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Interpreted, Misinterpreted and Under Attack

To most people, living in a democracy means
  • equality of rights, opportunity, and treatment.
  • rule by the ruled, directly or indirectly through elected representatives.
  • a country, state, or community incorporating the above.

To the statesmen, democracy is the best system of governance yet to arrive on the stage of human history. S/he can leave a positive mark.

To the politician, democracy provides a means for achieving and exercising power. Most democratic leaders are in this category and most do yeoman duty.

To the cynical, democracy is an opportunity to manipulate and deceive people to further their private agenda. The charismatic few with character flaws as well as the Plutocrats are very-real, long-term threats to democracy as we knew it in the 20th Century.

In any event, democracy is a governance system whose legitimacy is unquestioned. It empowers the individual by giving him/her a voice. It enables liberty and freedom within the limits of social decorum.

An historical view is provided by Viriato Soromenho-Marques (University of Lisbon; IEEI Associate) [Editorial commentary]

On 7 November 1797, a young man and his retinue and luggage arrived at the gates of Berlin, then the capital of the kingdom of Prussia. Thus ended a long voyage across the Atlantic, followed by strenuous travel along severely damaged autumn roads from the distant harbour of Hamburg.

The young man, John Quincy Adams, was named after his father John Adams, the second President of the United States of America. Twenty-eight years later, the same young man was destined to become the sixth American president, by dint of hard work and fate.[1] This was the first instance in American history in which father and son were both alive and well and able to witness each others rise to the most honoured public office in the Federal Republic of the USA. It would only be two centuries later that such an event would be witnessed again, with George Bush and his son George W. Bush.

In the diary he kept throughout his life, John Quincy Adams noted that his travel companions had to wait before crossing the Berlin city gates, while a dapper lieutenant was elucidated about the existence of the strange new country called, United Sates of America

Americans of the revolutionary period (from the first significant violent clashes with the British in 1775 to the final ratification of the Bill of Rights in December 1791) introduced a regime what was new to the world: contemporary federalism. This federalism, which still inspires people the world over, is probably as vital to political science and institutional innovation as Newtons theory of gravitation was for physics or Darwins vision to evolutionary biology.

The theory of federalism was an interpretation of political realities, its riddles, challenges and dangers. While the Europeans prepared for what was to be almost one hundred and fifty years of national hatred and colonial imperialism (from the Napoleonic Wars to 1945), the Americans set up a new political framework based on four theoretical pillars:

a) Multiple layers of representation. Given the manifest impossibility of establishing an ancient Greek direct democracy in vast republics with millions of citizens, the best way to give concrete expression to the sovereignty of the people depended on inventing a series of representative layers, from local power all the way up to the state, and general (or federal) political systems of government. [The mere existence of layers cannot prevent corruption at the top from trickling down to the street level, and vise versa. Politicians at all levels now are able to seduce American voters with charm--forget the substance. The gullible voters want promises, promises and more promises. Nothing else matters. They want to believe.]

b) A system of checks and balances. In addition to representative democracy, the different layers of government were to follow an improved version of Lockes and Montesquieus formulas: the separation of powers. America gave the system of checks and balances, imperfectly present in eighteenth century Britain, new impetus and fresh expression. [This system is now in danger of falling if the Neocons succeed in packing all three branches of government at once.]

c) The supremacy of constitutional law. While the French, over a brief thirty years, formulated and abolished ten different constitutions, America discovered more than a century before Hans Kelsen, the validity of the concept of the superiority of constitutional law as the stable fundamental law (Grundgesetz), establishing a new form of constitutional jurisdiction through the Supreme Federal Court.[4] [Constitutional law is only as firm as the court that interprets it. A court of ideologues can interpret the Constitution as they see fit. In fact they already have in "appointing" one George W Bush to the presidency.]

d)Plural interests representation. The debate about federalism is imbued with a vision of a democratic republican society as a plural and diverse net of relations mingling different interests (factions to use Madisons words) in co-operation and conflict.[5] Instead of the fanciful and potentially totalitarian perspective of Rousseaus unitary volont gnerale, American federalists saw that only sound political institutions and the effort discussion and consensus-building, could lead to a better society for individual citizens.[6] [Pluralism has given way to special interests with money to push Plutocratic and Religious interests. Pluralism was a nice idea while it lasted.]

What lessons can we learn from the American federal political heritage and what light can it shed on the current debate between America and Europe? It would appear that the main lesson is that the main conflict at stake is not between American power and European weakness, but the different set of consequences for a sustainable international order of differing uses of power: either grounded in a solid legitimacy, or based on raw violence.

