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A Democratic Ambivalence
February 21, 2012 4:14 AM   Subscribe

"A staggering 49 per cent of Pakistanis said that it did not matter to them whether the government was democratic or not. Even more surprisingly, 21 per cent of Indian respondents also said that it did not matter to people such as themselves whether the government was democratic or dictatorial. Added to the fact that a third of respondents offered no response at all, many people in countries with substantial experience of democracy or with significant experience of both democracy and dictatorship appear to share the Libyans’ ambivalence about democracy as the preferred form of governance."
posted by artof.mulata (83 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's links to the BBC article that spawned the FPP and the Central European Political Studies Review piece that provided the data.
posted by artof.mulata at 4:16 AM on February 21, 2012


Could it be because today's "democracy" is just the God-given right to be ruled by corporations with cavernous pockets?
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:17 AM on February 21, 2012 [43 favorites]


Could it be because today's "democracy" ...

The idea that democracy produces effective government seems to be loosing steam everywhere it is being used. Today's democracies seem incapable of making difficult decisions. People will simply not vote to impose necessary hardship on themselves.

Chinese communism, on the other hand, is proving to be durable and recently much more successful than any democracy in providing for its people.
posted by three blind mice at 4:28 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Next up on FOX - This Republic we call the United States has stood steadfast and strong for more than two centuries - fully 1/30 of the entire timespan of Earth's existence - and yet fledgling so-called Democracies in the Middle East are fracturing and crumbling. Could we be next if "Democrats" get their way and establish a secular Democracy here in these United States? Not if these brave, brave Republican Presidential candidates have anything to do with it."
posted by kcds at 4:31 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Chinese communism, on the other hand..

Note the "Chinese". Chinese isn't communist in most senses of the word.
posted by devnull at 4:32 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Democracy requires at least 1000 calories a day. It's not going to flourish otherwise.
posted by Renoroc at 4:35 AM on February 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


I don't think it's so much a disillusionment with democracy as we experience it in Western Europe or the US. It's more a cultural thing; we're taught from a very early age that our vote is worth dying for.

I can remember reading (a few years ago) interviews with young Russians, many of whom were fairly indifferent to the idea of democracy; their attitude was very much "if it works, and if it doesn't get in my way, I don't care what political system we have". Democracies are, at least in theory, easier to 'fix' when things go wrong, and less prone to corruption than other forms of government. But at the end of the day, it's the quality of life of the people that determines whether a particular system is stable or goes to hell and falls apart.

People don't much like sweeping political change. Democracy is often a violent and disruptive thing, particularly in the early stages. I can't say I necessarily blame people who'd rather just put a new, less oppresive regime in power, and hope things go back to normal.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 4:36 AM on February 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


I would be interested in learning what practical difference it would make to the average U.S. citizen were the U.S. to abandon [the pretense of] democracy. I think it's just a buzzword at this point.
posted by facetious at 4:37 AM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I have to wonder how many Americans would also prefer a dictatorial government, if given the choice?

Not that they would choose a dictatorship if you baldly asked them a direct "democracy or dictatorship" question. You'd have to give them a more oblique choice, along the lines of "Would you rather stick with the stalemate and bickering we have now, or would you rather see a strong, new party take control and bring order and God's message to government?"
posted by Thorzdad at 4:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [22 favorites]


If you try to compare these figures unfavourably with the US as some of you posters are wont to do, can I ask you just what sort of voting turnout you expect in a general election?
posted by wilful at 4:51 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Note the "Chinese". Chinese isn't communist in most senses of the word.

Yes. Plain old vanilla "communist" is even more discredited than democracy. Not even communists believe in communism anymore. The Chinese version of totalitarianism seems to work where Soviet versions failed, but we will not know for certain until the Chinese have a few score client states to manage and as many foreign governments to control. World domination can get unwieldy, but maybe it will be easier this time with computers and Facebook and stuff.

I think it's just a buzzword at this point.

Well, it's not a buzzword facetious if the aforementioned capitalists must invest billions into its manipulation, but yeah, since most Americans are presented with a choice of two candidates they don't like, between whom the differences are degrees of stink, the process does seem rather somewhat superfluous.
posted by three blind mice at 4:55 AM on February 21, 2012


In many ways, democracy (i.e. the power to put an x in one of two very similar boxes every four or five years) is just a dictatorship you can't have a revolution against.
posted by iotic at 4:57 AM on February 21, 2012 [10 favorites]


It's not superfluous, tbm, it's a critical part of vaudeville. If you get rid of the smoke and mirrors all you have left is a furiously sweating rank of old white guys in french-cuffed shirts with suspender-lifted pinstripe pants, but no jackets, sitting on rickety stools in front of a massive creaking, wheezing, and copiously dripping steam-operated control panel full of dials and levers it takes two hands to operate. And cute coffee-girls in oh so tight steward outfits with jaunty caps who bring them cigars and cognac and pat their foreheads with linen cloths and giggle and wink when a hand goes astray.

No one wants to see that. We know it's there. We don't want to see it. It's too depressing.

We need the dancing donkeys, the elephants on beach balls, the rat-a-tat of the snare and the Copland-esque fanfares. And the vote cards and the pencils and bubbles to fill in and the ballot boxes and the scrutineers and the registration forms and the ID checks and criers who cheer us as we exercise our patriotic right to vote.

