11 March 2007

Have These People Ever Visited A Democracy?

John Derbyshire approvingly quotes some other Brit as saying, about Iraqi democracy, that:
The euphoria of polling day, [Saleh al-Mutlaq, a secular Sunni politician] points out, eclipsed the fact that the elections were scarcely the informed, rational contest of policies that is supposed to characterise a democracy. Inexperienced in the ways of multiparty politics after decades of totalitarianism, millions of Iraqis voted for the Sunni and Shia religious parties simply because they thought they would go to hell if they didn't. "My own brother told me that the imam in his local mosque told him to vote for the Twaffaq [a Sunni religious party] if he wanted to join Mohammed in the afterlife," said Mr Mutlaq. "And it was the same with the Shias. Their hands would shake with fear if they didn't mark the box for their religious parties."

Political choices were also made in the expectation of jobs for the boys
, a legacy of the nepotism that was a hallmark of Saddam's Ba'ath party era. Mithal al-Alusi, another secular Sunni, was convinced he was a hot ticket for prime minister when nearly 100,000 people joined his tiny, underfunded party. When they then scraped just one parliamentary seat, he realised people had only joined up in the belief that a party membership card might come in handy one day. "We had delegations of sheikhs coming up to lend us their support, but they probably went to every other party as well," he said, stirring coffee in his villa in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. "They thought they would get some sort of benefits if we got into power. That's the old way, the Ba'ath Party way, and now the Islamists are doing the same."
The glory of democracy is not that it promotes (or creates out of wholecloth) a disinterested, rational, informed electorate. The next disinterested, rational, informed electorate will be the first. Rather, democracy over time gains legitimacy as a means for sublimating ethnic or religious or class warfare. Jockeying for votes and position replaces open warfare, slavery and dictatorship. Anyone who's even heard of the NEA, Al Sharpton, James Michael Curly or AFSCME and still thinks that Iraqi democracy is differentiated from American democracy by sectarianism or jobs for the boys is simply delusional.

14 comments:

Duck said...

We don't have religious leaders telling their flock how to vote in America, surely!

Oroborous said...

A better question is, how influential are American religious leaders when they tell the flock how to vote ?

Mostly, not very.

Harry Eagar said...

Iraqis, and Arabs generally, really don't get democracy. But they get machine politics.

Harry Eagar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Duck: Well, if you don't count noting that voting for John Kerry is a sin or the symbiotic relationship between Black churches and Democratic candidates.

Harry: Yes, Iraqi democracy is characterized by machines using sectarian voting and jobs-for-the-boys to secure their base. Still sounds like Boston to me.

Harry Eagar said...

It's like Boston 1784, when the winners kicked the losers out and either killed them or made them become Canadians.

We were beginners in those days. You hardly ever see neighborhoods visited by militia of the majority party shooting the householders here any more.

It's pretty clear that to an Iraqi 'democracy' means 'we get to be the oppressors now.'

Harry Eagar said...

I have been thinking about Islamic political organization ever since having one of those 'how extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that' moments while reading Bernard Lewis. He pointed out the obvious but very strange fact that most states full of Muslims have parliaments.

Even Iran.

Yet parliaments have no tradition whatever in Islamic society or in any of the societies that Islam overrun or absorbed or lives with.

Further thought -- about majlises and councils of elders (sometimes they are like Mormon elders, not so old) -- singled out the very strong hereditary principle in both Sunni and Shia Islam. (Perhaps that is one of Islam's attractions for Orrin.)

I do not believe that heredity comes from the Koran but probably it can be supported in the hadith.

At any rate, a strong hereditary principle is inimical to democrachy. See Boston in 2007.

The form of democracy is not the same thing as democracy. Catholics elect popes and abbotts, but no one accuses the Catholics of democratic tendencies.

David said...

Harry: No one is saying that Iraq has a mature, secular democracy. Obviously, it hasn't. But it is simply nuts to say that what separates Iraq from the mature secular democracies is that Iraq lacks rational, disinterested voters and is too much concerned with jobs for the boys.

What separates Iraq from the mature secular democracies is that Iraqis don't yet accept that the way sectarian and interest group jockeying is decided is with the vote rather than the bullet. The forms of democracy are democracy; the most people who agree, win. In Iraq right now it means the Shi'ite win. In Boston, it means the Catholics win -- if the Catholics care enough to win.

joe shropshire said...

The form of democracy is not the same thing as democracy.

It would be more accurate to say that democracy is not the same thing as modernism. Orrin's pretty up-front about backing Shi'a democracy for just that reason.

Harry Eagar said...

If the forms of democracy are democracy, then Tennessee in 1940 or Russia in 1950 were democratic.

I'd hate to defend either thesis.

Might as well argue that Iraqi democracy and Swiss democracy are on equal footing because every home has its own machine gun.

As you know, I dislike the word democracy because it is so slippery. I prefer popular self-government.

I see little evidence of that in Iraq, even in embryo.

Another definition of democracy might be the consent of the people to be governed by their political opponents from time to time.

Not much evidence of that, either.

I don't think the original point about machine politics was wrong, just beside the point.

joe shropshire said...

Democracy isn't a "slippery" word just because it doesn't mean what you wished it meant, Harry. If you're saying that the modern sense of the word reads too much hope into it, you're probably right; but there's nothing in David's post to make me think he does.

Harry Eagar said...

David isn't the only person who uses the word democracy, joe.

Most educated persons who speak about it at all refer to Turkey as a democracy. If Turkey, obviously a military dictatorship, qualifies as a democracy, then the word is empty.

joe shropshire said...

Well, sure people use the word incorrectly. Maybe you do too, and maybe Orrin uses it correctly when he calls, say, Palestine under Hamas a democracy. That doesn't make the word empty, unless "empty" means "not useful to Harry."

David said...

Harry: I urge you to get your own blog. It would be fascinating.

Feel free to hijack the comment threads in my blog. I'm sure that what you want to talk about will stir up more comments.

But I would appreciate it if you would leave the posts alone. My point here was that Derbyshire, et al., are mistaken if they really think that democracy is characterized by a disinterested and rational electorate with no thought of personal profit. That would make true Iraqi democracy a chimera -- although it would do the same for American democracy. The point is that democracies work by getting opposing interest groups (including religious sects) to accept that they win or lose in the ballot box, not by bullet. America, too, has factions that are opposed to one another, that are vying for jobs and power, that even are religiously based just like Iraq. But in the United States we (mostly) accept that the person who gets the most votes wins and that the losers don't and can't overturn that result in the streets with bullets and IEDs.

Now, as for the forms of democracy. If by that you mean simply that someone somewhere gets to case votes for something, then you're correct: that's not necessarily democracy. But it is worth noting that there is no government so corrupt, so dictatorial and so immune to international opinion that they don't try to cloak their true nature behind the vote.

When it comes to actual democracy -- the person with the most votes wins -- I'm with Hayek. We shouldn't make a fetish of democracy if some other system works better. The annoying thing about democracy, as it happens, is that it works too well. There is no reason that tallying the opinion of everyone over 18 should result in a particularly good answer and yet democracies tend to be better governed than the alternatives. It's almost enough to give you faith in G-d.