Must Democracy Wait?

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad By Fareed Zakaria, W.W. Norton, 286 pages, $24.95

Fareed Zakaria's wide-ranging examination of the difficulties and downsides of democracy makes gripping reading today, especially as the Bush administration announces its plans to hand a shocked and awed Iraq back to the Iraqis. Writing before the toppling of the Baath regime in Baghdad, Zakaria speculates, "Were the United States to dislodge Saddam and -- far more important -- engage in a serious, long-term project of nation-building, Iraq could well become the first major Arab country to combine Arab culture with economic dynamism, religious tolerance, liberal politics, and a modern outlook on the world." And, because "success is infectious," Zakaria suggests that there is merit to the theory popular among hawks that sees a new Iraq as the ignition of a democratic chain reaction throughout the Middle East.

As a realistic observer of world events, however, Zakaria can distinguish the desirable from the likely. He worries that efforts to press "premature democratization" on countries unprepared for democratic government may lead to disaster. Given Iraq's relative poverty, the mutual distrust seeded by decades of tyranny, old ethnic and sectarian divisions, and affliction by the "oil curse" (which seldom eases the path to democracy), Zakaria believes we need to be careful to do first things first. Above all, he says, we should delay national elections, and he even tells us for how long (five years).

Paul Wolfowitz take note: "The haste to press countries into elections over the last decade," Zakaria writes, "has been, in many cases, counterproductive." Americans, he suggests, are especially liable to self-defeating impatience in this regard because, as a matter of national ideology, we are blind to democracy's "dark sides." In deeply divided societies, however, competitive elections give political entrepreneurs an incentive to mobilize voters along ethnic and sectarian lines, inflaming intolerance and factionalism, as Amy Chua has likewise argued in her recent book, World on Fire. [See "Free Market Furies," Sasha Polakow-Suransky, TAP, April 2003.] Zakaria's own thinking about illiberal democracy seems to have been stimulated by the recent political history of his native India. Might not an overnight leap to electoral politics in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq have similarly ruinous results?

To avert the dangers of a premature turn to democracy, Zakaria calls for putting priority on the development of "constitutional liberalism" -- that is, checks and balances, private property, a market economy and religious tolerance, which in his view provide vital safeguards against the demagoguery and instability that popular elections may unleash. Such sequencing sounds reasonable enough. But his simple contrast of democracy and liberalism does not work quite as neatly as he would like. Many classic features of constitutional liberalism, such as divided government, federalism, and the freedom to preach and proselytize, can also open the door to extremist violence, even in the absence of electoral politics. In Indonesia, neoliberal economic reforms, rather than "too much democracy," created high levels of unemployment and sparked ethnic rampages. Authoritarianism certainly does not guarantee social peace. Indeed, as Zakaria himself admits, the absence of democratic outlets in the Arab Middle East has pushed political protest into the mosques and made political Islam into the language of frustrated and unemployed young men. But though he recognizes some of these problems, Zakaria nevertheless insists that elections on the basis of universal suffrage should wait until liberal constitutionalism is firmly in place.

But even if we grant that liberal constitutionalism ought to take priority, we need a way of establishing it, and Zakaria never adequately explains how that is to be accomplished. In certain passages he comes close to implying that mere political will is enough, as when he suggests that moderate politics could be brought to Kazakhstan simply by crafting a better constitution. But the formal provisions of constitutions cannot create a politics without regard to the forces operating in society; the rule of law itself needs social support and cannot be built from scratch, or against the grain, by political will.

Zakaria's proclivity for magical constitutional thinking is evident in his discussion of Boris Yeltsin. That bad czar, he explains, weakened the courts and the legislature and failed to develop a healthy consultative relation with Russian society. But such criticisms ignore underlying realities. Where in Russia's society or polity during the 1990s could Yeltsin have found strong partners for economic reform? In the absence of such partners, he ruled by decree and failed to develop the institutions of constitutional liberalism that Zakaria rightly admires. This was a failure of social support, however -- a product of circumstance, not a failure of political will.