Not choose, mind. Right to vote.

Without that right, we're no better than the commies.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:08 AM on February 21, 2012 [18 favorites]


Of course, we don't have a democracy, China isn't communist, and what you call Iran's government isn't a dictatorship, it's a theocracy. When you lump everything into two boxes -- say, "democracy" and "dictatorship", it's not surprising that the discussion becomes untenable.

Of course, "democracy" itself is an ancient bit of propaganda. If you went back to just before the Athenian Democracy, and asked a Greek what the word for "rule by the people" would be, they would answer "demarchy". Contrast with "oligarchy". "Oligos" meant few, and "archo" was "to govern", thus, oligarchy meant "rule by a few" and of course there's anarchy, rule by none.

Democracy, however, comes from "demos" -- meaning "the people" as in "all of the people" and "kratos" which means "power," in the sense of violent strength. It was coined by the wealthy in Athens (wealth=plutos) as a statement that the democracy was rule by the violence of the people, rather than the governance of the able few.

And you thought this sort of thing was new?
posted by eriko at 5:13 AM on February 21, 2012 [18 favorites]


Is this the thread where I patronise the brown people whilst sitting an equal distance from members of my society who are starving and members who are eating food with gold flakes in it?

I don't care what you want to call the type of government I am under, all I know is it's shit.
posted by fullerine at 5:16 AM on February 21, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Chinese version of totalitarianism seems to work...

Work to what end? And for whom? It certainly works for well-connected members of the Party, if that's what you mean. It works to juke superficial stats like GDP (a trend which I doubt will continue). It works to create the illusion that it works by tightly controlling information both within itself and how it appears to the outside world. But these are not the ends that democracy was designed to satisfy.
posted by indubitable at 5:18 AM on February 21, 2012 [13 favorites]


This is nothing particularly new. It was called "Ostalgie" in East Germany, and in Spain, in the late seventies and early eighties, with much social, political and economic upheaval, "With Franco we lived better." was a frequently heard complaint.

If we want to defend democracy, we should not fetishize it, and in particular we should not fetishize its merely formal trappings. Just having an election every once and then does not solve all of the world's troubles. Democracy isn't nothing without a valid rule of law, strong freedom of speech (including safeguards against "louder" speech drowning out everybody else's), transparency, accountability and suitable checks and balances. Endorsing as democracies any regime which lacks any one of these taints the whole concept of democracy in the eyes of those who end up identifying it with corruption and oligarchy.
posted by Skeptic at 5:21 AM on February 21, 2012 [16 favorites]


And, as eriko points out, the vilification of democracy goes back to its very origins (just read what Plato or Aristophanes had to say about the subject).
posted by Skeptic at 5:23 AM on February 21, 2012


Were there any drones overhead when the Pakistanis were polled?
posted by Trurl at 5:25 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Is this the thread where I patronise the brown people whilst sitting an equal distance from members of my society who are starving and members who are eating food with gold flakes in it?

Hey, be fair. There is only about a tenth of a gram of gold in my bottle of Goldschläger worth only about six bucks. Per shot, that's practically nothing.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 5:25 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the majority of cases, for the majority of people, political system really doesn't matter. As long as relatively modern systems are all that's in play, whichever way you spin it a lot of people are going to be in exactly the same position.

That's why people to whom the system matters owe more to upholding that system.
posted by pokermonk at 5:27 AM on February 21, 2012


The idea that democracy produces effective government seems to be loosing steam everywhere it is being used.

How *ARE* things going in one of the leaders of self-promotion about Democracy?

How does that nation-state act on the global stage?

Chinese communism,

Right - Communism. China is all about everyone being on the level. The people who are farmers on the edge of the Gobi desert are just as rich as the CEO of Foxconn but the lack press coverage about their wealth.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:29 AM on February 21, 2012


To the bottom rungs of society, the difference between an authoritarian regime and a democracy is that in one the ruling elites allow you to drop slips of paper into a box every once and a while.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:30 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


So democracy is nebulous. Say you give a people democracy. You call it, "everyone gets to vote." That's great. Everyone votes. They squabble, argue, veto, quarrel, fight. Some sell votes. The guy in charge of counting the votes wins. Ends up doing stuff for his cronies. What did that help?

Okay, you need trustworthy counting. You need people who won't sell their votes. Also, people who lose an election have to wait out the next election instead of rioting. People who win the election have an obligation to run the ship of state with some continuity.

Oh, and rights. You need these things called rights. Whatever you want to call them. The people who win the election have to respect there are certain things they can't do. Plus, the people who vote have to respect that the people they elect cannot do certain things.

The respect part is important. A written constitution is nothing more than a sheepskin smeared in ink. The constitution of a polity resides in fifty million fragments in the minds and political consciousnesses of its members. No written clause will be respected if the principle isn't.

Plus, institutions. Political parties, an independent press, watchdog groups, lobbyists.

Also, separation of powers. An elected dictator is still a dictator. Executives ultimately hold the power because they have the guns; so elected executives have to respect the rule of law and the separation of powers. ("[He] has made his decision; now let him enforce it", &c.)

You know what else doesn't hurt? Civic religion. Shared mythology. Sacrifice for liberty. Especially in a big multi-ethnic state, where otherwise the vote suddenly injects a million ideas of grabbing what's theirs into the minds of previously homogenized (in the milk-mechanical sense) factions.

