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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Elections and Democracy

Elections, leading to democracy, are of course the centerpiece of the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq. Universal, equal voting has indeed become the only real source of legitimacy in the western world during the last two centuries, and remains one of the United States' greatest gifts to civilization. Yet the rich and varied history of democracy, both in the United States and elsewhere, shows that elections only contribute to true freedom and social peace within the context of an enduring consensus on fundamental questions and mutual respect across ethnic and regional lines. When consensus fails, elections merely reveal the extent of division with a society and can pave the way for civil war or the disintegration of the state. Meanwhile, developments both in the United States and Iraq are raising another question: how can an Administration promote true democracy abroad while trying to undermine it at home?

Nowadays, when the idea of the unstoppable, continuous advance of democracy has become conventional wisdom, we forget that its spread during the twentieth century, even in Europe, has been distinctly uneven. In the wake of the First World War all the new or enlarged states of Eastern Europe--Poland, the three Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Romania, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Bulgaria--began as democracies, but by the mid-1930s nearly all of them were under some form of military or authoritarian rule. (The same shift, of course, occurred in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933.) The case of Czechoslovakia, a state composed mainly of Czechs, Slovaks and Germans, was especially tragic and especially revealing. Originally the new state organized multi-ethnic political parties based upon economic principles or upon religion, but a revival of German nationalism during the 1930s had a dramatic effect. In 1935 the neo-Nazi Sudeten German Party, led by Konrad Henlein, swept the elections in the German districts, and began agitating for autonomy. Hitler adopted their cause in 1937-38 and used it to bring about the break-up of Czechoslovakia at the Munich crisis. The election of 1935, in short, had proven that the Sudeten Germans, as they were called, no longer wanted to live in a unified Czechoslovak state, and the international community accepted that verdict.
The story of the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and its subsequent history, together with developments in other parts of Europe through the twentieth century and continuing until today, is a sober reminder of a great failure of western civilization: our inability to devise political systems or ideologies that will enable members of different ethnic and religious groups to live together indefinitely in peace. (My book, Politics and War, discusses this at length.) When Nazi Germany fell in 1945, the Czechs convinced the Soviets and the western powers to put Czechoslovakia back together--but they also secured permission to expel the three million Sudeten Germans as punishment, in effect, for having broken the state up. (The displacement of more than ten million Germans from territory that was given to Poland and the Soviet Union in 1945, and from various Eastern European countries as well, was one of the greatest acts of ethnic cleansing in history.) And when in the early 1990s Czechoslovakia threw off the Soviet yoke, it became apparent that the Slovaks had never become accustomed to Czech domination either, and the belief of those who in the 1930s had argued that the state was a purely artificial construction was in effect borne out. The same thing happened, of course, at far greater human cost, in Yugoslavia.

In Iraq today, President Bush sees progress because of the increased Sunni participation in the referendum that approved the constitution, but the results of that election seem much more likely to break Iraq up than to democratize it. The Shi'ites and Kurds, having crafted a constitution that will allow them to set up quasi-independent states in the south and in thenorth, voted overwhelmingly for the constitution; the Sunnis, who still hope to rule a united Iraq, overwhelmingly rejected it, even though they barely failed to get the 2/3 negative vote in three provinces that would have sent the drafters back to the drawing board. The next round of elections on December 15 will probably confirm these results. Nothing suggests that the Sunnis will accept the disintegration of the country--or Shi'ite domination of a united Iraq--simply because they have been outvoted.

And thus, the coming elections, sadly, may resemble the American election that we would rather forget--the election of 1860. That election chose Abraham Lincoln by a large popular plurality--but it also showed that the break between the North and West on the one hand and the South on the other had become complete and irrevocable. Lincoln and Southern Democrat John Breckenridge won a total of 252 electoral votes (180 for Lincoln); centrist candidates Stephen Douglas and John Bell won 41. Secession and civil war followed immediately.
The situation in Iraq deeply disturbs the other Arab nations in the region because the Sunni-Shi'ite fault line threatens to tear apart many of the states created after the First World War, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Bahrain, and others. That is the powder keg which the decision to remove Saddam Hussein is now igniting in Iraq, where civil war in mixed areas has already begun. Should the conflict spread, the Middle East will live in great turmoil for many years.
And meanwhile, the revelation that American military authorities have been paying Iraqi newspapers to print American-produced stories raises further doubts about the sincerity of the Bush Administration's democratic push. As many commentators have already noted, this policy, whether approved in Washington or not, clearly reflects the Administration's image of democracy, since they have been caught two or three times paying journalists within the United States (and since Fox News and Clear Channel function as propaganda arms of the Administration.) The Republicans run the Congress in defiance of democratic principles. House Democrats rarely can propose amendments to legislation, and the Republican leadership uses conference committees--originally designed to reconcile the two houses--to rewrite legislation in ways that neither house has approved. The Republicans went to the Supreme Court to bypass the will of the voters of Florida in 2000 and overruled career attorneys to get Tom Delay's Texas redistricting plan approved by the Justice Department, padding their majority. Democracy, to them, is a system to be manipulated to get a majority into power, to enable that majority to do whatever it wants. No one should be surprised that our public diplomacy is failing. The world can see through the product we are trying to sell.

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