Democracy is not for everyone - IQ2 debate
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 78 summer 2009
Another Festival of Dangerous Ideas highlight was the Intelligence Squared live debate, Democracy is not for everyone. James Heywood was in the audience.
The debate promised to “apply an intellectual blowtorch to the belly of one of the most cherished ideas of Western civilisation” by debating “democracy is not for everyone.”
The case for
“Democracy is not for everyone ... but it should be.” With that, Professor Carmen Lawrence, first speaker supporting the motion, began enumerating the current forlorn state of Australia’s political system, lamenting its numerous faults which will require substantial effort to rectify.
As Lawrence asked the audience “When was the last time you decided policy”, I admitted that I was unlikely to have ever influenced any political decision, ever. We were told what the majority probably already suspected; that ours is a “thin democracy” in which “voters are mostly impassive while elites and experts get on with running the country.”
Media barons, paid lobbyists and political donations have corrupted a system that “no longer measures up.” Parliament has become a “theatre of ritual and biff ... a rubber stamp model of government.” We have given the already powerful too much, and we need to wrest some of that power back.
Lawrence stressed the need for a sustained effort to create a democratic system worthy of the name. It seems that democracy is not for everyone, because in a system where power and money buys influence, it’s clear that many of us need to increase our level of participation in order to move the status quo to something we can be proud of.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar, second speaker for the proposition, reflected also on the problems of democracy, but on the world stage. “We do live in a democratic age and, with two-thirds of countries now operating some form of democracy, even authoritarian rulers go to great length to hold elections.” The West now needs to understand that democracy exists in varied forms.
Bhadrakumar’s point is that, even in the West, freedoms and democracy do not inevitably harmonise as we would like to believe; in the early twenty-first century, “democracy flourishes, but not liberty.”
Democracy as it applies to the richer, long-stable nations might even bring about extremely unpalatable results if the same liberal parameters were applied elsewhere. What if bin Laden won a free election in Saudi Arabia? Or that the Islamic Brotherhood was to govern Egypt? Indeed China, achieving extraordinary economic growth, has achieved much without liberal democracy.
‘Relocating to the West’ may be a prerequisite to create a climate supportive of stable liberal democracy, but Bhadrakumar notes the failure of democratic governments in Africa. So what encourages stability? The existence of a strong, professional and entrepreneurial class, a bourgeoisie and private business will act “as the catalyst for liberalisation.” However, “growth is not sustainable without stability.”
The cultural dimension is vital. While the new Afghan constitution is an admirable piece of writing, its American authors ignored the social formation, historic tradition and cultural structure of the country’s people. “Any enduring Afghan settlement must include the non-democratic forces” among the mullahs, Taliban and war lords. A challenge, but democracy should never be imposed in a dictatorial fashion.
The final speaker delivered his argument based on the ‘Black Adder approach’, à la Rowan Atkinson. With the democratic inventory registering “McDonalds, baseball caps and Bronwyn Bishop,” Greg Craven first derided the Australian Constitution, referred to the nation’s politicians as “scorpions with personality disorders”, megalomaniac, untrustworthy and further, “possessing the personality of an electrical appliance.”
If Cravens’ debating style appeared to make light of the premise, his closing statement echoed the sentiment expressed by Professor Lawrence. “Democracy frankly is not for everyone, because it’s not for anyone, because the bastards won’t give it to us.” If we want a fair and equitable liberal democracy in Australia, we need to roll up our sleeves and get down to work.
The case against
John Keane, first speaker against the proposition, tells us that our inherited reasoning for democracy is either implausible or simply embarrassing. Democracy is not “a universal idea, good for everybody in all time and place.” China and Singapore shows us that democracy does not of necessity generate desirable results. Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam illustrate it does not unquestionably bring peace. “And across the globe, from Moscow to Teheran and Damascus, the anti-democrats are rising in number.”
Keane calls for new imagination and ways of thinking to keep democracy fresh and dynamic. The appalling events of the twenty-first century present the new justification for democracy: the ‘hubris’ argument. Hubris “recognises that humans are stupid, arrogant, blind, foolish and power-hungry enough to omit acts, but good enough to correct them.”
Hubris is our hope, since it “drives home the painful truth that fools never differ.” When unregulated and concentrated power reigns, producing disasters like Madoff, immense damage to people and environment and stolen generations, democracy remains “the best weapon we have against hubris.”
The next speaker Armina Rasul fortified the hubris argument by reiterating our need to remain vigilant. Her story was a personal one. A citizen of the Philippines, Rasul has experienced the there-and-back-again journey of democracy and dictatorship in the Philippines that reinforces the argument for political stability.
Democracy needs time to grow, to stabilise and to develop. And, as stated by the opposing team, democracy can be adapted for all, including Muslim and Communist societies. China is embracing democracy ‘Chinese style’. However, with the adoption of democratic reforms in mainly finance and trade, the People’s Republic remains far from free.
If Islam appears incompatible with democracy, the examples of Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan prove otherwise. The Qur’an provides for the pillars of democracy with ‘shura’; consultation and a method by which to make major decisions. Islam’s concepts of consensus, justice and freedom uphold democratic conventions and, while Muslim countries continue to work on internal problems, it does not mean outright that democracy cannot flourish where Islam exists.
Finally, women perform well in Muslim democracies. While many Western nations are yet to have a female head of state, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey have already ticked that box.
In much of the world democracy is young. It must be given time to strengthen and grow. A period of transition is normal and expected. Just as democracy in richer nations continues to evolve, we can expect to see more stable democracies in Muslim nations, and even in China. It’s a matter of time.
For the final speaker, Michael Wesley, democratic process has given way to a global democratic consciousness, a phenomenon “advancing to all corners of the globe.” Driven by globalisation and the communications revolution, this consciousness is gathering speed, bringing free speech, dissent and refusal to accept state-produced propaganda. We all contribute to the spread of democracy, whether voting by mobile phone to pass judgement on a reality show contestant, to twittering on the internet. The innumerable blogs that exist are millions of voices that cannot be silenced. We are free to ignore the major media players and instead listen to a million other voices expressing a myriad of dissenting, conflicting, controversial, and above all, novel views.
Fatalism is dead. People no longer accept that their birth determines their possibilities in life. There are increasingly interesting questions of absolute standards about what a democracy is, and with the global challenges that we now face, we can risk no other form of government. When and where there is a grassroots swell of concern, it is democratic leaders who are the first to listen.
As Carmen Lawrence concluded, we can be realistic without being cynical. “To live in a democracy worthy of the name, to avoid falling into undemocratic practices, action is required.” Democracy is not a gift.
Speaking for the affirmative at the FODI debate were Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar, a Former Ambassador for India to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Russia among other countries, Professor Carmen Lawrence, former Premier of Western Australia and Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University and an expert in public law.
For the negative were Professor John Keane, an Australian born author and academic who is Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster and Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy which he founded, Dr Michael Wesley, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy and former Professor of International Relations and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University and Amina Rasul-Bernardo, Lead Convenor of the Philippine Council on Islam and Democracy (PCID) a former Presidential advisor, and a noted peace and human rights advocate.
You can view the Festival of Dangerous Ideas IQ2 debate Democracy is not for everyone online at www.iq2oz.com