Then: unitary state, federation, confederation? Parliamentary or presidential? Constitutional monarchy or republic? Written constitution or not? Judiciary set-up? (Tribune powers?) What working set of "immutable rules" (qv Peter Suber) and what requirements for amendment? Then: first-past-the-post, Condorcet, single-transferable vote, instant-runoff? At-large or district constituencies? District drawing?

This doesn't all just come in a kit. Good republics take years, even centuries to get a lot of these quirks right. Sometimes it takes a general strike (qv secessiones plebis) to get things right. Sometimes the structure is rocked by internal dissension, inconsistency, or turmoil (qv American civil war). And it's never quite right. Cue the (possibly apocryphal) Churchill quote about democracy's relative inadequacies. Plus the incessant appearance, since the decision-making is (nominally) out in the open, that one is constantly getting screwed.

So--it could be a hard sell, especially given any generic polity's short memory for abuses of power.

Those who nonetheless believe in it have a duty to make the right case for it, again and again.
posted by adoarns at 5:32 AM on February 21, 2012 [20 favorites]


Chinese communism, on the other hand, is proving to be durable and recently much more successful than any democracy in providing for its people.

How can that be demonstrated, it's only existed since the late 40s. And it's *current* "successful" incarnation can be traced back just to post Gang of Four, (80s?) And even THEN you have Tiananmen Square, which had to change internal political stuff somewhat.
posted by DigDoug at 5:35 AM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


To the bottom rungs of society, the difference between an authoritarian regime and a democracy is that in one the ruling elites allow you to drop slips of paper into a box every once and a while.

I can't find the exact quote, but in White Palace, after the James Spader character expresses dismay over the fact that the Susan Sarandon character doesn't vote, she retorts, "You could put the Oak Ridge Boys in the White House and I'd still be waiting tables for the minimum wage."
posted by Trurl at 5:35 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


If my political class was as corrupt as that in India or Pakistan, or I struggled to see where corporate, political and military life began and ended, as in Egypt or Thailand, then autocracy would seem more attractive.

Particularly if it promised to redress the imbalance of power and wealth.

There is a big difference between authoritarianism and democracy to the little man: authoritarians typically want the support of the little man to act as a check on the power of the middle and upper classes or the military - see Venezuela for example. Often the financial power is held by the state in nationalised industry.

"Democracies" do not need such support in places where checks and balances are less robust because the upper middle and upper classes provide support and hold the purse strings - see Thailand.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:37 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Is this the thread where I patronise the brown people whilst sitting an equal distance from members of my society who are starving and members who are eating food with gold flakes in it?

No, you patronize white people too.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:38 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


This doesn't all just come in a kit. Good republics take years, even centuries to get a lot of these quirks right.
I was just going to write something along these lines. Thanks. Also, let me tell you from my Mitteleuropean perspective that democracy works for us like nothing else did. Well, it did fail us once before but it wasn't a real democracy.

posted by hat_eater at 5:39 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


21% actually seems pretty low to me, when you think of the silliness that more than 21% of, say, Americans believe.
posted by craichead at 5:39 AM on February 21, 2012 [4 favorites]


I may be alone but I do not find the figures to be 'staggering' at all for the sub-Continent. Why? Well because in reality vast swathes of the population of both India and Pakistan live in rural villages where the touch of the government is in many cases non existent. If you have a minimal recognition of the State in your live why would you have any strong feeling toward what form it took?
posted by numberstation at 5:42 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is nothing particularly new. It was called "Ostalgie" in East Germany, and in Spain, in the late seventies and early eighties, with much social, political and economic upheaval, "With Franco we lived better." was a frequently heard complaint.

Ostalgie is a different impulse, I think. It's an impulse born out of the combination of a loss of culture and things being demonstrably harder for many people in the new states after reunification.

Whereas, if 49% of Pakistanis say they don't care whether the government is a democracy or a dictatorship (I suspect in Pakistan they're understanding this as a military dictatorship), it's because they've gone through both (possibly several times) and didn't see much change in their lives. And, uh, to be honest, I wouldn't be particularly surprised. (On preview, numberstation has said what I mean. I don't know as much about Pakistan as about India, but it strikes me as perfectly reasonable many people would have limited interaction with the central government.)
posted by hoyland at 5:46 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Given all the political grandstanding that happens in North America over infrastructure building, I have to look at something like the Shanghai metro system and be awfully jealous. All those subways! All built in the last 16 years! Say what you will about Chinese totalitarianism, but they get shit done at a pace we can only dream of. If we actually had some semblance of real democracy here I wouldn't be so bitter but let's be honest: rule by all the people, for all the people? Ha!!!
posted by Go Banana at 5:51 AM on February 21, 2012


I'm heartily in favour of living under a benevolent dictatorship. Er, as long as the dictator always agrees with me and I get to choose exactly what "benevolent" means in any given circumstance.

