The people of the West are often told by the spokesmen for their various governments that we must fight for democracy in distant lands. Little effort is ever expended by these government officials in explaining precisely what they mean by “democracy”. The “democracy” we are told we must fight for is purposefully vague because the people of the West, using their common sense, will assume upon hearing of “democracy” that what is meant is the fundamental rights they enjoy in their own country. However, whenever an actual dialogue is held on the matter, it turns out that “democracy” is complex, not simple, and the rationale for a “war for democracy” withers away.
Case in point: two years ago, President Vladimir Putin was asked by a pair of French journalists about the chance for a “Western model democracy” in Russia. President Putin replied:
“Can you explain to me what you mean by the Western democratic model? There’s one model in France, and a different model in the US. At some point in the past, I had a lot of discussions with my American colleagues. I would ask them: how come the majority of your people voted for one person, yet another person becomes President? ‘That’s because we have the Electoral College,’ my American colleagues replied to me. ‘Don’t touch this thing. We’ve got used to this system and we won’t change it.’”
Like President Putin’s American colleagues, I am also often asked by students or friends here in Poland about the Electoral College. The question usually comes up every four years when there is an election in the US. Most Poles do not know the Electoral College exists, and so when they hear me say something like “it depends who gets enough electoral votes to put them over the top”, they initially think I must be joking. How could it be that the cradle of democracy does not elect presidents democratically but instead through a small, select group of mysterious Electors?
Things become even more complex when, instead of lamenting that the Electoral College system is, like slavery and small pox, one of those relics of the dark ages, I calmly and proudly explain the heritage of my country: we in America do not have a democracy, we are a federated republic. The citizens of the several states have equal rights, and each state is equal under the law in relation to another state. The President of the United States of America must be the President of all the states and their citizens, not of a random majority of American citizens who happen to live in one or two of the most populous states. The Electoral College exists to protect America from a regional Presidency, from a President who represents the ideas and interests of the most populous states against the ideas and interests of the less populous states. This, I proudly intone to those who ask, is one of the great innovations of American constitutionalism; a limit on the right of the majority in the interest of the res publica.
Not surprisingly, my Polish interlocutors usually reply that this system makes no sense, that they cannot fathom how it can be just to maintain a mechanism that denies majority rule. Of course, many Americans would likely agree with them, but many other Americans would, like Mr. Putin’s colleagues, reply “don’t touch this thing. We’ve got used to this system and we won’t change it.” Some of them, primarily those in the great tradition of American conservatism, would even make some excellent arguments in favor of this system.
Bearing this in mind, consider the neoconservative policy that, frustratingly and in spite of President Obama’s election, still festers within the American foreign policy apparatus. Consider Senator John McCain and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Skorski’s speeches at the Atlantic Council in 2011. Those are revealing speeches, particularly Mr. Sikorski’s. Mr. Sikorski notes in his speech that nondemocratic countries have, in many cases, liberalized their economies while retaining their undemocratic political characteristics. He goes on to opine that we, the West, cannot let this fool us. We need to have the courage, according to him, to overthrow all nondemocratic regimes and support democratic movements worldwide. We need, he says—and Senator McCain confirms—to perpetuate ad infinitum a global democratic revolution. Given that Mr. Sikorski mentions China amongst the list of liberalizing “non-democratic” countries, we can only imagine the kind of world we might look forward to if this sort of thinking dominates American foreign policy in the coming years: it will be a world of unending carnage, chaos, and blood. It will be a world where the daily terrorism and suffering of Iraq and Syria become the lot of every nation-state that is not a democracy.
Or will it? The Queen of England is the British sovereign. Out of the Christian charity of her heart, and out of a deep respect to the heritage of her ancestors, she continues to support and maintain a parliamentary democracy in Great Britain. Shall we then surmise that the British Crown should be considered a totalitarian regime which just happened to liberalize, but is still in need of regime change? Long ago, Poland elected its’ kings by way of a vote amongst the Nobility. Is Mr. Sikorski suggesting that the Queen of England should be elected by the House of Lords as a transitional policy between the present hegemony of the Monarchy and the idyllic dream of a democratic paradise? I doubt it. I also doubt that Senator McCain will make the abolition of the Electoral College a principle pursuit of his statesmanship. I also do not foresee that Belgian school children will soon hear that the United States is threatening them with bombing campaigns unless they remove the pictures of their king and queen from their schoolrooms. In fact, I expect that the myriad undemocratic mechanisms protecting America and a host of European nations from the perils of unlimited majority rule will stay quite firmly in place. I even dare to suggest that perhaps they need to be strengthened. For instance, what conservative does not regard the popular election of US Senators to be a mistake? The Founders seem to have wisely constructed the Constitution to foresee the House of Representatives as the vessel of popular opinion, while the Senate was meant to represent the States. If a workable Federalism is our goal, can this undemocratic policy—which was the norm for so much of America’s history—be all that bad?
