Friday, December 7, 2007

The Survival of Democracy

It's in the news that Putin's party won big time by stuffing ballot boxes and intimidating voters. It's also in the news that nobody much cared. The country is stable. People aren't being shot in the streets. What's wrong with only getting the party line?

The big conclusion is that Russia is returning to a Soviet style dictatorship.

Is that a bad thing?

Before the nails get hammered to far in, let me say I like living in a democracy. I don't care much for the current demonstration-- I remember a time when an American could visit other countries and not get spit on. But I digress. As Churchill said, there's not much to recommend democracy except it's better than any other form.

I agree with that as it's stated. However, I also agree with the notion that "not as good" is not the same as "reprehensibly bad". A bad government can be bad regardless of type. The government that ruled the antebellum south was in fact a democracy if you were not a slave. All voting systems determine who is eligible to vote. We do it now. The Greeks defined voting privileges by owning property. In this case, slaves were constitutionally defined to be non-citizens. Further, the slaves were badly treated both before emancipation and afterwards. I think we can consider the whole United States from the point of view of a slave as a bad democracy. But if that's too controversial, we can certainly label slaveholding states as bad democracies. Certainly, the governments of Stalin and Hitler could be considered bad governments and they were not democracies at all. By contrast, was the government of Augustus Caesar, certainly non-democratic by our definition, a good government? I submit that it was.

So: my initial idea is whether a government is good or bad is independent of its mechanism. Perhaps a democracy might do better in the long roun or worse, but I'm not pursuing that.

Good government can go bad and bad government can become worse. A truism, right?

One great corrupter of government is war, not from the conquering army but in the fire of self-destruction. Often allied with this corruption is an unwavering ideology. This one-two punch of preparing for war and driven by an unwavering ideology is what I think sunk the Soviet Union. In fact, we're seeing it now. Putin is doing fine. He's operating in about the same level of control as Krushchev. Putin is no Hitler or Stalin but he is in control and Russia is not a democracy any more than the Soviet Union was. The Soviet Union had elections, too.

What makes the Putin of Russia different from the Krushchev of the Soviet Union is two fold: 1) He is unfettered by any inconvenient ideology such as Communism. 2) He knows the West will not invade.

It's hard today to realize how the Soviet Union from the moment of it's creation was under attack both by other countries and by insurgents. Nobody in Europe liked the Czar but when he was deposed, Europeans liked Communism less. It was viewed as a threat to Capitalism. It was viewed as a threat to stability-- here was a revolution on their very doorstep. The Soviet Union was born in a state of war and never left it. Even after we were allies in World War II as soon as the ink drie on the treaties we were telling the Soviets how bad we thought they were.

Not to say Stalin wasn't an evil and despicable man. He was. Not to say he didn't kill millions of people. He did. But he died. And when Krushchev came to power-- a very different man from Stalin-- we painted him with the same brush. We see it now. What keeps Fidel in power? We do by telling Cuba what a terrible threat he is we put Fidel in the wonderful position of saying: Look. I am all that stands between you and the Americanos. Support me because the alternative is worse.

Speaking of Fidel, Cuba is another country that has kept itself on a war footing for nearly fifty years. The country has nearly been bankrupted by it. I submit that Raul Castro has been able to soften Cuba's position not only because Fidel is sick but because the United States has been trumped by the global market which does not view Cuba as a threat. I predict, though, that if the US does not back down from stupidly continuing to marginalize Cuba, Raul or his successor might return to the psuedo-wartime rhetoric of Fidel.

No country's economy or quality of life can stand being on a war footing for long without severe damage.

The US put an enormous amount of pressure on Nicaragua in the eighties-- compromising our own constitution to do so-- just so the Sandinistas could lose by 41% to 55% in 1990. Bush I thought this was great, neglecting after ten years of war, the fall of the Soviet Union and a series of natural disasters 41% still thought the Sandinistas were the right government. It was rarely pointed out that the Sandinistas ceded power without violence-- something that should not have happened if they had been the terrible villains they were described to be. The return to power of the Sandinistas in 2006 was never mentioned in the news.

One reason Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became and remains President of Iran is based on how he is treated and continues to be treated by the West. Certainly, he's a buffoon. But so what? We have our own buffoon and we demand he be treated with respect. The President of Iran deserves no less and by not doing so we are one of the reasons he remains in power.

Israel also has problems of being on a war footing for sixty years. But I won't discuss Israel in this post. It's too big a subject.

Given all of the above, why are we surprised by excesses of Bush and Cheney? We have allowed ourselves to be put on a war footing. To be duped into a stupid war in Iraq and thereby ignore a legitimate conflict in Afghanistan. We are being pushed around by exactly the same rhetoric used by Putin, Ahmadinejad and Reagan.

Put a country on a war footing and bad things happen. The best that can be hoped for is to keep it short and dump stupidity whenever we see it.

That's
the reason that democracy is the best of the bunch. Because we can.

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