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Democratic Excess?
April 21, 2003 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Excessive Democracy? Faree Zakaria, editor of Newseek International, has written a new book challenging perceptions of the relationship between democracy and constitutional liberalism. This lesson is meant to be applied at home as well as abroad. He has been a hot topic of late. Beyond the narrower scope of Iraq, is there anything to his underlying idea that : (more inside)
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly (23 comments total)

 
The most important thing that could be done is to make the system of government less open and hyperresponsive, by which I mean give people in government some degree of leeway to make judgments. If you look at Congress, by opening up Congress to the degree we have done, we've only opened it up only to special interests. The average American doesn't send 20 faxes a day to his congressmen, but various narrow interest groups do.

The manner in which some of the thorniest problems in the United States have been solved, like major tax reform, military base closings and some judicial issues, have often involved politicians agreeing not to pander and committing themselves to a process by which they're not trading votes to interest groups or campaign donors.

There's something very important for Americans to understand: You can have a more democratic process but actually end up with a less democratic outcome, because the system gets captured by those who know how to play the system.

posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:28 PM on April 21, 2003


er.... Fareed Zakaria.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:29 PM on April 21, 2003


I'm not familiar with the Zakaria's new book, but based on the beginning of the review in Salon, it sounds like Zakaria is building on his past writings on the subject. If you're interested in a quick overview, check out his article "The Rise Of Illiberal Democracy," originally written for Foreign Affairs.
posted by jed at 5:44 PM on April 21, 2003


I'm also not really sure why I put a "the" before Zakaria. Sorry about that.
posted by jed at 5:46 PM on April 21, 2003


er... also Newsweek.

Aside from that, this guy sounds like another in a long line of power-worshipping apologists for the Strong Man. His ilk were explaining back in the '30s why Mussolini was the right man for poor, chaotic Italy. Some people just can't handle democracy, y'know. Good thing us elites are around to explain to them why they should shut up and do as their betters say.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 PM on April 21, 2003


languagehat:
I find the "defense of the elite" part to be wierd as well. I don't even know why he goes in that direction. It seems, to me, to be almost a seperate line of reasoning than his descriptions of potential democratic pitfalls. That being said, I think that he is saying that defining its own set of elites is a natural component of self-determination for a given population.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 6:06 PM on April 21, 2003


Zakaria's latest piece in Newsweek: How to Wage the Peace

"The awkward truth is that whisky and sex have proved much easier to export than constitutional government."

Indeed.
posted by homunculus at 6:08 PM on April 21, 2003


LH> Eh, don't forget that the point of a system like America's isn't to be purely democratic - it's to be liberal, in the sense of being limited in its powers to legislate over private life. To that end, you give the people some powers, some institutions not beholden to them other powers, and the executive branch (which is partly under the sway of the people) yet others. Zakaria's saying that without liberal institutions like the rule of law and the separation of powers considered as being prior in importance to mere elections, the sort of liberal democracy we enjoy won't emerge in the Middle East. Instead, we'll get a number of Islamic "democracies". I must admit it seems somewhat uncharitable to say that he's merely trying to bolster the Fuhrerprinzip.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:32 PM on April 21, 2003


Zakaria is an elitist dolt.

Yes, there needs to be protection from a "tyranny of the majority", but that's why there is a Constitution and a Bill of Rights in the US.

"But couldn't these kinds of documents become subverted," you ask? Sure they could erode over time. Ours certainly has. Why?! Poor design, plain and simple.
The documents are vague and archaic, the protections are not pro-active enough, and the responsibility of a president to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States" is a joke.

What is needed is to learn the lessons of how and why US democracy has eroded over time and redesign the system and protections for the Constitution and Bill of Rights so that these kinds of documents are more defined and more pro-actively defended.

Case in point -- the War Powers Act. Lots of people (and constitutional scholars) think it is unconstitutional, as it essentially cedes the right to declare war to the president -- however its constitutionality has never been defended or specifically ruled on by the Supreme Court.

Several people from Congress asked for a ruling of constitutionality from a judge prior to the war on Iraq, only to have the judge refuse to address the matter. The judge basically said "well, there are a lot of people in congress and no substantial majority of you are asking for this ruling, so this is really something you, the rest of congress, and the president should hash out. (i.e. tyranny of the majority.)

According to the Constitution, the power to declare war rests entirely in the hands of congress -- it is essentially an "on/off" switch, without which a president's power to command the armed forces is limited to defensive responses of the military in case of attack. This isn't just me saying this, but people like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The idea that George W. Bush has presidential powers that these men did not boggles the mind -- where did these new powers come from?

Undeclared wars that are not responding to an attack are probably unconstitutional, as written. The fact that they haven't been ruled on by the Supreme Court one way or another is a travesty and outrage.
posted by insomnia_lj at 7:41 PM on April 21, 2003


Yes, there needs to be protection from a "tyranny of the majority", but that's why there is a Constitution and a Bill of Rights in the US.

