In my last post I pointed out that democracy isn’t an end in itself, but a means to an end, that end being the improvement of the human condition. If under certain conditions democracies don’t actually improve the human condition, maybe we should tolerate some other form of government, at least temporarily.

In this post I want to point out another issue with democracy, namely, that it can’t exist in a vacuum. Any society can elect a government, but unless that society also boasts a whole range of democracy-supporting institutions, the elections will have been a waste of time. Whoever gets into office will simply do whatever he or she wants – say, becoming president-for-life.

In the West, we’ve fought hard and for centuries to put these institutions in place. Consider that King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, but it took another 600 years before Britain had anything like a true democracy.

What are these institutions? Well, as they say in Hollywood, “it’s complicated.” In Europe and North America we would list institutions like the rule of law, freedom of speech and press, freedom of religion, protection for minorities and women, and so on. Without these, democracy is a hollow reed. Even with them, we’ve had in the US at least one experience where an incumbent president tried to be – and succeeded, by the way, in becoming – president-for-life.(1)

In other words, democracy isn’t much good in and of itself. Instead, it’s more appropriately viewed as the glorious mansion that sits firmly – but only – atop a vast foundation of grubbier institutions.

Which brings us to the second problem with democracy and institutions: in the West we can’t seem to get it through our minds, despite being hit over the head hundreds of times, that the institutions we believe support democracy are themselves Eurocentric, not universal. Other societies certainly need a range of institutions to underpin their democracies if they’re going to have any, but they won’t necessarily be our institutions. I’ll give three examples.

Consider freedom of religion. In the West it’s axiomatic that governments should stay the hell out of the religion business. So strongly do we feel about this that if some backwater town hall puts up a Christmas tree it becomes a national crisis. But this seems like silly nonsense in the Islamic world. A government that doesn’t operate according to Islamic law – not radical Islamic law, just Islamic law – is simply a blasphemous pretender that needs to be rooted out. Even the remarkable secular state in Turkey established so long ago by Ataturk has come under powerful attack in recent years.

Or consider the role of women. In the West it seems a simple matter of human dignity that men and women should be treated alike. But in Islamic countries this is also blasphemy. To them, the word of God is clear: men and women may be equal in the eyes of the Lord, but on earth they are to occupy quite different spheres. Viewed from the West, this seems like nothing more than gender discrimination in the name of religion. But in the Islamic world there is no sense that women are somehow “inferior” to men, they are just different.(2) When we try to impose our own cultural biases, as in our ludicrous attempt to create a gender-neutral Afghanistan, the results are boringly predictable: disaster.

Or consider the role of the individual. In the West, the individual is the glory of humankind. All rights and duties run to and from the individual, not the group. But in many societies, ranging from primitive tribes to modern China, it’s quite the other way around: it’s the group that matters much more than the individual. We might disagree, but our disagreement is simply irrelevant to how we should relate to those societies. Lecturing China on the issue of human rights is a colossal waste of time when we are thinking of individual rights and China is thinking of group rights.

There are so many examples of how America (and Europe) have gone wrong by insisting on democratic elections outside the context of supportive institutions and/or insisting on enforcing Western cultural institutions in inappropriate contexts, that it’s impossible to list them all. Basically, every time we have a chance we screw it up. But as an illustration, here are a couple of recent examples:

* After the removal of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and the election of former Field Marshall al-Sisi, the US was so incensed that we cut off military support to the new al-Sisi regime. A few short months later, as ISIS seemed about to conquer the world, it turned out that the only Arab country we could really count on in the battle against ISIS was – you guessed it – Egypt. We had to go crawling back pleading with the Egyptians to help. This sort of fiasco is both predictable and totally unnecessary, and it eviscerates whatever shreds of respect we have remaining in the Arab world.

* A really interesting example is what’s going on in Hong Kong. While Hong Kong Chinese are in many respects indistinguishable from mainland Chinese,(3) they have a very different cultural history, thanks to British rule of the island for 155 years. That cultural history – not just democracy but the full institutional underpinning(4) – clashes profoundly with the cultural history of mainland China. It’s an almost laboratory-quality example of what happens when different cultures clash over democracy and its associated institutions. Of course, given that there are seven million Hong Kong Chinese and 1.7 billion mainland Chinese, there’s little doubt about the ultimate outcome. Cf., Tiananmen Square.

(1) FDR. His decision to violate long custom by running for a third term, and his court-packing scheme, so alarmed Americans that, even though FDR was extremely popular (presidents-for-life usually are), his actions led directly to the adoption of the 22nd Amendment, limiting Presidents to two terms.

(2) A friend of mine has written a wonderful little book called Saudi Girl Barbara, which you should read. Barbara tells some terrific stories about Saudi Arabia in general and about the role of women in the society. One story in particular caught my attention. Barbara was attending a medical lecture in which the Saudi audience was (naturally) segregated into a men’s section in the front and a burka-wearing women’s section in the back. When the speaker was finished, a few male hands went up, but a great many female hands. From that point on the women dominated the conversation while the men listened respectfully. Compare America, where the guys dominate the classroom while the liberated women sit quietly and try to look pretty and dumb.

(3) Officially known now as the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China,” Hong Kong is 94% ethnic Chinese, mainly originating from neighboring Guangdong province.

(4) Recently one of the student leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement (aka the Umbrella Uprising) was arrested. Since Joshua Wong hadn’t been charged with a crime, a Hong Kong court promptly issued a writ of habeas corpus and he was released. Try that on the mainland.

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