Oh, and there are sixty million other idiots living on this rock who all have different ideas about what sort of dictator would make them happy. Hmmm, for this to work out we need some sort of system by which we can compromise on a mutually acceptable dictator and perhaps some sort of advisory group to curb their wilder impulses...
posted by metaBugs at 5:55 AM on February 21, 2012 [9 favorites]


I would be interested in learning what practical difference it would make to the average U.S. citizen were the U.S. to abandon [the pretense of] democracy.
In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election? Me neither. I keep voting, but much for the same reason I keep posting on Metafilter: because I think the entertainment value is worth the time sink. It takes hours to properly research candidates, another hour or so to hit the polls, and in the end you're incredibly lucky if you manage to so much as flip a digit on the reported margin of victory or defeat. It seems a bit dangerous to depend on the majority of the populace being both rational enough to evaluate trade-offs well and altruistic enough to decide that helping to evaluate the country's trade-offs is worth making such a poor trade for themselves.

At least with the evil corporations the decision has a *little* immediate impact. You decide you don't like giving Coca-Cola money, so you stop giving them money, and then they don't get any more of your money. Try and pull that off with war funding.
posted by roystgnr at 5:58 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Looking at the standard of politicians in most western democracies, who can blame them?

I'm looking at you, Palin.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 6:00 AM on February 21, 2012


I'm gonna put on my Hippie pants for a minute.

Perhaps the problem is "National" divisions don't make sense anymore. The world is far more interconnected globally now than at any point in history. National borders were handy when most of the voting populace had no real way to interact across those borders.

National (and in the US, state level) elections require appealing to wide swaths of people with minimal common ground and vastly different experiences. The lowest common denominators are bland and uninteresting at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

The modern world is really only divisible into Local and Global. Self-interest and species level interest. Everything between is short sighted, easily corrupted or corruptible. I challenge you to watch any election in a democratic nation and not be sympathetic to these Libyans
posted by DigDoug at 6:02 AM on February 21, 2012


In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election?

Our last senate race was such a farce that arguably all our votes were necessary, if only to compensate for the ballots that got lost. Though, uh, despite the fact the system worked, I don't know that I was left with much confidence in the system. How do you lose ballots? No one knew what to do with the ballots, either. Some ended up locked in the cells at police stations (inventive) and some ended up in people's cars (which Norm Coleman kicked up a massive fuss about when he was scrabbling for votes).
posted by hoyland at 6:11 AM on February 21, 2012


Oh, we also got treated to an endless demonstration of how many of our fellow citizens were incapable of following the instructions on the ballot.
posted by hoyland at 6:13 AM on February 21, 2012


Okay, you need trustworthy counting.

Yes. Trustworthy counting.

Note the level of posts here on such topics now that a R is not the Commander in Chief. Its not like the issue has went away.







,
posted by rough ashlar at 6:13 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election?

Not me, but my roommate's mother and sister voted in an election where a local tax increase initiative was decided by 1 vote. Of course, they had less than 150 people voting in that election.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:14 AM on February 21, 2012


I can't find the exact quote, but in White Palace, after the James Spader character expresses dismay over the fact that the Susan Sarandon character doesn't vote, she retorts, "You could put the Oak Ridge Boys in the White House and I'd still be waiting tables for the minimum wage."

That's a nice movie quote, but it doesn't take into account that the level of the minimum wage (or its existence in the first place) and the extent of a welfare state are, to a large extent, a result of democratic processes.

In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election? Me neither.

Of course it has. Your vote isn't the single vote that decides everything, but together with all other votes it affects the final outcome. Some elections are quite close too.
posted by ersatz at 6:14 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Democracy isn't democratic. Everyone has to spoil their ballot for anarchy to get in.
posted by iotic at 6:16 AM on February 21, 2012


The people who are farmers on the edge of the Gobi desert are just as rich as the CEO of Foxconn but the lack press coverage about their wealth.

Pretty sure Taiwan has a market economy.
posted by floam at 6:20 AM on February 21, 2012


(And there's voting and parties and stuff.)
posted by floam at 6:21 AM on February 21, 2012


just a dictatorship you can't have a revolution against.

You give up too easily.
posted by Segundus at 6:29 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Foxconn is Taiwanese, and the country? It has very, erh, "robust" parliamentary politics.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:30 AM on February 21, 2012


Is this the thread where I patronise the brown people whilst sitting an equal distance from members of my society who are starving and members who are eating food with gold flakes in it?

Oh hey, you're still at a distance from the starving members? Well, when the gold-flake people fire you, too, try and sneak us over some apple cores and bread crusts, will you?
posted by Mooseli at 6:38 AM on February 21, 2012


we're taught from a very early age that our vote is worth dying for.

And yet, consider voter turnout. Aren't we at least as indifferent?

Consider the Electoral College, gerrymandering, various forms of disenfranchisement, voting machine shenanigans and so on. Consider that we essentially are stuck with choosing one of two parties, or the knowledge that our vote is going to someone who will lose spectacularly and whom the majority of people won't even have heard of. Consider that those two parties will spend all their time and our money battling each other rather than solving problems. Consider SuperPACs and lobbyists and whether our elected representatives represent *us*, or rather, represent their corporate sponsors and then tell us what to believe.

Our vote is simultaneously "worth dying for" and pointless.

I hate election season, which seems to last for approximately three and a half years, and I honestly do think we'd be just as well off with a reasonably non-insane, non-genocidal, compassionate, secular benevolent dictator.
posted by Foosnark at 6:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Whatever jackass who's writing here that "communism works, democracy doesn't" had better never complain in MetaTalk about moderating policy on this site.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:49 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I had a college history professor who spent the semester driving home the point that democracy functions where the culture supports it, and it only functions because of culture.

