Democracy is Messy


The recent dissolution of the Morsi government by the military presents many questions whether democracy can really work in an ancient country like Egypt. The situation is a mess no doubt. However, the will of the people will make it happen in a long struggle. Is it worth it? Yes! Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

Why are the other forms of government inferior? The reason is that they cannot fulfill two fundamental requirements. First, in a democracy, the government should work for the benefits of the majority of the people, not just the rich and powerful. Second, power is periodically transferred from one government to another through the ballot box without bloodshed or intimidation. Democracy is never perfect. It’s always work in progress. What we criticize is basically its imperfections if we are not too idealistic about it. Therefore we should find ways to minimize those imperfections, which is a long learning process. It is never easy to govern the whole country using persuasion and compromise coupled with strong leadership without resorting to violence. The reason is that different people have different self-interests to protect, and the powerful always want to exploit the rest.

Let’s take a look at why different forms of government succeed or fail in the human experience:

Absolute monarchy had ruled for thousands of years in the early ages. Why is it extinct now? The simple reason is that in an absolute monarchy, the king owns everything including your life. In this modern age, do you accept that the king owns your life and your properties? Aren’t you surprised that absolute monarchy had lasted for so long in human history?

Communism used to govern a larger part of the world where the Soviet Union and China provided solid anchors for well over half a century. At present, only North Korea practices real communism. The Soviet system collapsed in 1991. China has turned itself into a capitalistic economy. Even Vietnam and Cuba are relaxing their rules. Why did communism fail? The reason is that the communist party ended up with absolute power like an absolute monarchy. They did not serve the people but themselves only. That kind of system has imploded eventually.

Socialism works for many countries in Europe such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark; and to some extent, Japan, Great Britain, Germany, France and Canada. Why does it work? It has evolved through a tortured path from absolute monarchy to the present state with an industrialized capitalistic economy supplemented by heavy government involvement especially in health care, education, insurance, public transportation, and energy supply. Socialism is considered a form of advanced capitalistic democracy with heavy government participation to serve the people better. Socialist countries are also stable politically as governing power is transferred peacefully by elections each time.

Now we come to the United States which likes to boast about its democracy despite all its imperfections. The following factors are worthy of note that will shed some lights on the development of democracy:

The US is both the oldest republic and the oldest democracy since 1776, but it is a relatively young country. It is a country of immigrants who have been uprooted voluntarily or otherwise from their places of origin to settle in the new land. The immigrants are busy carving out a life of their own rather than protecting their existing wealth which are meager to begin with. As a result, Americans are preoccupied with wealth creation and new ideas more than preserving existing wealth and traditions. This makes democracy easier to achieve because fewer traditional interests stand in the way.

Nevertheless, this is changing as powerful corporations develop in areas like oil, banking, defense, pharmaceuticals; and recently, the Tea Party, which extols pure conservatism. As corporate and conservative interests rise, they collide head-on with public interests. The result is seen in gridlocks in the US Congress, which cannot act decisively on important legislations such as health care reform, immigration reform, Wall Street reform, environmental protection, and gun control.

American democracy is now facing serious challenges from powerful business groups which have the money to corrupt legislators if not enough votes to swing them. The American democratic system can easily fulfill the second fundamental requirement that is the peaceful transfer of governing power. Regarding the first requirement that is serving the majority of the people, America is still going through a torturous road. Despite all the existing laws, ordinary citizens must constantly fight against the powerful business interests to protect themselves from being exploited.

Finally, I wish to mention three interesting cases — India, China and Egypt, which are characterized by large population, ancient culture, and imperial exploitation inflicted by Western countries especially Great Britain. Despite all the difficulties, I think democracy has a chance to flourish there.

India fulfills the second fundamental requirement of peaceful transfer of governing power through elections. On the other hand, it is struggling with the first requirement to serve the people by bringing them out of poverty. The Indian economy has to surmount incredible barriers due to its ancient social structure and religious practice.

China has achieved a phenomenon in the first requirement by creating a huge middle class numbering around 500 million people in the face of widening income inequality. The Communist Party has dismantled most of the ancient customs and traditions, making China easier to proceed to the modern age. However, it will not allow national elections for fear of losing power and economic privileges. At the same time, elections at the local levels are taking place across the country that signals the beginning of democratic development. The Party understands that economic liberalization is corroding its power and authority. After having chosen this irreversible path, the communists are stubbornly hanging on, hoping for the best without any new idea of how to govern differently in the new liberalized economy.

Egypt has liberated itself from military dictatorship after overthrowing Mubarak in 2012. It is only starting on the torturous path of delivering its people out of poverty by modernizing its economy. Regarding the second requirement of peaceful transfer of governing power, it has only achieved a partial revolution through street protests, and paradoxically, with the help of the military. The first democratically elected government led by Morsi has been found so incompetent that has resulted in more street protests. The military came to dissolve the government for a second time. Now it’s the time for reconciliation, compromise and new leadership, and to draft a better constitution. Will it work? We have to wait and see how far the Egyptian people can impose its will on the military and the government.

So you see, democracy is a long, messy and torturous path. Ironically, it is the best way to proceed comparing with all the other forms of government in the human experience. It looks like the people don’t have much choice except to continually push for a better government to serve the public interests.

July 2013

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