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Thursday, September 16, 2004

Democracy in America and Elsewhere:
Part II: Recent Global Trends Toward Democracy

James S. Henry and Caleb Kleppner
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Most Americans are probably used to thinking about their own political system as a shining example of “representative democracy” – not only one of modern democracy’s original pioneers, but also a contemporary role model for other emerging democracies around the globe.

Of course we are also very proud of our free markets, our relative affluence, and our occasional ambitions -- at the moment perhaps a bit muted -- to provide equal opportunities for all our citizens.

However, when we try to market our country’s best features to the rest of the world, or teach our children to be proud of their country, it is not the economy that we brag about.

Even self-styled “conservatives” usually lead, not with glowing descriptions of perfect markets and opportunities for unlimited private gain, but with our supposedly distinctive commitment to defending and expanding political democracy and human rights at home and abroad.

Namvote

Indeed, one of the most important official justifications for recent US forays into the Middle East, as well as our many other foreign interventions, has been to help bring “democracy” to supposedly backward, undemocratic societies like Iraq and Afghanistan (…and before that, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Guyana, Guatemala, Iran, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, etc. etc. etc.)

Even though, time and again, this noble commitment has turned out to be pure rhetoric, it provides such an elastic cover story for all our many transgressions that it keeps on being recycled, over and over and over again.

THE EMERGING DEMOCRACY GAP

Whatever the truth about US motives for such interventions, it may come as a surprise to learn that in the last two decades, the United States itself has actually fallen behind the rest of the democratic world in terms of “best democratic practices” and the overall representativeness of our own domestic political institutions.

Meanwhile, many developing countries have recently been making very strong progress toward representative democracy, without much help from us.

Indeed, in some cases, like South Africa, this progress was made in the face of opposition from many of the very same neoimperialists who have lately voiced so much concern about transplanting democracy to the Middle East.

While we have been resting on our democratic laurels, or even slipping backwards, the fact is that emerging democracies like Brazil, India, and South Africa, as well as many of our First World peers, have been adopting procedures for electing governments that are much more democratic at almost every stage of the electoral process than those found in the US.
Brazil_elections

The institutions they have been developing include such bedrock elements of electoral democracy as the rules for:


  • (1) Apportioning geographic boundaries for congressional districts;

  • (2) Selecting candidates and conducting campaigns;

  • (3) Qualifying and registering voters;

  • (4) Establishing effective controls over campaign finance;

  • (5) Providing equitable access to the public airwaves for campaign advertising;

  • (6) Encouraging voter turnout;

  • (7) Preventing outright vote fraud;

  • (8) Insuring that votes are accurately and quickly counted – and, if necessary, recounted;

  • (9) Insuring that voter preferences are fairly and proportionately represented in the legislative and executive branches of government; and

  • (10) Enforcing other helpful provisions, like run-off and recall provisions.

Of course effective democracy has many other crucial elements beside electoral processes alone. These include (1) the relative influence of legislative, executive, and judicial branches; (2) the concrete opportunities that ordinary citizens have -- as compared with highly-organized special interests and professional lobbyists -- to influence government decisions between elections; (3) the respective influence of private interests, religious groups, and the state; (4) the degree to which the rule of law prevails over corruption and "insider" interests; and (5) the overall degree of political consciousness and know-how.
Bond_comic_frame_15

However, fair and open electoral processes are clearly a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for effective democracy -- all these other elements simply cannot make up for their absence.

We hope that increasing the recognition of this “electoral democracy gap” between the US and the rest of the democratic world will be helpful in several ways:



  • It may make Americans more modest about our own accomplishments, and less patronizing toward other countries;
  • It may spur us to consider that we may actually have something to learn about democracy from other countries.
  • It may provide an antidote for the recent revival of anti-democratic doctrines in the US, some of have acquired a disturbing level of influence among our political elites.
  • It may help to show how our own idiosyncratic version of democracy is exerting a profound influence on this year’s profoundly dissatisfying Presidential race.

DEMOCRATIC PRAXIS - WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE THIRD WORLD?
One useful place to start is with an assessment of best practices among the growing number of democracies around the globe.

This used to be much easier than it is now. As of the early 1970s, there were only about 40 countries that qualified as “representative democracies,” and most were First World countries.


Mandela50

Since then, however, there has been a real flowering of democratic institutions in the developing world. This was partly due to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. But many more people were in fact “liberated” by the Third World debt crisis, which undermined corrupt, dictatorial regimes all over the globe, from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile to Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, and Zaire.
StoryphilippineselectionsVoting in the Philippines, 2004

Assessments of the degree of “freedom” of individual regimes by organizations like Freedom House or the UN Development Program’s Human Development Indicators, are notoriously subjective. However, while there is plenty of room for disagreement about specific countries, there is little disagreement on the overall trend. (See Table 3.)