If liberal institutions will not survive without political backing from well-organized social forces, we need to ask how such forces are created in the first place. Zakaria's implicit answer turns out to be economic growth. He suggests that we attend to economic development before democratization because democracies become more stable as countries grow richer and because liberal political institutions require strong constituencies, especially a "genuinely entrepreneurial business class." Historically, Zakaria wants us to believe, liberal institutions reflect middle-class bargaining power. In 19th-century Britain, for instance, "the economic and political independence of [the] bourgeoisie" was the motor behind democratic reforms. Only a middle class can force lethally armed political power to curtail its rapacious and capricious behavior and begin to deliver good governance, such as reliable contract enforcement.

This historical lesson, Zakaria suggests, can guide America's nation-building efforts in places such as Iraq. In the Middle East, the Arab rulers of Oman, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and Morocco, though corrupt and autocratic, "are still more liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic than what would likely replace them" if democratic elections were held today. But once independent business classes have entrenched the necessary limitations on power in a liberal constitution, it would be safe to open the floodgates and allow popular elections.

Although Zakaria has no more idea how to create economic growth than anyone else, he has been impressed by "liberalizing autocrats" in, for instance, Singapore, Chile and South Korea. In many cases, military juntas have brought into being the prosperous middle classes that tend to moderate and liberalize democratic government. Zakaria expands this flickering thought into the broad generalization that liberalizing autocracies can lay "the groundwork" for stable democracies. His discussion of China in this context is revealing. "If economic development and a middle class are keys to sustaining democracy," he writes, "China is moving in the right direction." This claim makes clear that Zakaria is not really thinking about putting the pursuit of liberty before the creation of democracy, as China seems no closer to one than to the other. In some cases at least, Zakaria seems ready to postpone liberty, too, for the sake of economic development.

There are many practical as well as moral problems with this approach, some of which the author acknowledges. For one thing, autocracies have produced their share of developmental disasters. And for every Chile or South Korea, where economic development has occurred under an undemocratic government, there is an Ireland or a Japan, where spectacular growth has occurred under democracy. As the political scientist Adam Przeworski has shown, no robust conclusions can be drawn from the historical evidence about the impact of dictatorship or democracy on economic growth. Successes and failures seem to be equally likely under both sorts of regimes.

We can agree that democracy can be dangerous without liberal safeguards, that such safeguards can be maintained only by a robust and independent middle class, and that such a middle class will become politically self-assertive only after a period of economic growth. But what should we be doing to get such a process off the ground, besides hoping for the arrival on the scene of a benevolent czar with good intentions? That such a weak hope may not be Zakaria's last word is suggested by two examples.

The first comes from western Europe. The devastation of World War I provided "breeding grounds" for fascists, "some of whom used democracy to destroy liberalism." After World War II, vowing not to allow a rerun of the previous postwar disaster, the United States kept a substantial military presence in Europe. Under U.S. protection, western European economic growth undermined the appeal of extremist movements and led to the creation of a substantial middle class that, by now, provides a solid domestic constituency for liberal democratic governance.

A second example comes from India. Here again an outside power, this time the British, provided the crucial foundations for development: "courts, legislatures, administrative rules, and a (quasi-) free press," which Indians inherited when they achieved independence in 1947. Just as Indian courts often used British law as precedent, so India's Congress Party drew its commitment to press freedom, judicial independence and religious tolerance from British models. Britain put its liberal stamp not only on Indian institutions and ideology but also on the leadership cadre itself. As Zakaria reminds us, Jawaharlal Nehru spent his formative years "training to be an English gentleman."

Taken together, these two examples suggest an alternative to waiting for liberalizing autocrats to emerge of their own sweet will. Instead, a benevolent superpower can take matters into its own hands and play good czar to the world. True, the United States cannot behave in Iraq exactly as Britain behaved in India. It's even unlikely that America will replicate in Iraq its postwar reconstruction efforts in West Germany. But by implication at least, Zakaria aligns himself with the new liberal imperialism of the administration's self-described "Wilsonian hawks."

