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Van Gosse

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What Is a Democracy?

Posted: 02/01/11 02:30 PM ET

A recent blog by The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg ("What If Israel Ceases to Be a Democracy?") led to my pondering a basic question: what is a democracy? Can we define it by a single, simple standard that will rebut the self-justifying assertions by rulers who pay cynical homage to democracy, but violate its spirit every day?

Growing up when World War II was a recent memory, I was schooled in the fundamental divide between "the democracies" and "the Axis." That appeal retains a strong punch, given the explicitly anti-democratic, racially supremacist programs of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Only a fool would suggest any moral equivalence between the U.S. and Nazi Germany; however flawed we were, there was the potential for progress, and indeed World War II proved to be a great laboratory for democracy at home, jump-starting the civil rights movements for black, brown, yellow and red people, empowering women, and inspiring FDR's great "Four Freedoms" speech, which remains the touchstone for social justice even in this century.

But casting World War II as simply the struggle for democracy against tyranny also looks pretty absurd, given some historical distance. Consider our premier ally Great Britain, headed by the arch-imperialist Winston Churchill, who dedicated his political life to resisting the tide of self-government and independence in British-ruled India and Africa. Or France, which out-did the British in its passion for colonialism (think how much violence it took to kick them out of Indochina and Algeria, long after World War II). Here at home, Japanese citizens were put into concentration camps, in flagrant contempt for the Anglo-American tradition of equality under the law, and the ex-Confederate states remained what they had been for half-a-century, a collection of one-party, white man's governments.

Then came the Cold War, with its cant about America as the Free World's citadel of democracy versus godless Communism. Certainly, the pressure of standing up to the Soviets provided crucial leverage for civil rights in places like Alabama, but once you left our shores, any claim to strengthening democracy was laughable. Even as a kid, I found that hard to take with a straight face, given the dictatorships that the U.S. supported in countries like Korea (Rhee), Cuba (Batista), Indonesia (Suharto), Brazil (the generals), Greece (the colonels), Spain (Franco), South Africa (all those democratically-elected Afrikaners), the Phillipines (Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), and "South" Vietnam (Diem and then various generals).

If the word really means anything, the U.S. itself was not a proper democracy until 1968 or even later. Indeed, many countries that vaunt their democracy today do not meet the objective standard for a democracy. What is that standard? Political theorists can offer more complete definitions, but here's mine:

A democracy is a state that grants citizenship to all people who live permanently under its authority, and enforces the equal rights under law of all those citizens, with each adult holding ac presumptively equal share in making political decisions, via a representative electoral system. A country that professes democracy but permits major exceptions to this equality of rights and powers does not deserve to be called "a democracy." It is at best, a corrupt simulacrum; I think of Frederick Douglass arraigning his native land for practicing a "bastard republicanism, a sham democracy," because of its embrace of slavery.

The best examples of "sham democracy" in modern times are the herrenvolk (or master race) democracies forged in Europe's settler colonies around the globe, which relied on the controlled labor of a subject people marked by some form of phenotypical difference. The English pioneered this new type of racial state in Ireland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where the marker was not a dark complexion but Catholic faith, which defined the peasantry as landless laborers and tenants with no rights any Englishman was bound to respect. It took the Irish three hundred years to kick John Bull out of most of their island; they then created an explicitly Catholic republic, with the Church taking control of education and most social services until very recently, with predictably disastrous results in terms of basic democratic rights for girls and women.

Closer to home, it would be evidently impossible to claim the United States as a democracy before 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment freed four million human chattels. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment made everyone born in the U.S. a citizen, with equal rights enforceable under law, the greatest democratic breakthrough in our history. But as many women pointed out, any democracy worthy of the name would have enfranchised the female majority of the population and secured their independent property rights. That did not happen until the very recent past. Long after American women gained the vote in 1920, they endured severe legal disabilities, because the traditional common law principle of coverture, under which a woman's legal status was subordinated to that of a man (a father or husband) survived, even where not embodied in law; the law, after all, is what those in authority choose to enforce. Well into the post-World War II era American women could not get a mortgage, bank account, or credit card without a husband or father co-signing. But it was actually worse than that. The most fundamental right of a citizen is the right to the security of one's body -- the right not to be assaulted or threatened. By that standard, it took even longer for women to reach full citizenship, as only in the late 1970s did hundreds of years of Anglo-American legal practice end, and American men lost their "right" to their wives' bodies. Until feminist lawyers pressed the point, it was impossible for a woman to prosecute her husband for rape. By that standard, she was quite obviously not a full citizen with legal rights.

