The Optimist

Democracy Inaction

Why representative government can't solve the world's other social problems.


As protesters from Benghazi to Sanaa risk their lives in the name of democratic freedoms, while Bush-era stalwarts cry victory for the "Freedom Agenda" and their opponents note that freedom in Egypt and Tunisia came from within, it is worth remembering two things: that the right to vote is worth such sacrifice, and that it is far from a guarantee of freedom.

Democratic institutions may be part of the secret to long-term growth (if not to the shortterm kind). As Amartya Sen has pointed out, they don’t tend to let their citizens starve to death. And people living in democracies report themselves marginally happier than people living under other forms of government. As we all know by now, democracies don’t go to war with each other (much).

But for all of their positive attributes, democracies can be shallow and easy to overturn. First, a lot of democracies don’t stay democracies. You don’t have to go quite as far as Niall Ferguson — who has argued that recent events in the Middle East could lead to a New Caliphate intent on Islamic global revolution — to worry that newly democratic regimes might fall back toward more autocratic rule. Indeed, many people in Egypt were concerned over just this thing as the March 19th vote on the country’s new constitution approached.

Democracies can also be shallow in their roots. Notre Dame’s Christian Davenport and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s David Armstrong found that "limited" democracies — countries with the vote but with less than free or fair elections — were no better at protecting civil rights than non-democracies. Davenport even suggests that limited democracies include some of the worst abusers. David Richards at SUNY Binghamton University similarly suggests that there is no link between the mere presence of national elections and observance of human rights.

In 1997, Fareed Zakaria coined the term "illiberal democracies" to describe this phenomenon of democratic governments running amok with civil rights. But he wasn’t describing a new type of regime — throughout history, most democracies have, in fact, been markedly illiberal. The word itself, after all, comes from ancient Athens: a city that tolerated slavery, denied women participation in public life, and had a weak record on fair trial, empirically demonstrated by the firsthand experience of the philosopher Socrates. The protection of broader rights in putative democracies has been patchy ever since. The United States ratified a constitution dedicated to representative government in 1788, but only finally abolished slavery in 1865, guaranteed the vote to women in 1920, and only passed the Civil Rights Act ending racial segregation and discriminatory voter registration practices 176 years after the Constitution was ratified.

And the lion of liberty, Winston Churchill, believed his democratic bona fides were in no way compromised by a determination to deny votes to women or democracy to India and other parts of the British Empire. He was also happy to say of Native Americans that "I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

Moving on to the (old) Empire, India still faces human rights challenges despite being the world’s largest democracy since 1947. The country has, it’s true, made considerable progress over that time in social and economic development. Nevertheless, there is continuing discrimination against dalits — "untouchables" — which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has likened to apartheid (not that he’s had much success in solving the problem). And there are widespread accusations of torture by Indian security forces in Kashmir.

The gap between democracy and civil rights isn’t a matter of government institutions falling behind the popular will. In fact, it often reflects popular attitudes across the world. The same polls that suggest ubiquitous global support for statements like "democracy may have its problems, but it’s better than any other form of government" also report considerable variation in answers to questions about civil rights.

For example, Islamic and Western countries score almost exactly the same in popular opinion polls when it comes to attitudes toward democracy and democratic ideals, note Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart of Harvard University and the University of Michigan, respectively. But support for gender equality, divorce, and abortion is notably lower in Islamic countries, and acceptance of homosexuality hardly registers. (Indeed, homosexuality is still illegal in 80 countries, including many democratic ones, according to the U.N.’s Human Development Report.)

In Egypt, the harassment and intimidation of women holding a rally in Tahrir Square on International Women’s Day highlights the fact that while democracy has finally arrived, some things take longer. Women in the Arab world occupy only 9.5 percent of parliamentary seats — the lowest of any region in the world. Less than 35 percent of women are in the workforce in the Middle East and North Africa, compared with a global average of 56 percent. These statistics are unlikely to improve just because Hosni Mubarak has decamped to Sharm el-Sheikh. In 2009 Afghanistan — another beneficiary of American enthusiasm for democratization — saw its democratically elected parliament pass a law that denied Shiite women the right to leave their house without permission from a male relative and legalized rape within marriage.

To repeat: Democracy is a great thing in its own right. And over the long term it appears to be linked to a range of positive outcomes from wealth to health and even to happiness. That means it is wonderful news that the world is more democratic than ever before and, due to the bravery of protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, and hopefully elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond, about to get even more so. But democracy is no instant panacea — especially not for wounded liberties. History, it seems, won’t end when the last dictator falls.

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