Saturday, November 22, 2008

Don't Know Much About Democracy

At several different times in various posts here and conversations at work and elsewhere, I have been really surprised at the lack of understanding of what, exactly, democracy really is. One might think this is a problem relegated to certain fringes, both left and right, I have found it to be far more widespread.

I got thinking about this subject after reading Matt Yglesias' highlight of a discussion on proposed constitutional changes underway in Russia. After noting that (a) the measure, which would appear to allow Vladimir Putin to run again for the Presidency, is popular in most of Russia, outside the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg; (b) both Putin and the current President Medvedev, are wildly popular in Russia, he goes on to write the following reflection:
I like how the elected parliament voting to enact a popular measure constitutes a “giant crack” in the foundation of Russian democracy. Oh well.


There is a tendency to view the democratic actions of other nation-states through the quite-natural prism of our own interest. Is it in the American national interest to have Vladimir Putin rule as President? It might be, it might not be. Yet, as he is both popular and effective, and has been elected under Russian law and through the democratic institutions as they exist in Russia, I would hardly call it "undemocratic" to make it possible for people to vote the way they want.

I have seen similar commentary in regards to Pres. Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Many of the right call him "dictator". He may be, he may not be. Yet, what he most definitely is is the democratically elected head of state. He even managed to survive a coup carried out with American help (and we wonder why he isn't all that friendly toward us . . .).

Closer to home, during the discussion at Sadly, No! that featured something I had written, it became clear that one reason for Brad's frustration with my own position was a deeply held contempt for the intelligence and perspicacity of the American people. Rooted in the frustrations not just of the past eight years, but of most of the Republican era - it seems the American people vote for Republicans, and then are shocked that they enact policies Republicans would enact! - there is an abiding disregard for the intelligence of the average American voter. Thus, Brad would have preferred a campaign that heightened resentment and rage at the many faults and failings of the Republican ruling party.

To my mind this is a highly undemocratic reflex, i.e., to assume that people don't vote the way one would like them to because they are either unintelligent, uninformed, or gullible, or some combination thereof. Actually, people support different political parties and politicians for a variety of reasons, some of them quite rational, some not so rational. The thing is, though, that regardless of the reasons, even had the election turned out different this past fall, it would have been reflective of the will of the people.

I trust the American people. It has taken me a long time to let go of my own inherent contempt for people who think and vote different than I do, but it is just a difference, neither an intellectual nor moral failing. Sure there are stupid people who supported John McCain; there were also stupid people who supported Barack Obama, and my guess is that both attracted about an equal share of the "Duh" vote, or at least roughly equivalent to their total vote (in other words, Obama probably got more stupid people to vote for him, but he got more people in general to vote for him).

So, whether its other countries doing things that we think are not in our interest, yet are reflective of their own preferences, or elections that don't turn out the way we might have liked, I think it undemocratic to say, in the former, "They're being undemocratic!", or in the latter, "But the people who voted that way are just dumb!" Democracy is a messy business and, sadly, you have to take the good with the bad.

Virtual Tin Cup

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