It may come to pass, of course, that just as we now have popular elections of Senators, so too one day we shall abolish the Electoral College and find no fault in having California and Texas elect the President of the other 48 states. If, however, this does come to pass, it shall hopefully happen on account of American citizens amending their constitution following a robust public debate and a few free and fair elections. But does it really follow that just because this can or might happen in America, therefore it must and should happen in Russia? In China? More importantly, should American foreign policy really aim at forcing nation-states to adopt a democratic model that we, in America, reject? Wouldn’t it be a bit less hypocritical of Senator McCain if he first threatened to “bomb, bomb, bomb” Kansas unless that state rose up against the Electoral College and only later threaten to bomb Iran?
Of course, no serious person can really believe that there is any one political organization which is just. Aristotle, the most serious person to consult on this matter, teaches us in his Politics that it is not the system, but the animating principle behind a system that makes for its’ just or unjust character. Thus, Aristotle calls a King good and a Tyrant bad because the King rules for the common good, while the Tyrant rules for his good. Aristotle further praises Aristocracy, but blames Oligarchy. In the former, the few rule for the common good, in the latter, the few rule for their own good. Finally, Aristotle blames Democracy and praises a Polity. In a Polity, the many rule for the common good, but in a Democracy, the many rule for their own good. The good of a majority is not, teaches Aristotle, the same as the common good, just as the good of one or a few is not the same as the common good. What is the common good? Well, that is the most difficult of political questions to answer, and certainly we know from long and hard experience that neither voting nor revolutions bring us much closer to it. Rather—only dialogue in the tradition of Socrates can bring us closer to understanding the common good.
With all of this in mind, one has to ask: are the neoconservatives who demand that Ukraine adopt a western model of democracy really thinking about the common good? Can they answer President Putin’s question and tell us which particular model of Western democracy they would like to impose there, and why its’ imposition is morally justified over and against the legal and democratic will of a majority that elected the ousted Ukrainian President? I do not mean to suggest that President Putin is being excessively compassionate or overly concerned for the welfare of the Ukrainian people. I do, however, wish to suggest that Americans like Senator McCain and Poles like Minister Sikorski are being both ignorant and arrogant in making the foreign policy proposals that they make, and using such utterly unintelligent arguments to propel them. These are arguments which will only resonate with the people of their respective countries who cannot understand that the super-structure of their nation’s political organization is merely one of several methods available to humankind for bringing about peace, justice and freedom—components of what we might call “the common good.” The universal principles of Right that Senator McCain and Minister Sikorski champion can and in fact are pursued by different countries in different ways. No one in China has, thus far, been convinced by them to adopt “western democratic” standards. Sadly, many in Poland and America have been convinced by them to support global democratic revolutionary war. That may just be the point.
I have, in my short life, had the good fortune of becoming very intimately acquainted with two political systems in two different countries. As an American, my prejudices and sensibilities decidedly favor the American system. Thus, when I encounter elements specific to the Polish system, I instinctively recoil that that’s just not the way “we” do it in America. However, having spent a great deal of time in Poland and having had the privilege of being close enough to both politics and people to have learned much about this nation, I have come to understand the organic, historical rationale for much of the existing political super-structure. This organic, historical rationale is not rational; it is not universal. It is particular to each people and each place and develops differently in different times. You can neither speed it up through bombing and revolution, nor—more importantly—can you really say all too clearly where it ought to go. As soon as you do, you raise the political problem of “what is justice” and the need for a Socratic dialogue on the subject. It is a dialogue that each people in each land have with one another, usually in a language we don’t understand, in conditions very alien and foreign to our own. We should not imagine that just because we all have Facebook and McDonalds (though I use neither), we will now be able to have a global dialogue about a universal and homogenous State which shall be just for all concerned. Of course, I have a sneaking suspicion that just as Lenin and Stalin did not really care to have a global Socratic dialogue on the nature of Universal Justice, Senator McCain and Minister Sikorski do not care for such a dialogue either. After all—who brings an arsenal of weapons to a Socratic dialogue? Probably the same sort of person who, as Minister Sikorski did in the aforementioned speech, suggests that Poland needs to intervene in Egyptian affairs because “Warsaw is the same distance from Cairo as Minneapolis is from Miami.” I wonder, however, how many Americans are willing to die, or to send their children to die for that kind of logic?
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