Friday, April 04, 2003

Hart's Question about Democracy, Liberality and Community


In the first item of real political substance on his new blog, Gary Hart brings up an issue that demands some serious reflection--though he himself doesn't actually provide any. He writes:


"For Bush administration hard-liners, this [war] is the first in a string of battles to 'liberate' so much of the Islamic world as is not 'democratic'....But serious foreign policy thinkers have pointed out that 'democracy' is not necessarily liberality. What if, for example, the first 'free' Iraqi elections produce President Mullah Omar? Do we then overthrow a democratically elected theocracy? Has Dick Cheney thought this far ahead?"


Maybe Cheney has; I wouldn't know. From the way he asks the question one might assume that that Hart has, but if so, he doesn't spell out his thoughts on the matter. After bringing up the potential disconnect between liberal values and democratic practices, he makes a familiar plea to "strengthen existing international institutions, including the UN, and design new ones, including, for example, an international peace-making force." I completely agree that more attention must be paid to international institutions, and I do think that an international peace-keeping force could well become a crucial feature of a more just future (though whether the United Nations, and the whole web of supposedly "supranational" laws and practices which it embodies and defends, is ultimately the right model to adhere to in constructing such a future is something I doubt). But Hart's complaint with the Bush administration's current policies (or rather, the by-now familiar neoconservative interpretation of those policies) focuses, at least in part, on an issue which is quite distinct from any possible strengthening of international institutions: namely, what about those nations which would contribute to such a strengthening? Are they democratic? Do we want them to be democratic? And what do we do if they are not? In this same post, Hart links to a recent speech of his, which seems to promise some close consideration of these questions. But no luck; though he states that one of the key principles of "America's Role in the 21st-Century World" should be to "encourage democracy—especially among regional powers—including forms of democratic government possibly different in design and structure from our own," he doesn't give any attention to what the preferable (or even acceptable) range of differences in design or structure might be. Despite spending a couple of paragraphs of his speech talking about the connection between democratization, China, and security in East Asia, he drops entirely the question at the heart of his original complaint: what if the democracies which we encourage (or, in the case of Iraq, import) do not turn out liberal, and thus do not join Western nations in the pursuit of liberal goals?


This is really too bad for Hart, because there is no region of the world about which more research has been published that addresses these same questions of democracy and liberalism than East Asia. For starters, he could have considered the wonderful work of Daniel A. Bell, particularly East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia and his edited volume, Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia. The latter is especially interesting. Thanks to Fareed Zakaria's recent arguments, the conventional wisdom about "illiberal democracy" will probably soon coalesce around the idea that such forms of government are by definition a threat to liberty itself; but in the aforementioned work, Bell and his co-authors make the (I think) much more nuanced argument that several nations in East Asia (particularly Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) are developing democratic systems which internalize local values and preferences that are particular to their own national cultures--and that includes their own cultural (in these cases, mostly Confucian) conceptions of liberty. This is not an apology for authoritarianism; scholars like Bell clearly recognize and condemn the way democratic or "popular culture" rhetoric can and has been used to preserve simple autocratic privilege. Still, they insist that it is foolish to assume that all "illiberal" acts, when democratically chosen, are all equally inimical to what we would call liberal principles, no matter what cultural or national context they occur in.


Part of the confusion here, as I have discussed before, is simply terminological. Is liberalism a political philosophy, a normative and/or descriptive account of political reality, or is it primary a theory or posture towards the application and interpretation of such accounts? Usually, when people in the United States or Europe speak of "liberal democracy" they tend to think in a manner which supports the former view; democracy, in this sense, serves as the essential concomitant to the realization of a certain philosophy of human and social being. Since individuality and independence are held, under philosophical liberalism, to be the final and proper condition of humankind, the democracies which exist need to be such that they always promote and protect, in the end, just such individuality and independence. But if, as Michael Walzer suggested in his article "On Negative Politics," liberal can be taken as an adjective, then a different relationship to democracy, and the community or culture which governs itself democratically, may be discerned. Democracy, after all, is a practice tied to political or social body, not a definition of that body. It is a means, an expression and reflection of certain assumptions about how best to be true to what that body collectively affirms regarding itself and its prefered ends; it is not the ends themselves. Those ends will be accounted for by a different, perhaps more communitarian, perhaps more religious (or even, as I suggested a couple of days ago, more fundamentalist) philosophy. What is happening in many nations in Pacific Asia, and in many of the nations which concern Zakaria, is the development of democratic communities which are not (surprise!) Western: they are Confucian, or Muslim, or something else. Of course, one shouldn't just leave it at that: the historical, theological and structural components of "Confucian" and "Islamic" societies are neither clear nor undisputed (just as they aren't for "Western" nations either), and hence one musn't feel obliged to simply take all such culture-bound claims at their word without any critique. Nonetheless, it is entirely coherent to speak of, say, "Confucian-communitarian democracies," and then, after having recognized how their ends diverge from the distinctly Western, European, pseudo- (or post-) Judeo-Christian liberalism by which we have come to measure our democracies, begin going about the business of asking how those kind of democracies might be made more "liberal" (in the adjectival sense).


To return to Hart's original question: say Mullah Omar, or someone like him, is elected president in the first free and fair Iraqi election. Well, that certainly wouldn't be good for any sort of "liberality," much less the region's stability. But if Hart really thinks that someone needs to be asking these questions (and he's right), then he should also be thinking about the full range of possible answers. The options are not simply (as I think his question meant to imply) either a democratically legitimated regime of Mullah Omars, on the one hand, or a costly, long-term American presence in Iraq until they finally get their democracy "right" on the other. There is, among other possible options, the example of Turkey. As David Remnick brilliantly explored in this New Yorker article, the long struggle between the military, devoted secularists, and equally devoted Muslims to control Turkey as it has modernized and democratized has had all sorts of tragic costs; but at the present moment, Turkey is ruled by an avowedly Islamist party that is finding a way to present its very popular, culturally and religiously-grounded ideas in a language that, while obviously conservative (and thus arguably "illiberal," at least in the more perfectionist sense), is by no means outside the range of opinions which can effectively be incorporated into a democracy which still affirms basic liberties. Remnick quoted a very Americanized and liberal journalist named Cengiz Candar, who argued that "Turkey is developing a synthesis of democracy and Islam....the Justice and Development Party [the ruling Islamic party] sees itself as a conservative party" (like the traditional Christian Democratic parties in Western Europe, Remnick adds) "and the core leadership tends to the political center, not Sharia" (or Islamic law). Of course, it may not work: Turkey may end up in civil war, and so might Iraq. So surely, if it's democracy and liberty which everybody wants (or at least hopes for), then yes, we need to ask careful questions about their relationship and meaning, and Hart is right to do so. But if we are to be attentive to the whole range of possible answers, we may find some which don't fit perfectly into Hart's rather polemical intention.