Americans value democracy, and expect others to value it. But is it a universal value?
The program broadcast this Sunday asks the question: “Is Democracy a Universal Value?” According to the dictionary:
“Democracy.” A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.
The dictionary definition leaves a lot of room for variation. In a direct democracy, for example, the people collectively decide political matters. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to make the political decisions. And exactly who is an "eligible member"? Only those over 18? Or 21? Only men? Only property-owners?
Some say Athens was the world's first democracy. But women and slaves -- that is, most of the population -- were completely excluded. In the United States. It took the Civil war, the 19th amendment, the Civil Rights Legislation of the 60’s, along with the 24th and 26th amendments, to give us universal adult suffrage.
So democracy can take many forms. But is democracy itself – as opposed to this or that form of democracy – an inherently good thing?
Smart people have differed on this issues. The great philosopher and statesman, Winston Churchill, noted, "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Plato was a better philosopher, and he disagreed. He thought democracy was the worst possible form of government. He favored an aristocracy run by philosopher kings. There are many more phlilosopher critics of democracy, including Thomas Hobbes, who had a very negative view of democracy.
Of course, democracy also has its philosophical defenders. John Locke, for example, took the right to participate in government to be basic and self-evident. Locke's philosophical ideas heavily influenced our own Founding Fathers -- at least their rhetoric, anyway.
I think there are plenty of empirical and instrumental reasons for preferring democracy. Democracies are less likely to go to war, more likely to make decisions that citizens accept as legitimate, and more likely to command un-coerced loyalty and respect from their citizens. Nevertheless, experience also vindicates some of the doubts that Plato and Hobbes and other anti-democrats has about political decision making. It’s hard to deny, that at least as it has evolved in America, democracy puts a premium on the skills needed to win office, which may not correlate all that well with the skills needed to govern.
The skills needed to win office include being able to raise vast amounts of money, design clever campaign commercials, and give empty speeches that stir emotion but little thought. Is there any reason to think these skills correlate with the ability to govern wisely?
Still, whatever case anti-democratic philosophers make, there’s clearly a consensus in America and the West that Democracy is a good thing. Plato’s vision of running things with Philosopher Kings isn’t likely to win out anytime soon.
But is Democracy a universal value? Or does our love of democracy stem from values in our culture, that other cultures might not share? Some say values inherent in certain Asian and Muslim cultures make democracy unsuitable, at least in the forms familiar to the West.And yet when given the opportunity, people in those cultures push for democracy, from Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring.
So do human beings, when given a real choice, actually prefer democracy? Are there sound philosophical reasons why they should prefer democracy?
We put those questions and more to our guest, Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution, and author of The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World.