Wednesday, 9. March 2011 23:04
Attended the talk this evening put on by Dr. Chris Housenick (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Arkansas Tech University). Housenick ran down the political, demographic, and economic factors that have lead to the domino-like toppling of autocratic and dictatorial regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya. Among the interesting facts he highlighted:
The generational gap between the octogenarian dictators that were leading these countries until recently. The median age in the U.S. is 40, while it hovers between 20 and 26 in these Middle Eastern nations.
The severe economic disparity between this elite group and the poverty-stricken populations of these countries. Whereas the average GDP for each citizen in the U.S. is around $40k, the average GDP for a Middle Easterner in these countries is around $2k
The religious and political leaders emerging on the scene to step into the void left by these dictators
The talk and the discussion that followed left me with the following conclusions regarding the current unrest in the Middle East.
– If the unrest topples the political leadership in Saudi Arabia, we may pine for the days of $5 gasoline.
– While the dictatorships being toppled in the Middle East were evil and murderous, there are no guarantees that the outcome of this rebellion will be a) peaceful or b) democratic or c) more pro-Western regimes. And many reasons to be pessimistic about said outcomes.
– The more likely result may be the displacement of the current regime of aging dictators with new, and just as brutal, dictators with a decidedly anti-Western disposition.
– The religious/political tribalism of these societies which embraces Sharia, is dedicated to the more radical forms of Islam, and views diversity as a social ill rather than a social good to be accommodated gives little hope of a ‘democratic’ culture emerging in these nations any time soon.
– The prospects for religious persecution and discrimination (even active violence) against women and other minorities has risen significantly.
– The prospects of bloodshed in the region at nigh-unprecedented (for the region in modern times) levels, are becoming more and more likely.
One note on the foreign policy issue which I raised with Dr. Housenick during his talk that I would like to reiterate here — I’ve never been a fan of realpolitik (realism), which essentially argues for U.S. foreign policy to be exclusively focused on U.S. political and economic security and thus rendering irrelevant the political legitimacy (or evilness, as I would put it) of the leadership of countries we do business with. While I acknowledge that a complex international system and a world fraught with real security threats to the U.S. must necessarily entail doing deals with the devil every now and again, it is another thing entirely to raise such pragmatism to the level of unmitigated good. The indifference to evil political regimes in favor of pure ‘guns and butter’ considerations is all too often the case with advocates of realism in U.S. foreign policy. I find this aspect of the realist ‘theory’ to be morally repugnant and a key factor in the undermining of our international standing when incorporated into our foreign policy irrespective of the Waltzian and neo-Waltzian empirical/theoretical arguments centered on the nature of the international system and the anarchic competition between nation-states inherent to it.
On the other hand, the naive pro-democracy ideology of the Bush Doctrine (or at least a version of it), where we fetishize voting as the end-all and be-all of democracy, is equally pernicious. Such ignores a thousand years of human history and the problems fraught with implementing democratic institutions that the Founders (particularly Madison) noted more than 200 years ago. While neo-conservatism (of which the Bush Doctrine is an outshoot) does not in and of itself advocate the institution of democratic institutions as an inherent good or as the primary method for promoting pro-Western values around the world, the Bush Doctrine rhetoric was fraught with just such a formulation. While the underlying theory may have been more nuanced (more Madisonian), Bush and his acolytes argued that democracy itself was the “antidote” to terrorism. Persistently failing to distinguish ‘democracy’ as something more than a paper electoral system and the process of voting. Perhaps the powerful image of women voting in Iraq naturally lead the Bush political leadership to make voting a point of emphasis, but this lead to such foreign policy blunders as the Hamas take-over of the Palestinian authority under the ‘color’ of elections and has permitted Syria to radicalize Lebanon with the flag of ‘democracy.’ Indeed, Bush lauded the ‘democratic’ movement in Lebanon at the same time he was blasting Syria, failing to recognize that Syria-financed Hezbollah was a viable political party in Lebanon and stood to gain considerable power as a consequence of this ‘democratic’ revolution. They were thus well-positioned to tyrannize further the Christian minority and the more moderate elements of the culture in Lebanon.
“All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience,” Bush told the people of Lebanon. “The American people are on your side. Millions across the Earth are on your side.”