Kagans argument that the adoption of federalism as a way to achieve peace was simply a sign of American impotence is more than historically inaccurate. It reveals a deep misunderstanding and forgetfulness among the current US leadership regarding the universal nature of the American experience. It is probable that many Americans today are unable, as the German lieutenant was in 1797, to recognize the United States that John Quincy Adams stood for.

On the point of American impotence in bringing peace, we could not agree more with Soromenho-Marques. His Portugal is a most peaceful country, multiples more so than the US. Is America well on its way to proving the Greeks were right? Or are the Neocons steering the good ship called America toward ice bergs. We do not think the current administration is forgetful; rather, it amounts to a deliberate hijacking of innocent and lazy minds that operate in the external Locus of Control mode. Give the Neocons another four years in power and there may be no way to reverse the trend toward a Fourth Reich.

Either way, our constitution is seriously out-of-date. It is not serving as it was intended to. It seems to have taken on biblical proportions and rigidity that Mr. Bush never misses a trick in fostering. If political corruption, special interests, a packed Supreme Court, and the demise of pluralism, do not spell danger for America we have never seen it.

Soromenho-Marques put his finger on the world view:

"...the main lesson is that the main conflict at stake is not between "American power" and "European weakness", but the different set of consequences for a sustainable international order of differing uses of power: either grounded in a solid legitimacy, or based on raw violence."

Unfortunately, we have chosen the latter path. It is much too close to being Hitlerian for comfort. And for what? Bin Laden is hale and hearty. Iraq has become an expensive quagmire. Terror incidence is at an all-time high. Iraq is not even producing the oil projected for it. And what of the balance of payments, negative $166.2 billion and counting? Add this to the cost of Iraq; add also the cost of tax cuts for the rich. Some people have looked at this and see a monetary crisis looming in a very few years. Oh, but the Neocons have a ready answer. Economic growth will pay for it. On this score, Mr Bush is beginning to look too much like Herbert Hoover, who also presided over net job losses.

Franklin Roosevelt overhauled the social system in the United States; Harry Truman presided over the reconstruction of Europe in positive ways with his Marshall Plan. Both personified the best in democratic behavior: helping others while helping yourself.

They presided over something else. Weapons of war increased in power some 20,000 fold, more than four orders of magnitude!

In their desperation to rule the world Hitler and Mussolini alienated the very people who discovered this awesome nuclear power. Hitler had the narrow egocentric view of the conqueror.

Among the refugees from the Nazi and Fascist boots, two emigres found homes in the US. They found: freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and freedom to worship as they chose. Albert Einstein catalyzed and Enrico Fermi created the nuclear age in a democratic environment.

Democracies tend to bring out the best in people. This is especially true in those professions that are rewards in themselves, like science, performing arts, and literature. By allowing free expression, democracy also brings out the worst in people. How democracies handle this dichotomy governs their very survival.

The history of democracy goes back to the Greeks. Plato thought ill of the idea, and for his time, he was right. Beginning in the 13th Century, democratic ideals began to make headway, very slowly at first, then with gathering speed. The idea gradually became institutionalized for more and more societies. Along the way it had to throw off the yoke of the crown or the despot. Revolution and war were both required.

Stable democracies also require something else, an educated middle class, especially of the business and educational types.

In terms of governance, democracy is a liberal idea when compared with the other forms. Liberalization enables the Lewis-and-Clarks, the Hewletts and Packards, the Fermis and Einsteins, and the Falwells and Robertsons. By enabling both assent and dissent, democratic societies improve their chances for making wise choices.

So how has it worked recently?

After Roosevelt and Truman, Dwight Eisenhower guarded the Treasury as he guarded the nation. John Kennedy defused a hot-war into a cold one--one where economics became the battlefield leading to the USSR collapse. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon, a despot in his own right, nevertheless opened the door to China. Ronald Reagan invented the new-age presidency--form before substance. And George W Bush carried form to new heights, with the Neocons providing him both inspiration and perspiration. Bush added something new, religion, the Evangelical kind. Evangelicals mirror the belief of Islam that their god is God and that God is on their side. This is a most dangerous development for each side of the mirror hardens the other. See Monotheism and Violence.

Along the way, from Truman onward, the nuclear genie, first in one bottle then another became uncorked. Some 30 nations now have a know-how and wherewithal ten thousand fold beyond what was available to Hitler a mere three generations ago.


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