification: Authoritarian ideologues adopt tactics designed to destabilize and delegitimize democratic institutions (or opportunistically exploit existing weaknesses such as in the Weimar Republic and the pre-Soviet Russian Parliament. The consensus must be firmly defended when challenged. When the social order is under stress, the needed critical mass of popular support for the democratic consensus will change up or down based on the commitment level of democracy’s defenders.
 I recommend Norman Podhoretz’ masterful article in the September 2004 Commentary, “World War IV: How It Started, What It Means, and Why We Have to Win It”.