Democracy in America and Elsewhere
“But democracy is just another ideology, and we’ve had enough of ideologies!”, exclaimed one of my friends, “You can’t see it, because you’ve had an ideological education, but we Russians can recognize ideology.” I have a small group of friends here are interested in popularizing the works of a Russian philosopher, Georgiy Shedrovitsky, and we meet Wednesdays in a little cafe to practice our exegetical skills on his works. In our first format, the conversation would often devolve into semantics, and it was during one of these detours that this statement came out. It wasn’t my first time hearing it – anyone with an interest in Russia will notice that Russians are insistent on a “special Russian way”, sometimes a “Russian idea” – but it was still surprising, as it was the first time I had heard an intellectual take the idea seriously, and I was taken aback, to say the least.
Quite frankly, democracy likely is a part of my ideological education; we spent several seminars on de Tocqueville, and I was in the middle of arguing to this friend that a citizen is responsible for everything his government does, and is therefore obligated to know subjects beyond the realm of his personal business; one has to vote on these matters, after all. Russia seems to have very very little sense of civic responsibility, and the most common response among my friends and students when the topic comes up in relation to Russia has been a shrug and an equivalent to the phrase “but it won’t change anything, it’s Russia”. Sometimes it’s difficult to understand this fatalism, and from an American point of view, it’s most likely to be interpreted as a sign of backwardness, propaganda, or – ideology; for us, democracy really is the natural order of things, and to oppose it – to be undemocratic – is to be tyrannical, and therefore evil. De Tocqueville sums up the ineluctable advance of democracy well:
The various occurrences of national existence have everywhere turned to the advantage of democracy; all men have aided it by their exertions: those who have intentionally labored in its cause, and those who have served it unwittingly; those who have fought for it and those who have declared themselves its opponents, have all been driven along in the same track, have all labored to one end, some ignorantly and some unwillingly; all have been blind instruments in the hands of God. The gradual development of the equality of conditions is therefore a providential fact, and it possesses all the characteristics of a divine decree: it is universal, it is durable, it constantly eludes all human interference, and all events as well as all men contribute to its progress. Would it, then, be wise to imagine that a social impulse which dates from so far back can be checked by the efforts of a generation? Is it credible that the democracy which has annihilated the feudal system and vanquished kings will respect the citizen and the capitalist?
The other day, however, I was struck by another thought. What if these modern opponents of democracy are just confused about its meaning and essence? Another friend had mentioned reading a survey of Germans which stated that 1/6 of Germans wanted the Berlin wall returned (and I found a corroborating article here); she claimed that the reasons they gave were all to the effect that they missed the collectivist values of the GDR and felt alienated by the capitalistic dog-eat-dog rules that they are now living under. Her point was that perhaps democracy is not for everyone; but what struck me was the explanation her interpretation offered for another statistic I’d seen: that 1/3 of Russians can’t identify the traits of democracy on a multiple choice test (it’s worth pointing out, however, that 43% were able to say what democracy is). When I hear my Russian friends talk about how democracy isn’t for Russia, they don’t refer to the idea of democracy – they talk about Western values (meaning, materialism and homosexuality), American hegemony, and Russia’s special East-West path. This would seem to imply that democracy for them is simply whatever America is. Yet, when they talk about the Crimea, the first point they make (after confirming that Crimea is, in fact, quite simply, theirs) is that the citizens of the Crimea chose to join Russia by referendum. That is, they rely on the most basic tenant of democracy, self-determination, for an important argument even as they claim democracy is “not for Russia”. Is this not evidence of a total misidentification of the concept?
Before you get too smug, however, notice that America has become much less democratic itself in recent years (see gerrymandering, 2000 Presidential Elections, the PATRIOT Act, NSA surveillance, net neutrality, and this report by Princeton political scientists). My very unscientific impression here is that the United States, by way of its very imperialistic foreign policy in the last few decades, has buried not simply its own reputation, but the reputation of democracy. People may still like us personally (we’re nice!), and they may want to to be friends with us or live with us (we’re rich!), but they’re having serious doubts about following our lead. Moreover, simply following everyday heuristics, they have concluded that since America is rotten and we are democracy, democracy is therefore a rotten form of government. This hypothesis doesn’t entirely hold up, insofar as they also enjoy pointing out that America isn’t a democracy in any case, but the fact that it perhaps was at one point serves their purpose of discrediting the very idea.
So how is one supposed to respond to the accusation that democratic government is not for everyone? It’s not an entirely absurd claim; after all, by examining the peculiarities of democratic and non-democratic government in more detail, we might discover that there are forms of government more successful than ours. Yet, out of affection for my own country and my form of government, I think there’s something else we can do: realize that simply by virtue of our standing in the world for the last 100 or so years, people watch us. The best thing that we can do to promote our values and way of life is behave. We may not be a beacon on the hill, but we are all the same in the public eye.Spying, police brutality, bullying and conniving in foreign policy are all bad-neighbor behaviors. As the standard bearer of free liberal government, we are the world’s conception of free liberal government (even if we aren’t the best example of it), and therefore anything that reflects badly on us reflects badly on our ideas of governance as well. Something to be considered.
Do you think democracy is just an ideology that will be replaced by other forms of government? Why is America at once so popular and so unpopular? Do we have an obligation to be an example, or are our failures our own?