What is democracy?

Charles Ingrao, a Purdue University professor currently on a Fulbright in Cyprus, writes:

This spring marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the wars in former Yugoslavia.  Many observers have pointed out the irony that such conflicts could have broken out just as formerly Communist Eastern Europe was experiencing democracy for the first time.  Perhaps it is ironic that the democratization process would coincide with the violent dissolution of formerly stable countries like Yugoslavia.  But it was not coincidental.  Understanding the conflict there and in other ethnically divided societies requires us to examine the role that the democratic process plays in destabilizing multiethnic societies.    After all, countries like India, Iraq, Nigeria, the Russian Federation, Rwanda, Sri Lanka – and Cyprus – were relatively free of interethnic violence when ruled by imperial or other authoritarian rulers.  Even after dissolution, many “successor states” like Bosnia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo, and Macedonia remain tensely divided between democratically elected governments and disaffected residual minorities.

Obviously ethnic nationalism plays a huge role in such conflicts, especially when political leaders deliver a message that divides society into separate and competing religious and language groups.  Dictators sometimes do this but, more often, the message is delivered by democratically elected politicians who either crave the voting power of majority groups or then mobilize ethnic minorities around them by exploiting their fear of persecution.

The good news is that democracy itself is not the problem.  Rather it is the incomplete – and therefore, imperfect – definition of what it means that has caused the destruction of countries like Yugoslavia.  Most people merely equate democracy with free elections, majority rule and, perhaps, a free press.  Unfortunately, such a simplistic definition is a sure recipe for the “tyranny of the majority”.

The reality is that democracy needs to be supported by a series of cultural and institutional ingredients that are absolutely indispensable for the sustenance of a free and stable society.  One is the rule of law – and the confidence that it will protect everyone equally, not just the party in power.  Another crucial attribute is a system of checks & balances against the arrogance of political leaders that is largely derived from the “mixed governments” of the feudal system that evolved in the western half of Europe during the high middle ages.

Western European society also contributed the “liberal” values of the 18th-century Enlightenment that championed the rights of the individual citizen to be tolerated — despite being different from others — and accepted to the point of accommodating their different religious beliefs, language preferences, etc.  Individual rights were also to be protected by the vigilant enforcement of the law with equity by professional administrative and judicial officials who are impervious to favoritism and corruption.  Finally, the Enlightenment attached tremendous value to secular education and knowledge, while the dearth of factual knowledge was to be qualified by skepticism; hence the claim by one philosopher that, “In a democracy, ignorance is a crime!”  Moreover, knowledge needed to be processed by rational thinking, rather than by emotion or prejudice.

Finally, after a century of national conflict, ethnic cleansing and genocide, scholars have stressed the importance of a common national identity, preferably one based on a shared historical narrative that celebrates the contributions of all citizens, not just those belonging to a single gender, religion, race, language group, etc.

As an American who has spent his adult life studying Europe, I would be the first to admit that the process of sustaining all of these attributes demands constant self-awareness and vigilance – and that my own country lags behind much of Western Europe in fully realizing the ideal.   But no society can ever claim to have “succeeded” at democracy, only that they are in the process of doing so.

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