You cannot impose a democracy on a culture and expect it to succeed.

Here's why. An otherwise decent, honest, man - the president of country X - can believe that his political opponents will ruin the country. So when he gets voted out of office, he refuses to hand over power, sincerely believing that in doing so, he is damaging his country. Democracy dies in the name of democracy.

Everybody has to buy in to the idea that turning over power won't ruin the country. Or at least they have to believe that the alternative is worse. The belief in democracy has to supersede everything else, or it will fail.
posted by Xoebe at 6:50 AM on February 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


I thought it was well-known that individual engagement with democracy was a direct indicator of perceived influence over the outcome. If voting effects change, voting numbers will be high. If voting does not effect change, voting numbers will be low.

Perhaps it's not surprising that voting numbers are low in counties where there exists very strong religious influence and known corruption. Just because you put the ballot in the ballot box, doesn't mean your vote counts... and people know if that's the case or not.
posted by nickrussell at 6:50 AM on February 21, 2012


Snark aside about the US, I don't believe a useful discussion can be made without specific nations being referred to since they do differ in backgrounds, history, religious beliefs etc

Norway, Denmark, Somalis, Egypt, China are each a separate nation and ought not be lumped into one big vague generalization.
posted by Postroad at 7:14 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why would democracy be universally desired? I love democracy, flaws and all, but I wouldn't expect everyone else to live the way I do. Different cultures have different values, and different situations produce different behaviors and expectations. You can't just force the state to adopt a Western-style democratic system and have everything work out as it would in the West.

I'm also aware that many of the innovations which democracy has wrought are easily taken for granted after a generation and have been defanged considerably in the face of powerful, monied interests.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:16 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It would be great if people talking about great China is as an economic and political model (compared to Western liberalism) had actually spent some real time in the country. You can't learn anything insightful at all about another country simply by reading books or articles on the internet.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:29 AM on February 21, 2012


Eriko, above, pretty much already said this, but it's still an interesting tidbit worth repeating - that (at least linguistically speaking) "democracy" and "dictatorship of the proletariat" are exactly the same expression.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:34 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Happened to meet Dr Sarmila Bose at a public event once; she was, of course, charming, erudite and engaging, she did give the impression of being someone who'd ask an interesting-sounding question, but not consider that the question could lead to a mundane answer. My interaction with her and her interlocutors etc was in the context of her book on the Bangladesh war; the primary criticism of her work was along those lines, that she engaged Pakistani and Bangladeshi generals from the war, but insufficiently followed up on the potential that she was being misled by her Pakistani interviewees.

(The causes for the liberation/ secession of Bangladesh aren't really my area of expertise, so I honestly don't have an opinion eitherways on her book; merely saying that she has become a fairly controversial figure in, at least Bangladeshi if not South Asian, academic circles: can't think of a single Bangladeshi academic I know who'd agree with her thesis)

As for this piece, I think she glosses over some key findings from the paper that would undermine her thesis significantly. To wit, the original paper, in fact, found that:
a) democracy expresses public legitimacy of shared values and their perception of the validity of democratic procedures;
b) democratic orientation of the countries, gaining confidence in dealing with authority and negotiating their own identities;
c) democratic imagination has perlocated to the non-political dimensions of life (p. 135). This set of values authors named as "culture" of democracy in South Asia.

Second principal contribution of democracy is that it has transformed people from subjects to citizens, with their valuation as voters, which according to the research also effects high trust in democracy, especially in elections (very high rate of those, who think that their vote makes any difference). Both elements citizenship and value of the vote (from the point of view of electorate as well as politics) are reaffirming each other. (emphasis mine)
Sure, 21% of Indian nationals don't care if their government is called democratic or not, but I think that it's more indicative of the fact that regular folk don't think too much about labels for political systems, a failure in educating people about civics, for instance; it's also perhaps quite similar to your stereotypical American preferring to call herself an independent even though she'd normally lean liberal or conservative. Also, there are obvious problems that the study states - democracy not being enough to safeguard minority rights for one, and a decreasing trust in political groups - but the study is quite emphatic in stating that democracy, as a value, however, is here to stay. Polling data most certainly does not show that South Asians are wary of democracy; if any, it's the complete opposite, and would be a mistake to conflate it with Libya's own unique circumstances.
posted by the cydonian at 7:39 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


People who have just overthrown a shitty dictator are reasonably optimistic that they can over throw the next one. The impact to their way of life isn't as great as it would be in the western world because things didn't work that well before.

to be fair I've stopped paying attention to politics myself. I don't have any significant ability to affect things and all it does is suck the joy and time out of my life. Sure, I still vote most of the time but I no longer give a shit about anything other than broad strokes. I bet if you asked long term unemployed people in the developed world which they prefer their answer would be a resounding 'meh' after all the democracies they are in deliberately throw at least 10% of people under the bus as a matter of deliberate financial policy to counter wage inflation.
posted by srboisvert at 8:16 AM on February 21, 2012


India's "democracy" includes extra-judicial killings and routine torture; a kleptocratic political elite who might as well live on a different planet than the rest of the populace; an economy that gets flooded with black money around election time; a persistently influential political dynasty (Nehru-Gandhi (no relation)) which now includes an Italian woman who is not fluent in Hindi; etc.
posted by goethean at 8:19 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


...and let's not even talk about Pakistan.
posted by goethean at 8:22 AM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election?