But we're not done. The citizenship gained by black people after the Civil War, including the Fifteenth Amendment's prohibition of racial bars on voting, was effectively voided throughout the South around the end of the nineteenth century, through pseudo-legal barriers like literacy tests and poll taxes. Meanwhile right through the 1940s the public murder of black people ( (lynching) was sanctioned by the South's political leaders as a form of "higher law." Finally, in the 1960s, what historians call "the long civil rights movement" bore fruit, as the massive disruption forced by the civil rights movement, the effective litigation strategy of the NAACP, and the large-scale voter registration campaigns organized by Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference broke down the door. As of roughly 1968, African Americans as a people were at last American citizens, if barely, and the other subject peoples inside the U.S. also finally gained their rights, whether Native Americans, various groups of Latinos, or Asian Americans.

Enfranchising as equal citizens the roughly seventy percent of our population who are not white men did not complete the long fight to make American democracy worthy of the name. As those movements were cresting in the late 1960s, one more constituency found its voice, and demanded its rights--gay and lesbian Americans. Much of our politics for the past generation has revolved around the question of whether there was still one group left to stigmatize, a whipping boy around which to unite (think of anti-gay activists reaching out to African Americans to pass the referendum barring gay marriage in California). As of 2011, that struggle seems to be ending in a victory for an unqualified democracy. In 2003, the Supreme Court struck down the antique laws criminalizing sexual love between people of the same gender, and in December 2010 the Democrats finally used their congressional majorities to end the contemptible "don't ask, don't tell" rules within our armed services. Finally, gay and lesbian people are grasping the same basic rights as the rest of us: to marry and raise children, to serve in the military without fear or favor, to work and go to school without abuse. In this light, the United States has only become a proper, working democracy in the last generation, the one that has come to fruition now in the Obama era, however brief that may be. And even this claim rests uneasily with the refusal or inability of our many governments (local, state, federal) to enforce all of our rights without fear or favor.

We can play out this investigation for other countries that claim to be democratic: do they offer full citizenship (or legitimate routes towards it, for permanent immigrants) to everyone under their authority? In the clear light of day, there are many exceptions and qualifications, some of which make the contemporary U.S. look rather impressive, with its simple, equal standard of birthright citizenship,. Few other countries recognize everyone born on their soil--even going back several generations -- as a citizen.

For posturing about "democracy," with all the trappings of vigorous electoralism and a lively press, while violating it every day in basic ways, Israel currently takes the cake, however. The facts are simple: the State of Israel governs about eleven million people. Roughly four million of those are Palestinian Arabs living in the territories Israel seized forty-four years ago (a majority Muslim, but a substantial number Christian) who have virtually no rights: they cannot vote for deputies to the Knesset, they cannot get passports, they have no physical security from the Israeli army, police, or the settler paramilitaries, whose presence (young men carrying automatic rifles) is pervasive in Jerusalem and its environs. They are jailed without trial in large numbers by military courts, and their houses are destroyed and lands poisoned and seized on a routine basis. They have the privilege of occasionally voting for weak local "governments" run by one of the Palestinian factions, Hamas or Fatah, but in neither case do those rulers exercise effective sovereignty. They cannot protect their subjects from the occupying power or its citizens, the half-million settlers, a substantial minority of whom are violent racists acknowledging no law other than their own, not even that of the State of Israel. And inside Israel, the 20% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish, about 1.5 million people, are clearly less-than-equal, given the more than twenty laws which officially privilege Jews over all others. So if Israel is a "democracy," it is the latest version of a herrenvolk (yes, master race) one, with rights and freedoms for some based on the subjugation of others. And this shows no signs of abating. No wonder President Carter suggested that this terrible situation resembles South Africa's notorious apartheid system, and that Jeffrey Goldberg and other observers raise the very real fear that Jewish Israelis may give up the self-reinforcing pretences that they live in a democracy and the Occupation is temporary in favor of an outright ethnic dictatorship.

For me, the conclusion is that democracy is largely new, fragile, and needs defending, rather than some inevitable, well-matured system with deep roots. And also that it remains a very radical proposition. As I argued in a post last August, "American Democracy (the lack thereof)," our democratic system is still hobbled by the deliberately unrepresentative structures bequeathed us by federalism, which violate the basic principles of one-person, one-vote in every congressional and presidential election. We see the effects of this corruption every time a group of senators representing a small fraction of the country's population blocks the elected majority's ability to pass legislation. We certainly saw it in 2000, when a grossly over-represented minority elected a president. So if you care about democracy, we have our work cut out for us.