Sunday, August 25, 2013

Define Democracy

The recent developments in Egypt have once again drawn into sharp focus the question of what our commitment is to democratic principles both in the United States and abroad. We have stumbled throughout the so-called Arab Spring and, frankly, failed to empower a new generation of young people throughout North Africa in their efforts to bring not only democracy but opportunity to millions of men and women, Muslims and Christians, throughout that troubled region. In this vacuum, we see the rise of a government in Turkey – once seen as a model and a critical ally – of a system that would have been anathema to Ataturk and calls into question whether there is still a thought of the reestablishment of the Caliphate. A kinder, gentler Caliphate is a Caliphate none the less.   

While the Administration parses at a microscopic level about the Coup in Cairo and wags its finger at all the participants, the more fundamental question is left unanswered. What exactly are we supporting, who are we supporting, and how does that support manifest itself? The Muslim Brotherhood, just like Hamas in Gaza, the theocrats in Teheran, and with the Communist Parties in Russian and China, can say they have elections. So can Zimbabwe, for that matter. But if elections are not the catalyst for change each and every cycle, then what are they other than a rubber stamp for totalitarianism? Can we really say that women, Coptic Christians, or secular Muslims (let alone gay people) were better off once a ballot was cast in Egypt? And while we decry the hijacking of the movement that ousted Hosni Mubarak, how can you support a “democratic” process that can be readily hijacked by a majority vote for a regime that cares not one bit about intellectual secularists, Christians (let alone Jews) women or gays?

While this administration avoids calls that we are trying to install “Western” democracies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, we are also not leading the discussion of what democracy means regardless of the orientation on the axis of the earth. Somehow, those who would exploit the ballot box for their own political ends have managed to convince decision makers throughout the world that “democracy” is a commodity that changes based on nationality, religion, or artificial borders crafted after the end of World War I.

Interesting situation, isn’t it? Are fundamental rights fungible? Are basic freedoms relative? I for one don’t think so, regardless of whether the head of state wears a uniform, a suit, a dress, or a dishdasha. If we do not expect the fundamental rights of human beings to be observed uniformly then we cannot expect them to be observed at all, even here. 

In the meantime, the Administration knows full and well what democracy means within our own borders. Even as people were decrying the recent United States Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, invalidating certain provisions of the Voter Rights Act (VRA), the Department of Justice was busy reading the rest of the VRA to see what tools were available for it to protect the franchise. As policymakers in North Carolina and Texas were soon to find out, those tools are formidable. The VRA remains the first and best defense against the resurrection of Jim Crow despite those who would, quite wrongly, suggest that there was some sinister motive behind the majority opinion in Shelby County. But the importance of this debate is not whether some state legislatures seek to disenfranchise segments of the voting population. The point is that we have a pluralistic process deeply embedded in the concepts of separation of powers and the reserve clause (10th Amendment) that so diffuses power that no one jurisdiction, no one individual, or no one legislative or judicial body can unilaterally define our relationship with government or our ability to effect change through the ballot box.

It would be helpful if we could articulate that vision for the rest of the world.

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