What Democracy Looks Like

"Virtually all the leaders who met in Quebec to expand trade were democratically elected, while 'the people' in the streets clamoring for 'justice' were self-appointed or paid union activists."

-- Thomas Friedman, New York Times, April 24, 2001

Somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 protesters descended on Quebec City last month to demonstrate against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a hemisphere-wide version of NAFTA, which would create the world's largest free trade zone. Despite the considerable turnout, critics were quick to write off the three-day demonstration as one more stop on a traveling road show for self-righteous college students. Particularly irksome to the summit's defenders was the protesters' claim to represent democracy in action (a documentary about the Seattle protests is called "This is What Democracy Looks Like," and activism in Quebec City last month included a two-day forum called the People's Summit). Free trade zealot Thomas Friedman was joined in mocking the movement's democratic rhetoric by such influential centrists as Fareed Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, and Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic.

"Until we come up with some better institution," sneered sympathetic Slate columnist Anne Applebaum, governments "are still the legitimate representatives of their peoples' interests abroad. With thousands of marching protesters outside in the streets, and a handful of officials skulking inside the buildings, it might have been easy to forget who had a popular mandate—and who did not." Leaving aside the issue of whether the officials themselves have anything like a "popular mandate" (remember Florida?), the real question is what the critics mean by democracy. Where, for example, do speech, assembly, and petition fit in? By this standard, George Wallace, the elected governor of Alabama, would be hailed as a democratic spokesman and Martin Luther King dismissed as a "self-appointed" showman.

The right to assembly—to gather and make your voice heard through a megaphone, rather than through a ballot box—is arguably as important to the democratic system as the right to vote. The dismantling of Jim Crow laws owes much to rallies like the 250,000-strong March on Washington, and the promotion of gay rights to demonstration like last April's "Millennium March on Washington for Equality."

One side's demonstration, though, is the other side's angry and unaccountable mob. "The lesson of Seattle," scoffed Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek, is that "if you cannot get your way through traditional democratic methods, through campaigns, lobbying and legislatures, then riot and rabble-rouse on television." Would he say the same about the protests and marches held against police brutality in memory of Amadou Diallo?

Zakaria suggested that trade skeptics would be taken more seriously if they employed "traditional democratic methods." But so fierce is the establishment consensus that protest may be the only effective avenue open to question international trade negotiations. Campaign? For which candidate? Business views on trade dominate both parties. Trade agreements are negotiated by the United States Trade Representative, an appointed position, and only in the last stages brought before Congress for an up or down vote. Lobbying? In the rarified realm of international negotiations, citizens' groups are all but ignored. In November, a letter signed by over 300 citizens' groups throughout the Americas, condemned the "secrecy" of the negotiation process, on which "virtually no public information is available," and urged the publication of a working draft of the accord. The request went unanswered. Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the international coordinator for the Alliance for Responsible Trade, points out that there is no way for civil society to be an active partner in a "meaningful dialogue if all the necessary information is being filtered—or withheld."

Globalization is so sacrosanct to Friedman's crew—or is such a foregone conclusion—that it cannot be left to the vagaries of an open, democratic process. As Applebaum put it, "NGOs have many extremely important roles to play; negotiating international trade treaties isn't one of them." Better leave that to the 34 elected officials inside the two-and-a-half mile security fence than to the thousands of citizens representing organized labor, environmental groups, student clubs and faith communities outside it.