Monday, September 12, 2005

Would anybody any longer say, as Winston Churchillfamously did, that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”? Churchill was mounting a defense of democracy in the context of his broader view of the irreducible difficulty of politics, an undertaking fundamentally doomed in its ambition to fulfill people’s desire for happiness or justice.

Now, though, Churchill’s defense does not seem to go far enough. Democracy is still the best possible, yes, but more than that, it deserves to be called “good” in its own right, not just by comparison. We have, for example, the evidence of the “democratic peace”: Democracies do not go to war with each other. We’re rather used to that fact by now, but we ought to pause from time to time to admire it for what it is, namely, the greatestpolitical achievement in history. To be able to adopt a form of government that eliminates the possibility of war with those nations of like government? That’s a big deal.

Now, we all know that democracy has its problems, too. You have to put on qualifiers. In the first place, it’s not just a matter of holding an election. Democracy doesn’t work, obviously, if the people contesting for power have the view that if only they win, that’s it, they can eliminate and oppress opponents to their heart’s content. There’s a lot of social and political infrastructure required. In the second place, Katrina: Even in a successful democracy, governments sometimes perform badly, especially in extreme tests. Still, you don’t find citizens of democratic countries talking about giving up their right to vote in order to be ruled by a wise king, a council of elders or the faculty of Harvard. Democracy works for us, and that’s settled.

But what about others? Well, of course, there are countries that have managed one way or another to turn themselvesinto democracies, and that’s all to the good. But what about those that haven’t? Here, the latest “Transatlantic Trends” survey of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, released last week, has some news that is good, some that’s bad, and some that’s ugly.

The good news is that support for promotion of democracy is quite high among our democratic European allies. In the nine European countries surveyed (including all the big ones), 74 percent of respondents agreed that one role of the European Union should be to help establish democracy in other countries, compared to 22 percent who disagreed. To the extent that the Bush administration and the U.S. government have heightened the priority of democracy promotion in U.S. policy — in his second inaugural, Mr. Bush called it a project for “every nation and culture” — we may find a significant partner among the people of Europe (if not yet their leaders, alas). The overwhelming majority of those who enjoy the blessings of democratic government do not believe themselves to be uniquely capable of enjoying those blessings, but seek to help spread them to others.

The bad news is that among Americans, support for U.S. efforts to help establish democracy abroad is significantly lower: 51 percent in favor and 42 percent against.

The ugly news, and the explanation for the lower support level in the United States, is the partisan breakdown of the U.S. result. Democrats actually oppose, 50 percent to 43 percent, helpingothersestablish democracy. Right in line with European levels of support for democracy promotion are Republicans, 76 percent in favor to 19 percent opposed.

The survey doesn’t go back as far as the Clinton administration. That’s too bad. It would be interesting to assess the extent to which Republicans have changed their minds about democracy promotion. If the pre-September 11 Republican Party was generally suspicious of “nation-building” and the like, that attitude has certainly vanished.

But was the GOP suspicion then mainly a product of hostility to a certain William Jefferson Clinton? Part of it was, no doubt. But how much? As much as hostility toward George W. Bush has turned Democrats sour on U.S. democracy promotion today? I doubt it. Either way, the response from Democrats (with which the overwhelming majority of members of the Democratic foreign policy establishmentwoulddeeply disagree) is deeply unattractive. Either actual opinion within the party is running as much as 5-4 against democracy promotion, about 30 percentage points behind European opinion on the subject; or else as many as 25 percent of Democrats are so blinded or embittered by Mr. Bush that they can’t think straight on the basic question; or some combination.

The saving grace for Democrats in the survey is that when pressed on specific aspects of democracy promotion, majorities do favor such activities as election monitoring and providing support for independent civil-society groups. So it is likely that many Democrats know better, so to speak, than what they say as a matter of first impression.

Here’s wishing good luck in the intraparty struggles ahead to the 43 percent of Democrats who are still on the right side of this question.

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