Requirements for Democracy

Thursday, August 2. 2007

The Iraqi elections of January 2005 were, according to President Bush, “A major milestone” on the way to a democratic nation. But the notion that having elections is all that is needed for democracy is a very simple-minded notion; many dictatorships hold elections, and while we might note that the Iraqi elections may have offered more choice than would be present at the elections within dictatorships, there are still complications that hinder the growth of democracy.

There are a number of characteristics in the population that are necessary for the growth and development of a viable, thriving democracy. Honor, and honesty, is notable. Tolerance of differences is extremely important. Generosity, or selflessness, plays a large part. Shared values of respect for life, nature, and property are a necessity.

Honor actually includes many elements necessary for a stable society. We depend on the ability to predict the behavior of others for our own safety and security. As a trivial example, we expect, eating in a restaurant or a home, to be provided with safe and generally wholesome food. As a matter of honor, we expect the restaurateur or homeowner to do his or her best as conditions permit, and to be open and honest about what we are being served. The deceitful or dishonest merchant rarely prospers in an open, democratic society.

The politician likewise must be characterized as a man or woman of honor. In a democratic society, he must be open and honest about what he stands for and what he intends to do once elected to office. One of the difficulties in running for office is the temptation to tell the public what the politician (or his advisors) what they think the public wants to hear. So in a question of any controversy, the politician is tempted to promise what he cannot or simply does not intend to perform. Many politicians, with this degree of dishonor, do get elected.

Worse are those whose dishonesty moves to the collection of money for specific behaviors, votes or influences, antithetical to what his electorate believes he stands for. In some instances, blackmail, extortion, physical threats to the politician or his family, may occur. For the honorable politician, the value of his honesty is greater than the value of his money. In the event of physical danger, there must be honorable recourse to institutions of security. In the United States, one could hope the police forces or Federal Bureau of Investigation would be honorable resources for security. In Iraq, that may be more problematic, where sectarian religion seems to outweigh honor.

Tolerance is necessary for democracy. The society must recognize that there are substantial differences in background, culture, values within a heterogeneous population, and realize that that is generally not a bad thing. Ironically, intolerance is one characteristic which should not be tolerated.

In the United States, the kind of intolerance demonstrated as racial bigotry has become much less a factor than it had been last century. There are still racists, who will look at people of another race with contempt, but most of them are at least aware they are not supposed to do that, and most Americans realize they should look beyond surface appearances, for the most important characteristics within. There is a children’s song, used in many churches, that includes the lines “Red and Yellow, Black and White, they are precious in his sight…”. The song, of course, is Christian. I cannot imagine it or any variation of it sung in one of the Wahhabi schools of Islam. Yet this notion of tolerance for peoples of other races, cultures and religions is vital to a modern democracy. You cannot have a democracy if the central notion of a substantial part of the population is to kill those who are different from them.

Generosity, or selflessness, is an extremely important characteristic for a democracy. There will always be those among us for whom greed is a primary motivation. Yet in a democracy, there must be a common understanding that people are not equally endowed or equally fortunate, and that the poorest and least fortunate among us should not be cast in the dustbin of society. The consequences of the failure of a society in this characteristic were notably described many years ago the the Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. In modern times, we see Fatah being elected in Palastine, only to be replaced in many areas by Hamas, because the Fatah leaders were seen as corrupt– an attitude of “now we’re in power, I can get mine” regardless of the needs of the public that elected them.

In the United States, it would seem that selflessness is not an issue; we have quite a prosperous population, and even the poorest seem not so bad off. But all of this is a matter of degrees and perceptions. The public sees movie stars and star athletes being paid hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars, and may envy the money but sees the contribution. What are they to think of the half a billion dollars a company pays to get rid of a chief executive officer? It is probably fortunate (for them) that corporate CEOs rarely pass through the poorest parts of American cities.

Shared values, especially regarding the value of life, is extremely important. If one’s religion and culture does not value life, how can one’s surrounding society not feel threatened by that religion or culture? Again, these are not usually absolutes; the trouble lies in trying to discern who is the absolutist. If a religion is perceived as teaching that those who do not believe are infidels whose life has no value, how can the outside culture not feel threatened? It is true that most Muslims do not go around murdering non-Muslims, but how is one to know one is safe in the presence of a practicing Muslim, a question that becomes more important as the stridency of the religious increases.

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