Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The broad, sneering European elite response to the plucky Irish vote to oppose the further centralization of government power in the European Union, and the emerging opinion in China, suggest that from Shanghai to Brussels, democracy may be losing its appeal.

Democracy - broadly understood as government by the people being governed - has been the upward aspiration of Western civilization for about a thousand years (and of the rest of the world for about a hundred). Certainly, this has been an aspiration since the Magna Carta in 1215; arguably going back another millennium since the Germanic tribes selected their chiefs through a more or less popular rather than hereditary method. The pace quickened in our revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, and advanced further with Woodrow Wilson’s call for self-determination of nations after World War I. The democratic urge gained further rhetorical support in the post World War II United Nations declaration of human rights, Article 21: ” (1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.” Arguably, the aspiration for and expectation of democracy reached its zenith with the fall of the Soviet Union and the prediction that the end of history had been reached in the form of liberal democratic capitalism as practiced in the last decade of the 20th century.

But events and experiences I have had in the last week reinforce a growing sense I have had for a few years that the ideal and practice of robust democracy may be seen in history as a quirk of the late 18th to late 20th centuries. I can imagine students 500 years from now studying democracy the way we study medieval history: its rise, its high period, causes of its decline. Admittedly, the rise and aspiration for democracy has not been a line steadily upwards. In the 1930s, many in the west thought that both Benito Mussolini’s and Adolf Hitler’s fascisms seemed to work better than Depression-era democracy. For others at the time, the Russian effort at communism seemed the better alternative. But for those of us born mid-century in the afterglow of democracy’s World War II triumph (with, admittedly, a huge assist from Soviet Russia‘s overwhelming military sacrifices and triumphs on the eastern front), democracy seemed the objective of the entire world. Even the Soviet-controlled nations put the phrase “democratic republic” in their names. And post-colonial governments in Africa all at least talked in terms of democracy.

It first hit me with force that democracy may not be a universal goal when I was in Russia in 2005 to discuss my book on radical Islam. Almost everyone I met - from leading academics, to my driver, to radio talk show hosts, to all sorts of people I met in bars - loved Putin and were contemptuous of democracy and capitalism. Every Russian I met wanted a strong government, thought democracy was inherently corrupt and useless, and that capitalism was another word for theft.

Last week I was in China and had an opportunity to talk with several Chinese businessmen and women - some top executives, some shopkeepers, and once again, several middle-class people in bars (a small sample out of 1.3 billion Chinese.) To a man and woman, they were all perfectly content to let the unelected Communist Party run the government as long as economic growth continued. A point made by several of them (admittedly, all the people I talked with are doing well by the Chinese economic growth standard), and also made by a local academic expert, was that the rest of Asia was noticing that the Chinese Communist Party managed-economy method was working better than the American democratic-capitalism method.

I find it melancholy to consider that perhaps people aspire to self-government not because it is the natural and dignified condition of man to be free and self-governing - but merely only if it is likely to turn a quick economic profit.

Which brings me to the Irish vote. After a similar vote was lost in 2005 in France by 55 percent and in Holland by 64 percent, the decision of the European elite was to re-decide the matter by going around the people and decide through parliaments (where the fix was in) rather than by plebiscite. Only the Irish insisted on a vote of the people before turning over sovereign power to Brussels bureaucrats. And they voted it down 53 percent-47 percent against the loud voices of all the political parties and national leaders - God Bless the Irish people.

Almost the entire business, political and cultural elite of Europe argue for centralizing EU power in Brussels because it will be good for business (and give Europe a more coherent voice and action in the world). The price for that is to reduce the role of democratically elected government officials - and to give more power to unelected governing forces.

Is that why partisans risked their lives sniping at Nazi soldiers and throwing homemade bombs at German Panzer tanks a mere half-century ago? Is the world getting ready to give up its birth-right to self-government for a mess of pottage?

Tony Blankley is executive vice president for global public affairs at Edelman International.

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