December 2011: A mixed record for democratic protest?

A tip of the New Year’s Eve cap to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

At year’s end a mixed record—from the Arab Spring to riots in Greece and Italy to Occupy Wall Street to demonstrations in Moscow—suggests that not all aspects of 2011’s democratic protests were positive.

(By “democracy,” I mean government by the people typically expressed through majority rule.)

One difficulty in any discussion of democracy is that many Americans assume that they live in one—but our political system isn’t purely democratic.

The Founding Fathers, wary of mob rule, shied away from direct democracy and instead established a democratic republic. (The Constitution, for example, doesn’t include the word “democracy.”) They limited voting rights, created institutional checks-and-balances, and protected private property and civil liberties through the Bill of Rights.

With that for context, here are five questions about 2011’s democratic ferment:

  • Could elections in Egypt and Libya, the byproduct of the Arab Spring, place the Moslem Brotherhood or other radical Islamist groups in power? No one really knows who the voters of Egypt and Libya will elect as their rulers. If Islamists win control they are likely to institute sharia law. That would not represent a positive development for Moslem moderates, Christians, women, gays, and others who will face repression or a curtailment of their human rights.
  • Will strongman tactics by the Shia majority in Iraq lead to conflict with the Kurdish and Sunni minorities? Iraq’s fragile democracy faces the challenge of sectarian strife without the buffer of U.S. forces. Civil war is not outside the realm of possibility if Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki continues on his current confrontational path.
  • Will austerity measures—imposed by the European Union—spark further popular unrest in Greece, Spain, and Italy? Many in the Mediterranean debtor nations have expressed their anger over the EU’s tough economic medicine in street protests. German and French bankers and bureaucrats in Brussels are effectively calling the shots, not voters which—in one sense—is profoundly anti-democratic. I’d bet that Greeks, for example, would vote to dump the Euro and go back to the drachma if given the chance.
  • Will Russia’s Vladimir Putin reclaim the presidency in March through free and fair elections or through vote fraud? The recent mass demonstrations in Moscow reflect a growing discontent with Putin’s party after years of corruption and growing authoritarianism.
  • Will the spring bring a revival of the Occupy Wall Street movement? The OWS protesters who set up camps in cities across the U.S. reflected discontent by a majority of Americans with unbridled capitalism and growing income inequality. But beyond the outrage, there hasn’t been agreement over who is to blame and what should be done. Populists on the Right attack Washington for aiding and abetting crony capitalism while the Left wants to focus on Wall Street shenanigans and the impact of globalism. Whether OWS resurfaces with any influence will in large part depend on whether President Barack Obama decides to run in 2012 as a economic populist. If he does, the country is in for a debate over the issue of the proper role of the government in regulating business.

What are some of the lessons from 2011’s protests? One is that when people feel that the political system isn’t working they will end up in the streets. Whether that protest is effective will depend on whether it is truly representative. (One of the measures of the level of freedom in a society is how well dissent is received and tolerated.)

Another lesson is that simple democracy alone is not enough. For a just society, majority rule needs to be restrained by the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a free press, and protections for the human and civil rights of minorities. That’s the best way to avoid both civil strike and the tyranny of the majority.


Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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