Years later, Lebanon is not pro-Western. It does not respect diversity. It does not have a limited constitutional regime. Indeed, it has gone in the opposite direction as Hezbollah and Hamas have solidified their grip on the country through the very democratic political institutions that Bush touted. Steven Cook defends Bush on the grounds that Lebanon hasn’t instituted real democracy: “Hezbollah may have embraced the procedures of democracy, there is no evidence that they have embraced the rule of law, the rights of women and minorities, political and religious tolerance, and alternation of power.” Exactly. The problem being that the Bush Doctrine didn’t emphasize those aspects of modern limited democracies. Rather it focused almost exclusively on voting and ‘democracy’ unexplained and undefined. The problem, contra-Cook, was democracy promotion. The U.S. should have been in the constitutional republic promotion business.
Madison noted well the problems of democracy in the Federalist papers. The tyranny of the majority is no less a threat today in democratic institutions than it was back then. The genius of our constitutional system is its division of power, institutionalization of federalism, and a checks-and-balances system that divides, separates, and sets against one another the democratic political institutions of our government — making any one lasting majority very unlikely. The omnipresent and inevitable prospect of returning to minority status through frequent and regular elections coupled with the inability to gain full control of the reigns of the multiplicity of governmental forms in our system disincentivizes active majorities from neutering the political voice of the minority, as they well-know that one day soon they will be filling those very shoes. Witness the persistence of the filibuster, despite the fact minorities have regularly employed it to thwart the will of the majority. What retains it except the foreknowledge–the shadow of the future–of a perpetual cycling of majority status that acts to constrain current majorities from engaging in institutional adventurism?
Strangely enough, the particularly *un*democratic institutions of our government (such as the judiciary, the Senate, & the electoral college) guard against any one moment of temporary passion doing lasting damage to the rights of the minority. Even in the most extreme situations (instituting a new government, civil war, world war) the examples of minority-rights trampling (the Alien & Sedition Act, the martial law and removal of habeas corpus rights under Lincoln, and the Japanese internment camps of WWII) are, relatively-speaking, of little consequence when set against the monstrous acts of totalitarian regimes against dissenters and disfavored minorities (e.g. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao, Che, Castro, etc. etc. etc.). While outrageous in the American political context and devastating to the individuals affected, they never rose to the level of truly eliminating the fundamental rights of the minority (see, e.g. the Weimar Republic & Hitler’s rise).
Furthermore, in each instance, our political system reacted, post-crisis, to redress the wrongs and correct the damage done to minority rights. The Alien & Sedition Act was repealed by the freshly seated Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans. The end of the Civil War also saw the end of martial law and the re-establishment of basic civil rights (even for ex-Confederates). And the deplorable decision in Korematsu v. United States that validated FDR’s internment decision, while technically still a precedent of the USSC, is near-universally reviled and stands today only because no government action on the level of the internment has been taken in the interim and justified on similar grounds.
Now you’ll notice that the worst American example of rights-deprivation, slavery, is missing from the above list. I think slavery in America is exceptional for a number of reasons. One, it was an institution that predated the Madisonian constitutional regime. You can hardly blame slavery on the constitution. Slavery has been the norm of human existance for most of human history. So it is true that Madisonian federalism can coexist along with a regime of exclusion already in place with deep roots in society and where an entire economy is dependent on that institution, but this is true of every form of government. In other words, at worst it can be said that Madisonianism, like every other kind of government, can tolerate slavery. At best it can be said that Madisonianism provided a mechanism for the elimination of slavery and discrimination against minorities given the right circumstances in later generations. In any event, the elimination of slavery is an institution has only been accomplished in democracies and republics and it has been accomplished in both of them.
Second, minorities are protected by constitutional federalism only where they are a threat to gain the majority. Since slaves had no political representation to begin with, there was no impetus in the system to protect rights they didn’t have. In other words, the minority-protecting nature of Madisonianism presupposes existing political rights for the minorities. It does not ensure the creation of new rights, rather, it protects the rights of those who have political rights to begin with. And while that is undoubtedly a limitation of Madisoian constituionalism, note that there is no mechanism for protecting minority rights at all in direct democracy. And minorities have almost no say in public policy in parlimentary systems. So, again, while this may be a failing of Madisonism, I challenge its critics to put forward a democratic governing system without this flaw.
