Democratic Institutions

17 July 2010


It has become an oft-repeated commonplace that democracy is more than holding elections. This commonplace of political wisdom has come about from the dissatisfying attempts at democratization around the world, when elections have been held but either their mandates have not been heeded or the election becomes a mere stamp of approval upon an authoritarian system that would have ruled in any case.

There was a book published in 2002 by Yale Law School professor Amy Chua titled World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability. The book garnered much acclaim as well as criticism. Its basis thesis is that premature free market democracy empowers commercially successful minorities, which in turn causes resentment among dispossessed majorities, which attracts the manipulation and scapegoating of opportunistic politicians. It is a sad story that had been repeated time and again around the world. it is also a story that begs as many questions as it purports to answer. (Moreover, like every other effort of this kind, it cannot deal honestly and openly with questions of ethnicity because it is forbidden on pain of career suicide to do so in the contemporary Western world.)

Amy Chua

In other words, the book deals with disproportionately successful minorities and the response of majorities to them, and this has profound consequences for putatively democratic societies — that is to say, societies that have elections but do not have other “democratic institutions.” (Allow me to also point out that there is more than one way to be “successful” as we all know. The definitions of success are many and varied. World on Fire considers commercially successful minorities. The case with academically successful minorities is rather different.) The message here is that elections are not enough, and that societies must have democratic institutions that transcend mere elections if their elections are to foster a truly democratic society.

In this connection one especially thinks of US attempts at nation-building and democratization from the Cold War to the present day. My favorite quote on this (dating from even before the Cold War) can be found Niall Ferguson’s Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, in the form of a dialogue between Walter Page, a US representative in London, and British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, regarding the military coup in Mexico in 1913:

‘Suppose you have to intervene, what then?’
‘Make ’em vote and live by their decisions.’
‘But suppose they will not so live?’
‘We’ll go in and make ’em vote again.’
‘And keep this up for 200 years?’ asked he.
‘Yes’, said I. ‘The United States will be here for two hundred years and it can continue to shoot men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves.’

Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, p. 291

I am not providing this quote merely for its comedic value, though it is quite funny. More profoundly, it illustrates a striking difference in world views. Niall Ferguson himself takes this lesson from it:

“Since Woodrow Wilson’s intervention to restore the elected government in Mexico in 1913, the American approach has too often been to fire some shells, march in, hold elections and then get the hell out — until the next crisis. Haiti is one recent example; Kosovo another. Afghanistan may yet prove to be the next.”

Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, p. 315

This is not the lesson that I take from the dialogue. For Ferguson, the British solution would have been to simply take over Mexico. In other words, if the US had followed the British example it would have extended direct US rule — hence American institutions — to Mexico. The American perspective, as represented above by Walter Page, is to start with the minimal democratic institution of elections, and let the locals work things out from there. In other words, to let them work it out their own way. This point of view has come under considerable criticism of late, but I would like to defend it.

There is a familiar litany of the many institutions that contribute to a robust democracy that is more than just the expression of the popular will in holding elections. These include, for example, a free press, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and, generally speaking, an absence of coercion and violence in the political process. The constituents of this litany are the celebrated democratic institutions that go beyond minimal democratic elections, and they are certainly political institutions that are to be admired. But are they institutions to be copied and replicated? That is another question.

Lately I have been listening, for the second time, to The Teaching Company’s long set of lectures about US History. When I first listened to this a few years ago it made a lasting impression on me. It is quite simply one of the best treatments of US history that I have perused. The Teaching Company has since released a second edition, with different lecturers, but I haven’t listened to this yet, partly because I don’t want to spoil the incredible effect that the original had on me. So I have returned to the first edition and started listening to it from the beginning again, and am enjoying it as much as I enjoyed it before.

The lesson that I am taking from this listening is the extent to which the democratic institutions of the US political system are deeply embedded in the particularities and peculiarities of North American history. More than a hundred years before the American Revolution, some of the distinctive institutions of what is now the US government were already taking shape in the variously constituted colonies. Venerable democratic institutions such as religious toleration, a bicameral legislature, and factionalism culminating in a two-party system, were the product of particular circumstances internal to the development of history in North America. For example, Darren Staloff cites the “Goody Sherman’s Sow” case as the trigger that resulted in a fully bicameral separation of the colonial legislature in Massachusetts.

In so far as what we call “democratic institutions” are deeply embedded in the life and history of the peoples of North America, and of their experience of colonizing a frontier (as well as other experiences, of course), such institutions are not likely to transplant very well into other circumstances that involve other peoples, their lives, and their histories.

What can be said in favor of the minimally democratic institution of elections is that they are quantitative and objective, and for that reason carry with them the fewest traces of cultural identity and peculiarity that make institutions suitable for one people but not necessarily suitable for another people. With elections, we can leave people to sort out for themselves the best institutions that serve their culture in the context of their history. The more we attempt to impose specific institutions on another people, the less likely that imposition is to be successful.

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2 Responses to “Democratic Institutions”

  1. T. Greer said

    A question, almost entirely unrelated to the post above:

    I have noticed over the course of your posts that you do not seem to read half as many books as you do listen to recordings of them. Any particular reason for this preference?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Greer,

      It is entirely a function of time. In the course of my work day I commute and run a lot of errands, so I make use of this time in my vehicle by always listening to books or lectures while driving. In this way I have been through a great many books from cover to cover that I would otherwise only have skimmed. And I sometimes listen through a book two or three times to get as much out of it as I can.

      When I discover a recorded book of particular interest to me, I often also acquire the book in printed form and read passages in the book more or less simultaneously as I listen to it (sometimes several times). At that point I pursue the method I described in my comment to Nerve Agent’s post on Notetaking: My endless intellectual crisis (and which you described abandoning), photocopying and annotating interesting passages, and collecting these in file folders or binders for ready reference.

      Since I have so little spare time, and what spare time I do have I usually spend furiously writing down ideas before I lose them rather than reading, what reading I do is usually skimming the kind of texts that aren’t likely to be turned into a recorded book. And then when I find the passage I am seeking, that I read with great care. It is an admittedly highly imperfect system, but until I win the lottery that is how I am likely to proceed.

      I think that most persons of a philosophical disposition have had the experience that reading carefully can be a process that is almost painfully slow, since each sentence seems to call forth an idea and a response, and each idea and response snowball into something of unmanageable size. This is, in any case, often my experience, so much so that if I tried to read everything that I listen to, I would never finish anything. Again, it is an issue of time, but seen in this more radically comprehensive context, time reaches all the way to mortality.

      Best wishes,


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