Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Democracy on Election Day

On this election day that reflects a politically re-energized nation, I want to share a thought: While routine for us as Americans, we should not underestimate the power of democracy as a governing process to help ensure a self-determined future for its people.

There are many political scientists who get religious about democracy, and I see their point: Is there really any better process to help ensure that a people can collectively determine what's best for them, given the current perceived political challenges being faced? If not, then democracy could be considered a fundamental "human right." One of my most impressive political science professors, Dr. Henry Teune, advocated this in his seminars on globalization, and I have spent much time considering and debating this viewpoint.

This democracy-as-human-right principle is a core component of an ideology that has powered the Bush/Cheney/neo-conservative foreign policy. This is nothing short of a laudable goal for those who believe that democracy is a fundamental human right. The problem, of course, is that this goal has been clouded -- if not damaged -- by surrounding it with ideological terms and strategies. For instance, it might be difficult for people to separate 'spreading democracy' from 'preemptive war' right now.

This is an unfortunate conflation of ideology (neo-conservative) and principles (democracy-as-human-right), and teaches us a lesson about how easily we as people can get so religious around a belief in principles that it can actually short-circuit our mission.

What does this all mean for us on this historic election day?
  • We should not take our democracy for granted, as it is arguably a fundamental human right that most of us are quite lucky to be born into without having to fight for personally.
  • No matter who wins, let us not allow our principles -- whether they be free markets vs. managed markets, engaging our enemies vs. holding them accountable, taxing more vs. spending less -- to become ideologies. We have seen over the past eight years what happens when we allow ourselves to become ideological around our strongly-held principles.
  • Campaigns are designed to divide us into camps, and the best campaigns give us permission to close the doors to open and honest debate. As a result of a long presidential race, many of us are now in our respective corners, and we find ourselves digging our heels in, becoming ever more rigid in our beliefs. Starting tonight, when the results are in, we need to release ourselves from the hard-and-fast frames that our favorite campaign has foisted upon us. Neither candidate will implement everything they promised, and neither candidate is wired to divide us as much as either side thinks.
  • I have friends on both sides of the ideological aisle. The friends that do not share my political views are still friends because we focus on the things in life we have in common vs. what divides us. This is arguably the model that we, as Americans, need to continue to believe in. Whoever wins, each of us needs to start thinking critically around what the "other campaign" advocates that you can agree with, so you can find a path to support our next President.
  • Supporting our political leaders does not mean agreeing with them. Just like how I keep friends who have different political views, let's keep in mind that we can agree to disagree. There is no other way for America to remain a single, unified nation unless we can all work hard to do this.
  • We should never stop worrying about the forces that attempt to hijack the democratic process: issues around voting integrity, push polling, and unfair and untrue political attacks. We cannot allow the forces of corruption to take this great process from us. And the only way to do this is to continually worry about it, and hold our politicians we elect accountable for dealing with these negative forces.
  • Democracy is much more than a single vote every few years. Our constitution presumes that we will self-govern, which means that the politicians are not "them," but "us." More of us should think of ourselves as part of the democratic process on a regular basis, and not just a bit player that makes a cameo appearance whenever polls open.
With that, I wish us a happy election day, America.


The problem with labeling things as universal human rights is that not every culture or society holds these views, and the ones that do currently may not always and forever as times change. As such, they can't really be called "universal". To call them such is an imposition, not a statement of fact. In fact, the idea that democracy is the best political system is, itself, a cultural assumption. It may be true for us, and it may be true for others at other times, but not all societies agree that democracy is the best political system right now.


This is a good start of an important discussion and debate. Labels can be troubling, because they can mean one thing to one person, and something else to another.

In this case, I would argue that the label problem is not 'human rights' but rather 'democracy.'

I agree that American-style democracy cannot simply be 'cut and pasted' to any culture in the world. But the underlying philosophy of the majority deciding on what kind of government they want, and what kind of representation they desire, gets pretty close to if not a human right, then a societal right.

For example, let's say that Yemen has very little culturally in common with today's democratic governments. That's fine. But that does not mean they would not be best served by a democratic process in their nation. In a Yemenite Democracy, they might very well all vote for a single Iman to be appointed to decide all laws and conduct all of the government's actions. That would be fine, because it was democratically decided upon. As long as there was a renewal process where Yeminites can hold this Iman accountable for delivering on what was expected of him by the majority (with, say, a re-vote every X years), that would qualify as a democracy.

It is in this context that democracy as a principle and approach to governing could be seen as a fundamental human/societal right.

To your point, it is far too easy and common for Americans to think that we've got the best of everything, and to want to export it for the good of others. That is ideology, not principle.

I agree completely with the notion that there is indeed no better way for people to collectively decide what's best for them. This is of course the purpose of any democratic system. Democracy as a fundamental human right poses a far more difficult question. While democracy has had a great deal of success in modern times, the truth remains that throughout human history, people have be governed by kings or dictators far more often than not. A dictatorship speaks towards the human need for structure and simplicity. Again, throughout human history people have preferred, or at least consented, to have decisions made for them.

We hear of failed, brutal dictatorships in which absolute power is pushed to far and ends in revolt, bloodshed etc. What we do not hear about are nations that lived under an absolute leader for hundreds or thousands of years in relative happiness.

Throughout history one may find plenty of failed democracies or democracies which became dictatorships for want of simplicity. Basically, poorly run democracies have the same potential as poorly run dictatorships to cause unrest and bloodshed.

My final conclusion rests here. If democracy and absolute leadership can provide happiness equally to a group of people, then neither one can be considered above all others as a human right.


Thanks for the analysis and discussion point. It is interesting to consider that a poorly-run democracy can be just as much of a failure as a dictatorship.

So, democracy in and of itself is not good enough. And, if we're going to say it needs to be a "good democracy" for it to be equated with a human right, then one can also say that all you need is a "good dictatorship" for the equal.

But, I ask this question: is there a inherent superiority of the process of democracy (i.e., holding representative leaders accountable with regular check-ins) over a benevolent dictator (i.e., no accountability for leaders)?