A single molecule of air isn't going to move a thermometer even by one degree, therefore thermometers don't measure temperature.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:26 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


If my political class was as corrupt as that in India or Pakistan, or I struggled to see where corporate, political and military life began and ended, as in Egypt or Thailand, then autocracy would seem more attractive.

Yeah, I think there's a pretty massive range of interpretations of the word "democracy" and its experience going on here. In Pakistan, democratically elected civilian governments have been almost invariably inept kleptocracies, whereas military rule has mostly coincided with relative stability and prosperity.

When I was in Lahore about ten years ago meeting mostly with Rotarians - reformist, progressive and secular in their daily lives, several of them working in IT and educated in the US - the democratically elected Nawaz Sharif had just been turfed in favour of Musharraf and a military government. There was general agreement this would be better for the country.

Everyone seemed to like the idea of democracy, but the practice of it was deemed beyond Pakistan's grasp at present. In part, this is because Pakistan's an even bigger historical accident than most countries, with Punjabis and Sindhis dominating the more modern urban areas and a vast hinterland of barely governable tribal areas (see "War on Terror, Primary Sites of"). If you're a secular Punjabi in Lahore, trying to run a little international software services company and keep your family fed and safe, stability and a minimum of Pashtun and Baluchi influence in the federal government's more important than getting to vote on which figurehead and his cronies get rich.

India, by contrast, prides itself on its democratic tradition and right to vote, despite the endemic corruption and incompetence of its democratic governments. Consider, as an awesomely colourful case in point, MP and until recently Minister of Railways Lalu Prasad Yadav, who among other achievements once ran the state of Bihar from prison, having his wife installed as Chief Minister after he'd been jailed - for the fifth time! - for stealing piles of money from the public purse. But hey, at least a few of the people who voted for him weren't illiterate low-caste villagers forced by Lalu's thugs to head down to the polling station en masse and vote for whichever pictogram represented Lalu's party. So there's that.
posted by gompa at 8:35 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Sorry, goethean, I went there. The year I spent is South Asia was too thorough a crash course in "why democracy is not understood as absolute good by all people at all times" not to share a bit of the curriculum.)
posted by gompa at 8:37 AM on February 21, 2012


I don't get it. How do you legitimize mob rule without the veneer of democracy?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:05 AM on February 21, 2012


I'd vote for the really hairy Oak Ridge Boy for virtually anything. Him or the guy who sings the bass part.
posted by Billiken at 9:10 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


How do you legitimize mob rule without the veneer of democracy?

You don't; that's the thing. In many places, democracy is scary as hell, insofar as it is perceived as mob rule. Cf. gompa's comments about Pakistan above. As a result, the crucial middle-class (bourgeois) bloc throws in its lot with the autocrats rather than democratic reformers, in large part just to avoid enfranchisement of the mob.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:22 AM on February 21, 2012


Why would democracy be universally desired? I love democracy, flaws and all, but I wouldn't expect everyone else to live the way I do. Different cultures have different values, and different situations produce different behaviors and expectations. You can't just force the state to adopt a Western-style democratic system and have everything work out as it would in the West.

I'm also aware that many of the innovations which democracy has wrought are easily taken for granted after a generation and have been defanged considerably in the face of powerful, monied interests.
- posted by Sticherbeast at 4:16 PM on February 21


Man, I come from a country that fought for its democracy 30 years ago, and it's shocking to me that Americans or frankly anybody would think that a centrally controlled government is better than democracy with all its problems.
I remember communism really well. Talk about the past being another country, it was another planet.
Like, having a passport was big privilege. You were a big man, Al Capone big, if you had a passport. There were fancy restaurants in town that you could only enter on a foreign ID. This was not too long ago.
I remember that one went to Church because that's the only place you heard someone daring to rant and rave against the government, the only place you could voice dissent. I heard there were priests frogmarched by the secret service mid-sermon.
No wonder the Catholic Church is banned in China.
No one ever spoke about their personal opinion - in fact, no one knew they could have a personal opinion, and there's the rub with all these surveys. We had to be taught to have an opinion, taught to be an individual, that standing out of the mass was a good thing, something to be proud about.

As I think back, a million and one anecdotes are tumbling through my mind. For a student, getting a bottle of coca-cola was the best present in the world (because illegal and American). I know a lovely married couple - the husband is an diplomat today - who still squabble on the subject of a bottle of coca-cola they received as students. The husband got one as a gift from a friend who smuggled it from (West) Germany. The wife wanted to save it and maybe open it for a festive occasion, to carefully measure out and share amongst several of their close friends, but the husband took that bottle, popped the cap open, threw his head back and chugged it all down in one movement. That spontaneous gesture made a huge ripple effect amongst his friends, raising him to some sort of alpha-male status. That spark of individualism, that was so anti-communist.

Anyways, I digress.
To the little man, democracy is about having a voice, an opinion, and being able to say it loud and clear. And it *is* about putting a ballot into a box. But more than that, it *is* about attending town hall meetings and venting about local taxes, or the drunk neighbours or the price of butter. It *is* about creating a fuss and getting the local media involved and becoming a national sensation where journalists ask the prime minister uncomfortable questions that stemmed from your rant. It's about holding your tattered hat in your worn hands when you're invited on the prime-time 7pm news to explain in your funny provincial accent what your venting was about. It's about holding people accountable. And yes, with democracy must come the due process of law - with an independent judiciary and a legal process - where yes, the little man can go against a powerful man without fear.