Zakaria isn't talking about any tyranny of the majority, as near as I can tell. He's talking about the ability of organized interests to use democratic procedures and democratic information to get their way when most of us don't care.

Case in point, legislative committee meetings. They used to pretty commonly be closed, and one of the things that this allowed legislators to do was to say to interest groups "Well, I tried, but they wouldn't go for it." Then people push for "sunshine" laws, which force hearings meetings to be open to the public. Nice idea, except that you and I have far better things to do with our time than go to committee meetings... but organized interests can pay someone to sit and watch and make sure that Mr. Legislator actually does what he said he did.

Case in point -- the War Powers Act. Lots of people (and constitutional scholars) think it is unconstitutional, as it essentially cedes the right to declare war to the president

Lots of other people (and constitutional scholars) disagree.

Several people from Congress asked for a ruling of constitutionality from a judge prior to the war on Iraq, only to have the judge refuse to address the matter. The judge basically said "well, there are a lot of people in congress and no substantial majority of you are asking for this ruling, so this is really something you, the rest of congress, and the president should hash out. (i.e. tyranny of the majority.)

There's a whole host of reasons why the courts would tell MCs to buzz off.

First, federal courts don't issue advisory opinions, and don't much like issuing injunctions. You wanna sue about the war in Iraq, you wait until it starts over your objections and then sue, having established standing.

Second, like any court, the courts are going to tell you to exhaust your nonjudicial remedies before you go bothering the court. In this case, Congress has the nonjudicial remedy of cutting off the funding for the war, and should avial themselves of that before they get a court involved.

This isn't just me saying this, but people like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The idea that George W. Bush has presidential powers that these men did not boggles the mind -- where did these new powers come from?

Bush has powers Lincoln didn't claim? Go look at a history book -- Lincoln didn't just start a war, he suspended habeas corpus. I'd like to see a cite for your references to Washington and Jefferson -- neither of them fought (major) wars as President, and I'd be surprised to see them issuing any firm pronouncement on when and if a president can make war without a specific declaration of war from Congress.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:53 PM on April 21, 2003


ROU... as far as I know, Jefferson sent troops in the Tripolitan War without explicit authorization, but my memory is a little hazy.

Zakaria is ridiculously smart, though - I'll reserve judgment until I read the book, but I've never read something by him that I disagree with.
posted by Kevs at 9:21 PM on April 21, 2003


"I'd like to see a cite for your references to Washington and Jefferson"

"The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure."

- George Washington, 1793

"Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war." - Thomas Jefferson

"We have already given in example one effectual check to the dog of war by transferring the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body." - Thomas Jefferson, 1789

"Considering that Congress alone is constitutionally invested with the power of changing our condition from peace to war, I have thought it my duty to await their authority for using force in any degree which could be avoided." Thomas Jefferson, 1805

Plus some extras:

". . . The power to declare war, including the power of judging the causes of war, is fully and exclusively vested in the legislature . . . the executive has no right, in any case, to decide the question, whether there is or is not cause for declaring war." James Madison, 1793

"The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature." - James Madison, 1798

"The President is to be commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the United States. . . . It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and Admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and the raising and regulating of fleets and armies, -- all of which by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." - Alexander Hamilton, 1788

'The Congress shall have the power to declare war'; the plain meaning of which is, that it is the peculiar and exclusive duty of Congress, when the nation is at peace, to change that state into a state of war." - Alexander Hamilton, 1801
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:04 PM on April 21, 2003


While a whig during the Mexican-American war, Lincoln voted in favor of a resolution that declared the war with Mexico “was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President.”

"Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so, whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose -- and you
allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after you have given him so much. If, today, he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada, to prevent the
British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him, 'I see no probability of the British invading us' but he will say to you, 'Be silent; I see it, if you don't.

The provision of the Constitution giving the war-making power to Congress, was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons. Kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This, our Convention understood to be the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions; and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood." - Abraham Lincoln, 1848


"Lincoln didn't just start a war, he suspended habeas corpus."

To be precise, Lincoln supplied Federal forts, which led to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter... in other words, even though his action was intended to provoke a fight, it didn't start it. A state of war existed as soon as the Federals were attacked by the Confederacy.

As for suspending habeas corpus, you're right. He violated the constituation, and even the judge involved said as much. Too bad the judge lacked the power to do anything about it... but this helps to back my assertion that the system is flawed.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:24 PM on April 21, 2003


"Jefferson sent troops in the Tripolitan War without explicit authorization"

Indeed... after US shipping was attacked first by the Barbary States.
posted by insomnia_lj at 10:32 PM on April 21, 2003


Fair enough; I haven't touched a political philosophy book since the last time I was made to, and it shows.

