The evils of “Democracy”

It has frequently been commented that the US has a rather peculiar relationship with democracy, at least in an ideological sense. They trumpet its virtues and their pride in being democratic, and even sometimes start wars, ostensibly in defense of this political system.

But if democracy means – as it surely does – that everyone gets to vote, and everyone’s vote counts equally, then how can we square the stated American commitment to democracy with the likelihood that Dubya would reject the outcome of any Iraqi election (for example) which placed a dedicated theocratic government in power, no matter how fair that election may have been?

This peculiar relationship stems, in part, from a deep confusion between the various conceptual elements that make up a modern “democracy”. Most democracies tend to subscribe to a loose set of Liberal values (most notably, the idea that people themselves, rather than simply their votes, are equal in worth), but these values are not required for a democracy. Similarly, the common commitment to various rights is not an essential feature of democracy.

Democracy is perfectly consistent with dictatorship, so long as the dictator in question was voted in freely and fairly. So why is it that the blurring of these definitions has become so commonplace in modern political discourse? One suggestion could be that it’s an attempt to avoid the negative connotations of Liberalism, as it seems that many hold the confused view that Liberalism by definition involves an impersonal and uncaring social order, or that Liberalism by default comes packaged with the most explotative forms of capitalism. But these are other strange blends of ideologies or stances that don’t, in fact, need to be blended at all, even though it’s of course true that capitalism tends to be bundled with liberalism.

So do these concepts tend to be blurred because people just aren’t paying attention, and they sincerely believe that democracy = individual equality, or that liberalism = capitalism? Or is this rebranding of democracy a subtle – and sinister – way to introduce policies that may otherwise not enjoy the majority vote if more clearly defined? For the US example, democracy comes bundled with an antipathy to rights inequalities, so strongly patriarchal states would rarely be credited as being democratic. Accreditation as a “democracy” also seems to be bundled with the requirement to be pro-American (as opposed to the alternative: supporters of terrorism).

And on Saturday, here in South Africa, the recently elected Mayor of Cape Town had chairs, bricks and stones hurled at her by people allegedly wearing the T-shirts of the State’s ruling party – the same party that fought so hard for democracy, and for whom a key complaint against the National Party government had been that their voices were silenced through force and intimidation. Has our democracy then so quickly become just like that of George Bush, where – regardless of whether you were elected democratically or not – unless you do and say as some bully wants, that bully will attempt to stone or bomb you into submission?

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.