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The Danger of Democracy in the Middle East: Free Elections May Not Produce Freedom

03/01/2011 11:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As we see demands for freedom wash over autocratic rule in the Middle East, we take pride that our belief in "consent of the governed" has had such a profound effect on others. The Declaration of Independence, so familiar to us, offers soaring words for the world. Yet what is familiar is not always understood, and that can be dangerous for our friends in the Middle East.

A common misunderstanding in our desire to spread democracy comes from confusion over what "democracy" means. We call ourselves a democracy because we have free elections, and we assume that free elections produce freedom. Yet, as we encouraged and then watched free elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006, we saw Hamas take power and then wondered where the freedom went when the elections ended. Protests in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan may lead to free elections, but those elections contain the seeds of anarchy and despotism as much as those of constitutional government and personal liberty.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were crafted by people elected for the task (though those elections were not as free as you might think). Yet it was not the elections that produced our governmental framework, it was what those who were elected brought to the task. The delegates to the Second Continental Congress and the Federal Convention were products of a century and a half of practice in governing under colonial rule, of their understanding of the English constitution and English laws and of their study of attempts at government throughout history. America's founders were educated men, many with profound legal minds and years of experience in governing. Indeed, one could argue that the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century was a "school for statesmen" that made possible the last third. Without these preconditions, the ground for protecting individual liberty would have been fallow not fertile. Are such statesman present in the Middle East today?

We should also recall that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and others wanted no part of democracy, which they equated with mob rule. Indeed, they spoke contemptuously of the "rabble," whom they did not trust with governing. The system they created would allow the people (and only some of them) to vote for members of the House but not the Senate or the president. Even the revolutionary Jefferson would not give the vote to women, African Americans or white men who did not own property. The founders were worried about the unrestrained passions of the masses. They wanted a system to protect against the tyranny of the majority, which is what they feared democracy (widespread suffrage) would produce. Will the tyranny of the majority replace the despotism of the autocrat in the Middle East?

We can easily condemn restrictions on the franchise created by the Founders, and these have now been eliminated by two centuries of agitation and Civil War. But we should not be so quick to condemn their concerns about democracy. We should not confuse a vote with careful thought. Our love of "democracy," for example, has led to proposals for computer voting on major national issues. Americans have opinions on everything, of course, but we should no more want government by such direct democracy than we want doctoring by asking patients in the waiting room to vote on what procedure they suggest. The same is true in the Middle East. Democracy does not guarantee sound thinking.

Neither does democracy substitute for productive debate. Admirers of direct democracy like to point to the New England town meeting, where each citizen could argue his point of view. Yet historians remind us that a lot of the most important issues in colonial New England were never entrusted to the town meeting. While the prospect of direct democracy through computers is alluring and while the Web is a wonderful enhancement to political give-and-take, the Internet is not always known for producing sensible blog posts and chat streams. Similarly, we should not assume that because young people in the Middle East mastered social networking for their revolution that they will master the dialogue needed to create the architecture of free institutions.

The Founders also knew that education is essential to freedom. Thomas Jefferson correctly said that "a society that expects to be ignorant and free expects what never was and never will be." Unfortunately, in the Middle East, repressive regimes have stifled learning about governance and practicing the skills of governing free institutions -- both so available to our founding generation. If knowledge is power, ignorance is subjugation. Are freedom fighters in the Middle East prepared for the power coming their way?

So if our Founders were afraid of democracy, what did they want? The answer is a republic, where elections produce representatives who exercise power on behalf of the people. As James Madison famously put it in Federalist #10, a republic is desirable because it may "refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country..." Does such wisdom exist in the Middle East today, and where can we find it?

Representative government has its problems too, to be sure. The Founders knew it would. They did not expect all statesmen to be enlightened; daily observation of the American political scene proves that point. So they designed countervailing centers of power at the national level and between the central government and the states as a check on the tendency of passions instilled in factions to destroy liberty. These countervailing sources of power may also be lacking in the Middle East. Free elections will not by itself create them.

The conditions for free institutions and free people do not emerge naturally from democracy. They take a lot of work. If we hope to see freedom flourish in the Middle East, we should do all we can to help educate and support responsible people and republican institutions. That we have spent more on arming these nations than on helping their people learn the art of republican government may well come back to haunt us in the months ahead.

Upon leaving the Constitutional Convention on its last day, September 17, 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what the convention had wrought. His answer was short yet profound: "A republic, if you can keep it." The emerging nations of the Middle East could wisely hope for a republic -- and the ability to keep it. Even in the United States, that is not easy. It takes effort and sacrifice. That will be no less true in Cairo, Egypt than in Cairo, Illinois.