Third, the controversial nature of slavery, and its inherent contradictions in a society oriented towards individualism, diversity, and liberty, also pre-dated the constitution of 1787. While slavery persisted under the constitution of 1787, it was curtailed and limited. The power of slave states was limited under the constitution (3/5ths compromise). Political compromises between ratification and the Civil War (the Missouri compromise) marginalized it. It took extraordinary events (Dred Scott v. Sanford, Southern secession) to disrupt the political process that was already working against the institution of slavery. And lastly, those inherent contradictions lead to one of the most unprecedented events in history – a civil war fought, at the very least in large part, to free from bondage an oppressed racial minority initiated by the very government of that country itself and supported by majorities of the citizenry. And once freed to participate politically, the logic of the Madisonian system has helped Blacks realize and maintain political power and expanded and protected their political rights and place in society. Indeed, I would argue MLK, Jr.’s civil rights movement required a Madisonian constitutional system within which to flourish, and MLK, Jr. expressly articulated Madisonian political values in pressing for the end of segregation and discrimination.
In short, our system has proved powerfully resistant to usurpations of minority rights. Even when particular national, local, or state governments and other official and unofficial actors in the U.S. have transgressed on those rights, no lasting alteration of the fundamental right of minorities to exist, flourish, and one day become majorities has ever been ensconced in the American political system. Even entrenched social institutions of exclusion like slavery and the denial of womens’ suffrage eventually gave way–not despite the constitution but rather because of it. A constitutional system designed to respect diversity, minority rights, and liberty at its institutional core was destined to extend those protections to the logical end: protected political rights for all.
The failure of the United States to put forward an ideological case for Madisonian federalism in constitutional design as a significant part of its foreign policy is one of the more baffling and, in my opinion, destructive features of U.S. foreign policy going back to WWI and WWII. We have always seemed particularly averse to advocating for our particular balance between democratic and non-democratic institutions in the numerous instances where we have helped countries set up new political systems. Is it any wonder that the predominant form of democracy in the world today is parliamentary government, the very form of government that the Founders found to be destructive of their liberty, when the U.S. is unwilling to make the case against it and in favor of federal, decentralized, limited and institutionally separated, political systems?
Perhaps it is some lingering aspect of our inherent isolationism or some desire to avoid the example of Great Britain and its export of their political culture (the “White Man’s Burden”) that has lead us to concede that our constitutional arrangement is unique and peculiar to the United States. That Hartz’s lament was right – we are so Lockian we don’t even know who Locke is – and that (contra-Hartz) a political culture must be Lockian to its core in order for our system to work. Or mayhap it has to do with our own departure from the dual federalism of the Founders era in favor of nationally-dominated cooperative and even coercive ‘federalism’ in the modern age.
Whatever the cause, I believe it has lead to more international mischief – more political regimes disposed towards anti-liberty politics – than any single thing we have done on the international scene since the Monroe Doctrine. The most stable, democratic republic in the history of the world…and what? We have to keep it all to our self? No other country could benefit from a federal system? From a system of checks and balances? From a government divided into separate institutions? This isn’t to say we should be insisting that other countries adopt our model or every particular structural quirk of the constitution of 1787…but there’s alot of wisdom that went into the creation of this constitutional regime. There’s a powerful logic and a weighty empirical case for its set-up fostering economic prosperity, democratic input, centrist politics, and increasing liberty for its citizens. Yet it is an example we have avoided in our contributions to the constitutional designs in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and, more recently, Afghanistan and Iraq. Federalism in particular seems like a pretty good idea for a country like Iraq, with relatively contiguous ethnic/religious communities trifurcating the country. But nope. Ask the U.S. what kind of democratic political system you should have and what the measure of democracy is and, for the most part, we’ve answered with 1) parliamentary government and 2) voting.
The U.S. should be a shining city on a hill to the fledgling democracies of the world…and our State department and political leaders should trumpet it as exactly that. Whether or not those countries successfully implement such a system is another question entirely, but you would think that if anyone would put the case forward for constitutional federalism…it would be us.