Democracy has to be good -- not perfect

Posted: Jan 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Amid the media din about the tsunami, Dan Rather's implosion, and the usual grim news from Iraq, an amazing story has been unfolding - but has received scant appreciation from the chattering classes. Democracy is on the march.

The Ukraine election reversal is the most significant victory for democracy in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Palestinians have held the first legitimate nationwide (so to speak) election in their history (Arafat's previous "election" was a sham). And while the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, leaves much to be desired, his fair victory is significant and momentous in its own right.

Meanwhile, Iraq is preparing for its first fair elections since before Saddam Hussein came to power. Those elections won't be perfect. Heck, they may even be a disaster (though I doubt they will). But they are finally going to happen - and that very fact is amazing.

Now, it's true I'm known to be something of a "one-and-a-half cheers for democracy" kind of guy. Then again, I've also been known to eat a brick of cheddar like it was an apple, so feel free to take that with a grain of salt. Anyway, it's not that I don't like democracy, it's just that I believe there are more important things than democracy.

I would rather live in an undemocratic country with constitutional rights, fair courts, and a government that upholds the rule of law than live in a democratic country without those things. I'd also rather live in a republic where democracy is tempered and cooled through deliberation and debate. After all, direct democracy is little more than the rule of the mob with ballots instead of torches.

But that's a technical, political-sciency kind of point, lost on billions of people who not only see democracy and the rule of law as pretty much the same thing, but who also see democracy as the gateway to prosperity and normalcy. In common parlance, democracy means decent government - or at least the hope of it.

What is so astounding is how undisputed democracy is as an ideal. In 1990, Francis Fukuyama wrote an enormously influential essay for The National Interest, which remains the best English-language foreign policy journal in the world. Titled "The End of History," Fukuyama's essay argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled, well, the End of History. He didn't mean clocks would freeze and coins would stop in mid-flip, like in some twilight zone. His was a Hegelian point. Mankind had fought for millennia in an effort to figure out how to organize society. This is what pushed history forward. Liberal democracy, in all its forms, seemed to settle that argument. That was the end of history.

And that's what we are witnessing before our eyes. Indeed, throughout the 20th century even the worst dictatorships and totalitarian regimes insisted that they were "real" democracies. The Soviet Union swore up and down that it was a "republic" offering a true "peoples' democracy." From Nazi Germany to North Korea, men who ruled with jackboots and billy clubs, nonetheless felt compelled to use the language of democracy.

Saddam Hussein thought holding a sham national election would save his credibility. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a man who knows more about the proper allocation of vowels in first names than he does about democracy, has endlessly harangued America about how to create a "legitimate" democratic government in Iraq. Just this month, Libyan dictator and all-around laugh-riot Muammar Qaddafi told Al-Jazeera that America had a "shameful form of government" and that we need a real democracy. "The U.S. doesn't have a regime worth imitating. If any regime is worth imitating, it is a Libyan regime. A republic of the masses in which men and women govern themselves. A direct, popular democracy."

When dictators, theocratic potentates and totalitarians cannot even muster a vocabulary to compete with democracy, you know that democracy has won the battle of ideas.

Obviously, there will be setbacks. History moves tectonically, and, as the tsunami taught us, such processes can be less than smooth. Islamic fundamentalism, for example, rejects democracy for much the same reason - to use Bill Buckley's phrase - that baloney rejects the grinder. But does anyone doubt the ultimate conclusion of such a conflict? The jihadists aren't really competing with democracy - they're opposing it the way barbarians have always opposed modernity and civilization. They can't cope with it otherwise.

The expansive, decent version of democracy will come to the Middle East and the rest of the world - eventually. If the Iraqi elections fail, even their failure will reinforce the desire for successful elections. Many complain that in Iraq the process is too bloody or too expensive, but these critics are determined to make the perfect the enemy of the good. At the end of the tunnel we, or our children, will look back on America's role as the catalyst for democracy, and we'll be proud we were on the right side of history and its end.