Supporting Democracy Without Understanding It

Democracy may be the best form of government, but it is far from the most intuitive. E.B. White (the author of, among many other things, Charlotte’s Web) defined democracy in part as “the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.” This notion is a bedrock idea on which democracy rests, but even in the U.S., the sentiment is often little more than a “recurrent suspicion.”

The idea that aggregating preferences of ordinary people, treating all people equally and allowing a substantial amount of political rights to everybody is the best way to organize society is a new one for most of the world, and one which still strikes people as strange. I know this from my own experience doing political work in dozens of countries. In every one of these countries, the U.S. included, I have heard people, including people in positions of influence and power, remark that the citizens of their country are somehow not smart enough, educated enough or prepared enough for democracy.

These sentiments are often strong throughout the structures of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. frequently urges and encourages foreign governments to become more democratic. Yet, it continues to have expectations that do not fall in line with the tenets of democracy. Moreover, too often the U.S. does not recognize democratic elements when they are present. In many countries, where the U.S. is engaged, in some way or another, in trying to facilitate democratic transition, it is not unusual to hear the opposition belittled by representatives of western governments because it is not unified. But of course, democracy is not about unity; it’s about managing disunity and disagreement. Similarly, democratizing governments are often criticized for moving slowly or making bad decisions so as to keep voters happy. Again, this is what all democratic governments do. Democracy does not seek to ensure the best outcomes, only to avoid the worst. If the U.S. does not want governments to make poor decisions so as to keep voters happy, we should rethink our support for democracy.

Opposition parties which believe that they don’t have to agree on strategies or leaders, government officials that are afraid to do things which they believe to be right because of potential anger from voters, and slow-moving and constantly-bickering legislatures are certainly frustrating, particularly for donor- and assistance-providing governments. These things are also signs, or building blocks, of democracy, however, and should be recognized accordingly.

White also neatly reminds us of the rights of citizens in a democracy to get it wrong. White’s definition implies that more than half of the people are also wrong, while not a majority of the time, then a potentially a large minority of the time. Furthermore, he suggests that sometimes the minority is right. These are basic realities about democracy that need to be reflected in our democracy-assistance policies. Supporting democracy means supporting constant disagreement and nastiness in politics, decisions by the government that are either wrong or inefficient, and allowing everyone, no matter how poorly educated or extreme in their beliefs, an equal role in choosing their country’s leaders. This is a long way from the stability, calm and rational behavior that the U.S. would like to see in developing countries. It may not be intuitive, but with increasingly few exceptions, the only way to achieve the latter seems to be through the former.