Fundamentally, it boils down to a question of human dignity.
It's simply against basic human dignity to bulldoze someone's ancestral house down because of a 5 year plan dreamed up in the Politburo. And the masses will one day rise against this bestial treatment, which is why religious parties get voted in so often, as they're often the only rare ones that care for the masses. The solution is not less democracy, but more political accountability, more indignation.

I am very wary of explaining democracy away on some cultural basis. i.e. all that talk that "The Chinese don't want to vote or don't want real democracy.." For decades we heard that the Maghreb countries don't "want" democracy either. Yet there came a tipping point, which in Tunisia started after an educated food street seller couldn't pay off the police and in desperation set himself on fire. You know the story. And whatever the real reason for setting himself on fire actually was, or whether he was an educated man or not, or a street seller or paying a police bribe, nothing of that matters, because.. The first protests were against the *indignity* of that situation.
And I, like millions around me and before me, believe every human has the right to try to work for the betterment of himself and his kind, the right to have an opinion, and to live in *dignity* in accordance to his cultural ways and means. And that's a layman's approximation of what's written in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And no matter what some people will say and do to defend their country's current policies of so called "modernity" you can feel that pull, that longing for freedom in a thousand different places in China. An interesting place to start is reading about the paucity of jazz musicians in China (mainly Du Yinjiao and Liu Yuan) and how difficult it is to put on a jazz concert in China, music that asks of its players to be foremost individuals, creative, spontaneous and to be free to improvise. You can't play jazz unless you're free in your head. And if you're free in your head, no one can put you back in that cage any more.

tl;dr: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried" -Churchill
posted by ruelle at 9:22 AM on February 21, 2012 [31 favorites]


People are calling China a communist country and assuming that the USSR and Marxism-Leninism is some kind of apex of communist? Gee, it's almost like the thread is full of liberals who've cheerfully bought every right-wing framing argument from the Cold War and thus rendered their own position completely inchoate.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Absolutely top-notch comments from adoarns and ruelle -- I can't put things any better than they did. In particular, this bit:

And I, like millions around me and before me, believe every human has the right to try to work for the betterment of himself and his kind, the right to have an opinion, and to live in *dignity* in accordance to his cultural ways and means. And that's a layman's approximation of what's written in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sure, there are a ton of problems with American democracy, and societies that have thrown off oppressive regimes have struggled to institute democratic ideals -- but as adoarns points out, it takes decades, sometimes *centuries*, to get everything to work right. And democracy isn't just the concept of 'one person, one vote,' or 'voting for your leaders,' but as ruelle points out, it's about people having a say in the governance of their lives and their society. Or more to the point for some fledgling democracies, it's about *not* being in a situation in which one has *no* say in the outcomes of their lives. (By that metric, any democracy on the planet can be more democratic than it already is, I'd point out.)

All of that said: As a social scientist, I see a study like the one from the original post and think, 'Wow, that's a situation that's crying out for a deeper understanding than the one we get from a public opinion poll.' That is, I imagine that if you have more in-depth conversations with people in Libya or Pakistan, they will give you a much more complicated and nuanced view than 'I don't care what political system we have.' I don't know what they'd say, but I'd damn sure love to find out. Public opinion polls are great for understanding some phenomena, but in a situation in which you're not even sure if people agree on what the term democracy means, or when people may think that having a democracy means they're going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out who to support in a national election, when they haven't even had to think about who is going to make sure their local schools and roads and sewer systems are sorted out, it may behoove you to ask more open-ended questions that get at citizens' concerns and interests related to concepts of governance.
posted by jsr1138 at 9:48 AM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Today's democracies seem incapable of making difficult decisions. People will simply not vote to impose necessary hardship on themselves.

This is exactly the opposite of the actual problem: the problem with contemporary Western democracies is that they are insufficiently democratic. A lot of them are sporting 19th century institutions in a 21st century world. They are not representative, and they do not govern according to the wishes of the majority; instead they are generally plutocratic and elitist.

The West bought the austerity cult hook, line and sinker despite any actual evidence it would do any good, and even now, three years later, governments are still invoking confidence fairies and insisting on balanced budgets because of nonsense metaphors like "government is a business." In the USA, policies with the broad support of the population like Medicare, Social Security, etc are under attack because of largely fictional crises, while detested policies like the Bush tax cuts for the rich go undisturbed, despite their enormous role in whatever budget crisis actually exists. And it pretty much goes without saying that if it was up to a majority of Americans (or hell, even a majority of Congress) to decide, there would be no war with Iran.

Meanwhile, those few governments that are brave enough to ignore the corrupt "advice" of the plutocracy and actually do what is popular, such as Iceland, are doing much, much better than austerity-cult "success stories" like Ireland.
posted by mek at 10:49 AM on February 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have no use for democracy, because I don't like coca-cola.
posted by telstar at 11:18 AM on February 21, 2012


In particular: has anyone here ever had their vote swing the outcome of an election?

