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Western democracy fails
in too many ways



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

February 13, 2006

LONDON - The Western democracies, so keen on exporting their political model to the rest of the world, seem to be perfecting the art of shooting themselves in the foot, and I'm not even going to mention the war in Iraq.

The cartoon affair which showed up Danish democracy as religiously illiterate at the onset and by last week's end defensively bigoted was preceded only two weeks earlier by President Jacques Chirac of France boldly announcing that any (presumably Islamic) nation that supported groups that tried to use terrorism and weapons of mass destruction against France should expect a nuclear riposte.

In an age when a terrorist group could at best detonate a so-called "dirty bomb", conventional explosives wrapped around some stolen nuclear waste and kill at most a thousand people, or biological weapons like the anthrax letters that killed all of half a dozen people in the U.S. four years' ago, this was showing a European democracy at its most tendentious not to say callous and barbaric.

Democracies seem presently so intent on revealing an ugly side that, unless one absorbed it with one's mother's milk as most westerners have, present practice might dissuade one for all time.

All that democracy appears capable of at the moment, to quote Professor John Dunn of Cambridge University in his magisterial new study of the subject, is to make "Europe's bigotries and parochialisms a global world-historical force, instead of a mere local deformity or a continental stigma."

Alas, for all its failing the world has no better idea, as Winston Churchill famously declared. The twentieth century saw all sorts of experiments from fascism to national socialism, to anarchism, to monarchism, to Marxism, to theocracy and all came undone. Out of the ferocious competition between political ideas democracy came out well on top. But today, as Dunn writes, "the term democracy has become (as the Freudians put it) too highly cathected: saturated with emotion, irradiated by passion, tugged to and fro and ever more overwhelmed by accumulated confusion. To rescue it as an aid in understanding politics, we need to think our way past a mass of history and block our ears to many pressing importunities."

We need to know far more about it than we do. President Bush, for example, has declared that, "the reason I'm so strong on democracy is democracies don't go to war with each other." Indeed, much academic research has proved his point and it is an important and good one. But democracies have a terrible record of going to war against non-democracies, often on the flimsiest excuse. Look at America's nineteenth century war against Spain. Britain, a recent study has revealed, has gone to war more times in the last hundred years than any other country in the world.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that Plato was against the democracy of his homeland, Athens. Plato believed that in the best form of government philosophers would rule. Historians have wondered why he was so against democracy. Was it because he was from a rich landed family and Athenian democracy seemed to be in favour of more equal income distribution? Or was it because a democratic state had sentenced to death his teacher, Socrates, falsely accusing him of impiety and treading on Greeks' religious sensibilities? But it was also because Plato saw democracy as the rule of the foolish, vicious and always potentially brutal.

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Athenian democracy flourished but then the idea faded away for the best part of 2000 years. The Romans had little time for it. It returned, called something else, in the struggle for American independence and a few years later, under its own name, it became the central rallying cry of the French Revolution. Only after 1789 did people start to speak of democratising societies and it was the French spirit not the American one that was its potent exporter. Every soldier in Napoleon's ranks, as his armies tore across Europe, carried a copy of "The Rights of Man" in his rucksack. But we must never forget that democracy would never have achieved the promise it did without the vision of Robespierre, this figure of "reptilian fascination", who organised the mass executions of those thought to oppose the path of the Revolution.

Over the next 150 years the cause of democracy gradually edged forward but it only triumphed after 1945.

Today some of us like to think, as Pericles did in his great oration on the subject, that democracy gives society its sobriety of judgement and respect for wisdom, the pride necessary for its economic energy and generosity and even its respect for taste and responsiveness to beauty. But we are engaged in a perpetual fight against its worst elements.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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