By 2004, about 60 percent, or 119, of the nearly 200 countries on the planet could be described as “electoral democracies,” compared with less than one-third in the early 1970s. Another 25-30 percent have made significant progress toward political freedom.
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Voting in South Africa, 1994

Indeed, notwithstanding our present challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the standpoint of global democracy, this has been a banner year. As of September 2004, 32 countries had already held nationwide elections or referenda, with 886 million people voting. (See Table 4.) By the end of 2004, another 33 countries will join the US in doing so – nearly three times as many national elections as were held each year, on average, in the 1970s.

All told, this year, more than 1.7 billion adults – 42 percent of the world’s voter-age population -- will be eligible to vote in national elections, and more than 1.1 billion will probably vote. That that will make American voters less than 10 percent of the global electorate.

Of course, some of these elections will be held in countries where democratic institutions and civil liberties are still highly imperfect. And some developing countries like Russia and Venezuela have recently been struggling to find a balance between democracy and national leadership, partly to undo the effects of neoliberal policies in the 1990s, or in response to terrorist threats.

But the good news is that democracy is clearly not a “luxury good.” The demand for it is very strong even in low-income countries like Bolivia, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Guatemala, and Botswana. And while self-anointed dictators, military rulers, and one-party elites or theocracies are still clinging to power in 50-60 countries that have more than 2.4 billion residents, such regimes are more and more anachronistic. (See Table 5.)

Interestingly, Asian dictatorships, especially China and Vietnam, now account for more than three-fifths of the portion of the world’s population that still lives under authoritarian rule. While several Islamic countries appear on the list of authoritarian countries, they account for just one fifth of the total. Furthermore, by far the most important ones happen to be close US “allies” like Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

Evidently the simple-minded neoconservative “clash of cultures” model, which pits supposedly democratic, pluralist societies against an imaginary Islamic bloc, doesn’t have much explanatory power.

Furthermore, the US also clearly faces some very tough choices, if it is really serious about promoting non-discriminatory, secular democratic states that honor the separation between church and state among its Islamic allies, as well as in Palestine, and, for that matter, Israel.
Coseasttimor Voting in East Timor. 2001

A more encouraging point is that many developing countries are already providing useful lessons in democratization. Indeed, as we will see in Part III of this series, there is much to learn from the experiences of new democracies like Brazil and South Africa.

These countries are undertaking bold experiments with measures like free air time for candidates, “registration-free” voting, direct Presidential elections, electronic voting, proportional representation, and the public finance of campaigns. While not all these experiments have worked out perfectly, the fact these countries have already demonstrated a capacity to innovate in “democratic design” is very encouraging.

Of course there is a long-standing tension between the US dedication to Third World democracy and its tolerance for the independence that democratic nationalism often brings. By renewing and deepening our own commitment to democracy at home, we will also protect it abroad -- even though (as in Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and perhaps eventually also Iraq) it does not always produce governments that we agree with.

(Next: Part III: "Brazil Vs. the US -- And the Winner Is....")

***

©James S. Henry and Caleb Kleppner, SubmergingMarkets™, 2004

September 16, 2004 at 09:08 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Contemplating a fix for our broken system can only occur if US voters are ready admit to that our 'democratic system' is crumbling and needs to be re-built. I am skeptical however, that many people beyond the ones that are still rightfully bitter about the previous election, will make the connection that the problem is rooted in the system, as opposed to what is put forth in the mainstream media. That said, I have the following questions for the authors:

· How will change with respect to our electoral system come about given the failures, deficiencies, and conflicts of interest that plague our mainstream media?

· Given that both the left and the right are responsible for perpetuating the myth that the ivory tower is not crumbling what will catalyze a start to the debate? I would think that bringing this issue into the foreground of American politics is particularly challenging since on the right, continued reliance on the 'fear card' by the current administration has minimized the possibility that a debate on such a topic could ever take root. This wedge creates an army of lemmings that not only continue to fuel support for the right, but also label anybody with enough sense to question the state of our 'democratic' system as un-patriotic. On the left, the lack of a clear and cohesive message, fuels voter apathy among many who simply base our current system's deficiencies on the lack of a viable candidates as opposed to problems inherent in the system itself. What is needed to kick start the debate?

Posted by: Anthony Visone at Sep 18, 2004 8:45:02 PM

Yes, the U.S. isn't the shining democracy it pretends it is. The more I learn about the archaic, rigged, electoral infrastructure, the more appalled I am. The system is not democratic at all!

We need to start somewhere -- we need third/fourth/fifth, etc., parties, like most real democracies around the world. We could start with instant runoff voting, standardized voting standards, heck, a national voting body that would ensure fairness, accuracy, and UNIFORM voting mechanisms, like most democracies in the world.

It is discouraging that there is such an uphill battle to get there from here, in these troubling times (a country "at war"!), when we so desperately need fair elections for "regime change" right now.

Thank you for your book. I'll read it with great interest!

Posted by: Danielle at Sep 20, 2004 9:57:06 PM

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