If democracy always depended on one person's vote making the decision, it would just be dictatorship. This is ridiculous question-begging nonsense, and I can't help notice it always seems to be the same folks beating the anti-Democracy drums around here, insisting that China has a longer, more successful track record with their current system, when in reality, the current Chinese system, as another poster pointed out up-thread, truly only began in the forties and nearly collapsed in my lifetime a mere 40 odd years later, while our system has survived an outright war that split the nation almost completely in half and gone on to see its greatest triumphs from that low point on, abiding for another 150 years since then!
posted by saulgoodman at 12:29 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not Democracy that's the problem. It's the extremes of economic totalitarianism: Laissez-faire fascists on one hand; authoritarian state capitalists calling themselves communists on the other. Putting economic theory--whatever the theory--ahead of commun human values and the public interest, that's the true enemy.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:32 PM on February 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


i'd chalk this up to people thinking about governments that claimed to be democratic and comparing them to governments that were run by dictators; compared to thinking about it as the ideas of democracy versus a dictatorship. it's just that every government they've seen that's called it's self a democracy wasn't much better than a dictatorship.
posted by cupcake1337 at 12:32 PM on February 21, 2012


commun common, natch.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:35 PM on February 21, 2012


People don't want Democracy: they want dictatorships that give them exactly what they want, because we've lost our ability to see our shared social obligations and to participate in a sense of shared civil responsibility. Basically, we're too culturally fragmented and we've been spoiled into thinking we should never compromise on getting things exactly our way, right away.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:37 PM on February 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Crap--I'm going to drop out of this thread for a bit before I get carried away, but basically, stop and think about it: If you think that being in functioning Democracy requires you personally to be the one to cast the deciding vote, then it isn't democracy you want at all. What you want is dictatorship with you in the role of dictator.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2012


The modern world is really only divisible into Local and Global. Self-interest and species level interest. Everything between is short sighted, easily corrupted or corruptible.

I'd say that anyone who believes the fundamental unit of governance should be local has never actually experienced local politics. Do you honestly think someplace like Bell, California is the model for civic governance?
posted by happyroach at 1:37 PM on February 21, 2012


I've noticed that the more superlatives you use in the description of your country to be in favor of your citizens, the less you actually ARE in favor of your citizens. PRC, DPRK are two that come to mind...
posted by symbioid at 1:42 PM on February 21, 2012


Work to what end? And for whom? It certainly works for well-connected members of the Party, if that's what you mean. It works to juke superficial stats like GDP (a trend which I doubt will continue). It works to create the illusion that it works by tightly controlling information both within itself and how it appears to the outside world. But these are not the ends that democracy was designed to satisfy.

unprecedented increases in life expectancy and literacy, the strongest social cohesion and stability in the 5000 year history of the country, by *far* the strongest economic development in the same period, i could go on...

but it's pretty easy to make lofty proclamations about your arbitrary political system when your country is geographically situated in a way that it's practically impossible for it not to be extremely successful.
posted by p3on at 2:09 PM on February 21, 2012


Democracy can't work in a theocratic milieu. That's a separate revolution that needs to happen.
posted by Brian B. at 3:51 PM on February 21, 2012


Chinese communism, on the other hand, is proving to be durable and recently much more successful than any democracy in providing for its people.

Yeah, you're so right, except for the 40 million+ killed by famines in the great leap forward, and then either tortured or murdered during the Cultural Revolution. Not to mention the thousands executed every year atm, the ones who disappear, the minorities in xinjiang and elsewhere, the self-immolations, the increasing number of mass protests, the endemic corruption, real estate problems, and shocking and destructive environmental problems.

Chinese communism is just sooooooo great at providing for its people - in Opposite Land. Christ, it's one thing to be largely ignorant about another country, but it's another to blithely chuck off fatuous, harmful statements like that.

Educate yourself; it's not hard. And in the future please don't unquestioningly quaff any propaganda cocktails offered to you by CCP elites.

More broadly, I feel like discussions around stuff like this largely ignore two incredibly important things we largely take for granted in the West: 1. Relatively low corruption, and 2. Smooth transfer of power. In my opinion these two things are - if not the most - some of the most important things for successfully functioning states. Absence of them - "democracy" or no - eats through the utility of the state like carbolic acid, and I find a lot of Westerners literally (and understandably) cannot comprehend the omnipresence and destructive power of corruption in many developing countries. As a disease of the state, it's like malaria - reaching far beyond its initial set of symptoms causing harm and loss through generations; a totality of harm in every demographic and facet of life.

Without protection from corruption, democracy is critically weakened.
posted by smoke at 5:55 PM on February 21, 2012


Yeah, you're so right, except for the 40 million+ killed by famines in the great leap forward, and then either tortured or murdered during the Cultural Revolution. Not to mention the thousands executed every year atm, the ones who disappear, the minorities in xinjiang and elsewhere, the self-immolations, the increasing number of mass protests, the endemic corruption, real estate problems, and shocking and destructive environmental problems

Chinese communism is just sooooooo great at providing for its people - in Opposite Land. Christ, it's one thing to be largely ignorant about another country, but it's another to blithely chuck off fatuous, harmful statements like that.


the death rate during the famine was lower than the average death rate in the imperial period, and uhh yes why don't you compare the living standards of modern chinese with those prior to mao and try mocking the living standards increase again
posted by p3on at 11:27 PM on March 15, 2012


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