By Peter E. Feltman
As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Iraq, what can we hope for? Plenty! But plenty of what?
Perhaps we should forget the earlier exhortations about liberty, constitutions and nation building and concentrate on a few simple concepts that have proven to be of universal value in successful democratic societies. These concepts are the building blocks that philosophers say allow a people to attain not just democracy but virtue: (1) an independent judiciary, (2) the related separation of powers and (3) a free press. Focusing on these three building blocks is a better course than encouraging the catch phrases and more abstract notions of democracy.
Democracy holds a high position among western politicians, of course. Sometimes, politicians reduce democracy to desirable outcomes. “Genuine democracies do not, by and large, make wars upon each other,” Margaret Thatcher noted as she outlined her vision for a Pax Democratica world to succeed the Cold War. Winston Churchill put it differently, telling the House of Commons in 1947 that “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Both Thatcher’s comment and Churchill’s make democracy seem grander that other forms of government.
The trouble with all the ideas that philosophers love and politicians praise is that politics is not architecture. Politics is plumbing. The problem is not deciding what we want to achieve. The problem is how to get there. The late Tony Judt wrote that to maximize the virtues often associated with democracy, there needs to be constitutionality, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. “Democracy almost always came last,” he wrote in his final book, Thinking the Twentieth Century. Democracy is not the starting point, he believed.
Separation of powers has proven to work in countries with different structures. The key is the ability to hold officials accountable and prevent them from gathering too much power. In the United States, judges uphold a constitution that is very difficult to change by amendment. Case by case, the law builds by nuance as much as by declaration. In Britain, Parliament holds more power than does the U.S. Congress, since Parliament can change the constitutional ideals, the foundation for the law. In post-revolutionary France, as Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in Democracy in America, judges upheld an immutable constitution. France has never had a system similar to U.S. and British case law, where courts interpret law and provide precedent, but France’s politicians, too, face the court’s justice, as former Prime Minister Jacques Chirac learned when he was found guilty of corruption in 2011.
Freedom of the press is another key. Freedom does not mean fairness. Whether it is Fox news versus MSNBC, William Randolph Hearst or Joseph Medill, whose descendents ran the McCormick and Patterson newspaper empires, the media have often been highly partisan, with no deleterious effects on the viability of the U.S. system of government. The proof of press freedom is the fact that partisan media outlets can flourish in a society.
A free press guards against a big concern of the ancient Greeks. Living in the crucible of democracy, they witnessed silver-tongued orators influencing the crowd, leading to mob rule. With a free and active press, no one has a monopoly on ideas and politicians are always called to question. Think of the demagogues of the 20th century: None of them thrived in a country with true freedom of speech.
What about governing with all the various factions at odds with each other in Iraq and Afghanistan? Here we look to the early days of the U.S. James Madison felt that factions were an evil, but also inevitable. In the Federalist Papers No. 10, he advocated addressing factions through checks and balances. Among these were staggered terms in the Senate, to provide resistance to the trends of the day. Senators originally entered office through what Madison called “successive filtrations,” where individuals tend to elect those with more wisdom. Voters elected state politicians, who in turn appointed Senators.
Tocqueville believed this system of election by two stages helped keep people from what he described as the misery of the shoals of democracy. While no longer the case for Senators, judges face a Madisonian filtration process, where they are reviewed by the two other branches of government in the Presidential nomination and Senate confirmation process. These checks and balances have passed the test of time, and the U.S. system of government is now the oldest in the world.
The Greeks gave us not just democracy, but tales of what went wrong. Tyrants, kings, mob rule: All these make up Greek tragedy. The moral? Tragedy can be averted with independent judges, free speech and a system that balances power within the government. As the U.S. continues through the 21st Century, it should recognize and encourage others to implement the checks and balances that make democracy work. That is better than giving them drafts of constitutions that may work very well somewhere else, in a different culture, with a different history.
The grand designs do not tell a people how to fix the leaky pipes that degrade everyday life.