Is Democracy a Religion?

Emerald CityEuropean Union is at an existential crossroads. The failure of Europe to give an effective and socially acceptable answer to the economic crisis is having a deep political impact. Poverty is growing and poverty is feeding nationalism, euro-scepticism and political extremism.

European citizens’ main concerns are material needs and rights: employment, salaries, welfare, decent working conditions and education. However, they also question the idea of European democracy in its essence: that of a public space where people are part of the decision-making process and where their voice is heard and their opinion counts.

The preamble to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union places democracy, the rule of law, and universal values at the core of European construction:

Conscious of its spiritual and moral heritage, the Union is founded on the indivisible, universal values of human dignity, freedom, equality and solidarity; it is based on the principles of democracy and the rule of law. It places the individual at the heart of its activities, by establishing the citizenship of the Union and by creating an area of freedom, security and justice.

The very reason for the existence of the European Union has been to overcome divisions that had led to wars and atrocities for centuries and share a common future of peace and prosperity. Democracy has been sought as a means and as an end in itself, but democracy in Europe can no longer be taken for granted…

Writing in 1939, John Dewey reflected that the creation of democracy was as urgent then as it had been a hundred and fifty years before.

We have lived for a long time upon the heritage that came to us from the happy conjunction of men and events in an earlier day [and] we acted as if our democracy were something that perpetuated itself automatically; as if our ancestors had succeeded in setting up a machine that solved the problem of perpetual motion in politics (John Dewey, “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us”)

Today, the creation of democracy is still urgent. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. It is something we must fight for or… should we fight instead for something else? Why do we think that democracy is the system that will best serve the EU and the rest of the world? Furthermore, why do we think it will prevail in places, like Europe, that consider themselves bastions of freedom?

In 1997, Robert Kaplan published a controversial article “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” in which he asked these questions. Kaplan argued that history has shown that there is no final triumph of reason, whether it goes by the name of Christianity, the Enlightenment or Democracy. For Kaplan, democracy is a consequence of development and not the other way around. In fact, he thinks that if a society is not in reasonable health, democracy can be not only risky but disastrous.

Under its authoritarian system China has dramatically improved the quality of life for hundreds of millions of its people (…) Russia may be failing in part because it is a democracy and China may be succeeding in part because it is not.

Tocqueville showed how democracy evolved in the West not through the kind of moral fiat we are trying to impose throughout the world but as an organic outgrowth of development.

Democracy often weakens states by necessitating ineffectual compromises and fragile coalition governments in societies where bureaucratic institutions never functioned well to begin with

Social stability results from the establishment of a middle class. Not democracies but authoritarian systems, including monarchies, create middle classes.

Kaplan severely criticizes the double standard which western countries apply to promote democracy and praise democratic governments:

… our often moralistic attempts to impose Western parliamentary systems on other countries are not dissimilar to the attempts of nineteenth-century Western colonialists—many of whom were equally idealistic—to replace well-functioning chieftaincy and tribal patronage systems with foreign administrative practices.

We praise democracy, and meanwhile we are grateful for an autocrat like King Hussein, and for the fact that the Turkish and Pakistani militaries have always been the real powers behind the “democracies” in their countries.

AUTHORITARIAN or hybrid regimes, no matter how illiberal, will still be treated as legitimate if they can provide security and spark economic growth

Despite its present high status, democracy has many ethical defects. The treatment of minorities is perhaps the most widely recognised. In theory, the tyranny of the majority can be prevented by constitutionally enforced individual rights. But in practice, as long as they avoid certain types of policy and outright violence, democracy will allow a democratic majority to impose its will on a minority.

Between the mid-1930’s and the mid-1970’s, the Swedish government forcibly sterilised thousands of women, because of ‘mental defects’, or simply because they were of ‘mixed race’. Yet Sweden has been a model democracy for the entire period (Paul Treanor, “Why Democracy is Wrong”)

And it is not only the protection of basic rights. In a democracy, it is very difficult for an innovative minority to succeed and most innovations are first proposed by a minority, which means a democracy is probably a poor vehicle for rapid change and adaptation.

It seems that the most we can say in support of democracy is Churchill’s famous dictum: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” For Dewey, democracy is a way of living. In fact, the only way of living worthy of consideration:

Democracy is a way of life controlled by a working faith in the possibilities of human nature (…) faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are furnished

… everything which bars freedom and fullness of communication sets up barriers that divide human beings and thereby undermines the democratic way of life.

Democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation—which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition—is itself a priceless addition to life (…) To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life.

Democracy is the faith that the process of experience is more important than any special result attained (…) the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.

We face a moral dilemma here: either we fight for democracy in the name of freedom at the peril of stagnation and endless conflict; or we surrender our ideal of all voices participation in the hope of a benevolent dictator or the rule of a minority of enlightened all-powerful and highly influential men and women (great man theory)

Democracy is one of those great ideas like justice or love which in practice do not live up to the expectations they create. Like stars in films, famous models or the wonderful Wizard of Oz, they are completely different when you come to know them face to face. Like many other great inherited ideas, the days of democracy might be numbered.

Personally I will fight for it with Dewey and also, if necessary, smoking a cigar with Churchill, because I must admit that I cannot imagine any other means of preserving freedom at large: my own freedom and the freedom of the rest. And sorry, but freedom is my religion.


Featured Image: The Wizard of Oz, Emerald City

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