Still, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. The probability of a president really making war without Congress's consent is about zero, since Congress can shut off the funds anytime and bring the boys home. If you see them bitching about a war and voting to fund it, well, actions speak louder than words.

None of which really has beans to do with what Zakaria says, so I'm going to shut up now. You're welcome to any last word.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:42 PM on April 21, 2003


There's some interesting background on Fareed Zakaria in this New York Metro piece:

After Yale, Zakaria went on to Harvard for his Ph.D. in political science. “Watching him in the academy, he reminded me of Kissinger,” says Walter Isaacson, who met Zakaria hanging around Harvard Square while working on a biography of the controversial statesman. “Both have a great intellectual confidence, an ability to make brilliant conceptual connections, and a charm for attracting patrons. I mean that in a good way.”

and

"My friends all say i’m going to be Secretary of State,” Fareed Zakaria muses from a banquette in the Grill Room at The Four Seasons. “But I don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.”
posted by eyebeam at 6:22 AM on April 22, 2003


A recent ARI editorial is rather relevant to this. "Iraqi Freedom" Requires Individual Rights:
[An] approach that focuses primarily on representation quotas for Iraq's minorities will merely encourage endless power struggles as each pressure group schemes for a bigger share of political patronage.

What Iraq needs is a much more radical reform: not the sharing of political power but the limiting of political power--a focus, not on the prerogatives of ethnic groups, but on the rights of the individual. [...]

Only one oppressed minority desperately needs representation in Iraq's new government: the individual. In the long run, it is only by protecting the liberty and independence of the individual--not by keeping Iraqis ganged together into warring clans--that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" can succeed.
posted by dagny at 7:29 AM on April 22, 2003


Undeclared wars that are not responding to an attack are probably unconstitutional, as written. The fact that they haven't been ruled on by the Supreme Court one way or another is a travesty and outrage.

I couldn't agree more, but pardon me if I would prefer that this particular Supreme Court didn't rule on the issue....
posted by rushmc at 7:44 AM on April 22, 2003


If the author's proposition is true, what are the limits and responsibilities of the representatives in government? Are they merely a tree blowing in the wind of whoever visits them the most or should they have roots and be able to discern what is in the interests of their constituents?

The theory sounds like people are just puppets to whatever advertising they see the most. I'd like to hope that US officials are a little above that.

Wisdom doesn't come from isolation, but ignorance does.
posted by infowar at 8:16 AM on April 22, 2003


Hmmm...Calvinist political theory anyone?

Rushmc, I second that emotion.
posted by nofundy at 10:23 AM on April 22, 2003


"Watching him in the academy, he reminded me of Kissinger.... I mean that in a good way."

Hahahaha! I needed a laugh today.

Pseudoephedrine: I'm not impressed with "the sort of liberal democracy we enjoy," so I don't really care whether we can export it. In my view, what's important is that every single miserable one of us have as much control over our own lives as possible, with as little interference from fat cats and power-mad maniacs as possible. I do not currently live in such a society and do not expect to in my lifetime, but I don't think there's any such thing as "excessive democracy." The powers that be, though, are very fond of the concept, and they love intellectuals like Zakaria.
posted by languagehat at 12:55 PM on April 22, 2003


In my view, what's important is that every single miserable one of us have as much control over our own lives as possible, with as little interference from fat cats and power-mad maniacs as possible. I do not currently live in such a society and do not expect to in my lifetime, but I don't think there's any such thing as "excessive democracy."

I agree there. At the same time, and I mean no offense, that doesn't give us a useful guideline as to how to establish democracy in Iraq, Afghanistan and whomever else Bush goes gallivanting after. I mean, whether you think America ought to be there or not (I remain conflicted), they are there, and so the question of what to do must necessarily shift to "How can we best ensure the Iraqi government is able to establish rule of law, respect the rights of its citizens and get the country back on its feet?".

If delaying elections temporarily while that's being set up is necessary so that the Iraqi government won't be simply turn into Saddam-lite, well that's unfortunate, but there's not much else to do.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 4:51 PM on April 22, 2003


In my view, what's important is that every single miserable one of us have as much control over our own lives as possible, with as little interference from fat cats and power-mad maniacs as possible. I do not currently live in such a society and do not expect to in my lifetime, but I don't think there's any such thing as "excessive democracy."

***nominates the above for MeFi Featured Post of the Day***

If delaying elections temporarily while that's being set up is necessary so that the Iraqi government won't be simply turn into Saddam-lite, well that's unfortunate, but there's not much else to do.

But will there be any debate as to whether it may be necessary or even helpful? Who gets to (or should) make the call? And what are their qualifications? And do they have any conflicts of interest? And is there any oversight in place to ensure that they do not abuse this position?
posted by rushmc at 4:48 PM on April 23, 2003


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