When the author turns his attention directly to the United States, however, he describes a country that is in no condition to play such a farseeing global role. He tells us, for instance, that American politics is now a "hyper-responsive, poll-driven system" that has "gone haywire." Although he confusingly applies the same term, "illiberal democracy," to pathologies of government in both the United States and the developing world, the problems are not the same. America obviously does not suffer from "premature democratization," but Zakaria says it has increasingly fallen for "a simple-minded populism that values popularity and openness as the key measures of legitimacy."

Zakaria's most prodigious feat here is to interpret America's scandalously low voter turnout as a fruit of too much democracy. One mechanism he mentions is the fatal weakening of political parties by the primary system. Once the capacity to select candidates was taken away from party elders, he says, political parties almost inevitably degenerated into fundraising vehicles for "telegenic" candidates. This process may be disturbing to contemplate, but it does not quite explain decreased voter turnout. To blame that on too much democracy, Zakaria basically interprets democracy as "openness" and then points out that increased permeability has led to the invasion of government by swarms of lobbyists. It is "the rise of interest groups [that] has made American government utterly dysfunctional." When combined with the disappearance of any social elite worthy of respect, that dysfunctionality has led to citizen disgust with politics and reduced participation.

While enlightening in part, this analysis of the United States suffers from some of the same deficiencies as Zakaria's treatment of developing countries. For one thing, the openness and permeability of government -- allowing lobbyists to play public officials against one another -- are as much a product of liberalism as of democracy. The difficulty in reforming campaign finance is due as much to the First Amendment -- that is, to liberal constitutionalism -- as to democracy. Similarly, the sins that Zakaria attributes to democratic excesses could equally well be associated with the dominance of consumerism, capitalism and marketization. Indeed, Zakaria himself says as much, explicitly arguing, in the last two chapters, that democratization and commercialization go hand in hand. This analysis makes very confusing reading for anyone who has studied the first part of the book, where Zakaria consistently treats the fostering of market economics as a preventive cure for the diseases of democracy.

Living under perhaps the most self-insulated national administration since World War II, it is amusing to read that the greatest defect of American politics is excessive openness, and that the American "system of checks and balances assur[es] that no single leader can drag a country into war." But the deeper puzzle with which Zakaria leaves us is another: If American democracy is as dysfunctional as he contends, how can it orchestrate the emergence of liberal self-government half a world away among a people it poorly understands?

Zakaria's proposal to postpone national elections in Iraq for five years looks less plausible by the day. Waiting for the business and professional classes to assert themselves politically would be reasonable only if no other forces were stirring in the interim. But Iraq's Shia are quickly awakening to their majoritarian status. Failure to hold elections will neither dampen their aspirations nor guarantee civil peace. It would only confirm suspicions that the United States has come to occupy Iraq, not to liberate it. Besides, many of the institutions that Zakaria insists be built before introducing democracy, most obviously political parties, would not attract serious commitments until electoral politics is under way. The situation is delicate, and the chances for success unknown. But paper safeguards for Sunni Arabs and Kurds would have no practical effect unless a national political authority committed to minority rights is viewed as legitimate. Because electoral legitimacy is probably the only feasible alternative to religious legitimacy, creating the former must be a priority. Constitutionalism, admittedly, has an important role to play in this process. Power-sharing agreements must be congruent with Iraq's ethnic, tribal and sectarian landscape. And destabilizing winner-take-all institutions, such as a popularly elected national presidency with extensive powers, must be avoided. On the other hand, the Shia majority must come to believe that it can pursue its legitimate aspirations within, not outside, agreed-upon rules of the game. Zakaria tells ardent sponsors of democratization to keep the complex preconditions of stable and moderate democracy constantly in mind. In the case of Iraq, alas, this sage counsel gives greater grounds for trepidation than for buoyant hopes.

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