Here’s what bugs me: It isn’t just Iraq that’s in a mess. Democracy itself, as an institution has suffered some serious body blows in the last 5 years, and that worries me more than even terrorists.
Social institutions only work if people believe in them. And what we’ve seen over the last 5 years is an object lesson in the impotence and failures of democracy.
I’m not an “I-told-you-so”-er, but I’ve said along that you can’t just wave your arms and say “Domini, Domini, Domini, you’re all living in a democracy now.” It takes many years to build up the kind of faith that is required for these things to work. America didn’t just become a democracy on the day that the Constitution was signed – we had over 200 years of colonial governmental traditions to draw upon and believe in.
It isn’t enough simply to believe in the power of democracy as an abstract concept – you need to have faith that when things start to go wrong, your society will continue to hold together, and not degenerate into civil war.
For one thing, you need a loyal opposition. You need to believe in your heart of hearts that the other side, the people you despise, will at least have the courtesy to talk things out, and not just storm the parliament building with guns when they don’t get their way. Otherwise, what’s the point of even participating? Why not just get your own guns and storm the building first before they get there?
You need to believe that the game is fair – that people aren’t rigging the system, gerrymandering you into irrelevance or stealing your vote.
You need to believe that the people you elect are more than just incompetent, selfish boobs interested solely in lining their own pockets. That you have a real choice, not just a contrived and trivial one between lesser evil and mediocre evil.
Instead, we’ve seen – both at home and abroad – a cascade of examples that seem almost designed to rob people of their faith. To dispirit and destroy their belief that they truly have the power to change things.
Politics is an area where success breeds success, and failure breeds failure. What I worry about is whether other potential proto-democracies are going to look at the Iraq example and maybe think twice about this whole democracy thing. And I worry that the people here will also get dispirited, although not for quite the same reasons.
We (the Enlightenment and its descendants) took power away from the oligarchs because we showed that our way worked – and worked better. The only way the oligarchs can ever get their power back is to somehow demonstrate that it doesn’t work so well after all. And the way to do this is to take the tool that we created and misuse it.
You see, like the free market, democracy is not a natural law – it is a machine, constructed by humans, to solve a certain set of problems. It is no more a natural law than Robert’s Rules of Order. But that machine only works if you give it the correct environment – it’s source of power is emotional investment of the citizenry within in, an investment that they will only give so long as they perceive it to be capable of solving their problems.
Thus, the way to destroy democracy and its institutions is to attempt to apply them in contexts in which they will surely fail.