Is democracy a Western idea?

January 8, 2014

This is a guest post by Diego Von Vacano, a professor of political theory at Texas A&M University.

— Erik Voeten


Mahmud Hams (AFP/Getty Images)

In the last few months, events in Turkey, Egypt, Brazil and North Korea have strained many people’s faith in democracy. Corruption scandals surrounding Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan; the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; mass street protests in Brazil over expensive World Cup soccer stadia; and the apparent consolidation of the ruthless dictatorship of Kim Jong Un make us ask whether democracy, and especially liberal democracy, is simply a Western value that cannot take root in other cultures.

Democracy is about free institutions and elections. At the same time, it entails values and normative claims, which are the focus of political theory. A nascent field within this area of political science, called comparative political theory, aims to see what (if anything) we can learn about politics from intellectual traditions outside the West. New research in this field was recently presented at a workshop at Texas A&M University. Scholars of Middle Eastern, Chinese, African, Indian, Russian, Latin American,  American and European thought discussed whether central democratic values — such as equality, freedom, representation and religious toleration — have a strong enough presence in the history of political ideas of these regions to provide for the autochthonous growth of democracy. What do their findings tell us?

In Middle Eastern and specifically Islamic thought, there is ground for optimism, despite the deep tensions that exist in a tradition where one particular religion plays a cardinal role in public life. Nura Hossainzadeh, a scholar of Islamic thought, examined Persian political ideas. She explored Khomeini’s theory of guardianship in “Islamic Government,” a series of lectures he delivered to seminary students in Najaf in 1970, and argued that Khomeini is less hostile to democratic principles in this work than has often been supposed.

A historical study of the traditions that formed Khomeini’s intellectual world leads us to a different interpretation of Khomeini’s theory, one that is more democratic, that recognizes that the guardian cannot give government all that government needs, and that perceives that the guardian cannot have the final word. Studying these traditions has significance beyond Khomeini, she argued, since they help us to understand other Islamic political thinkers — past and present — and how their political thought may be amenable to democracy.

Andrew March explored the tensions between accounts of divine and popular sovereignty in Islamic thought. In some senses, divine and popular sovereignty co-exist but remain distinct. Popular sovereignty is authorized concretely and discretely by God’s law, or steps in where God’s sovereignty appears silent and inert. On other conceptions, divine and popular sovereignty are fused and are made manifest in the world through each other. These debates show us that theological and populist views may sometimes be in accord with each other, and sometimes in deep tension in democratization processes in the Middle East.

In the field of Chinese political thought, Confucian ideas play a central role. Here, the findings of Sor-Hoon Tan and Leigh Jenco paint a complicated image. Tan argued that among the reasons that many people believe Confucianism is incompatible with democracy is the view that Confucianism supports social hierarchy and rejects the value of equality that is central to theories of democracy. This supposed opposition to egalitarianism prompts some of them to reject Confucianism as a backward or mistaken ideology. Others see in this a positive alternative to theories of liberal democracy that value equality as well as liberty. She attempted to reconcile Confucianism and democratic theories by questioning both the view that Confucianism is inherently inegalitarian and the oversimplification of the meaning of equality as a democratic value. She showed that equality and inequality were relevant in instrumental ways to some of Confucianism’s key social and political concerns. (Parallel tensions are found in the thought of Gandhi, according to Karuna Mantena. His critique of the Indian caste system may have been owed to a kind of realist paternalism, or perhaps to the logic of nonviolent resistance).

Leigh Jenco examined the work of the late 19th and early 20th century translator and writer Yan Fu, who was among the very first writers to introduce ideas of freedom and democracy in China. Through his essays, as well as translations of significant Western texts such as Mill’s “On Liberty” and Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws,” Yan argued that democracy and freedom were crucial to securing​ ​China’s wealth and power in an increasingly threatening world. ​He did not simply think these terms could be unproblematically translated from one context to another, however, precisely because he recognized liberty and democracy as practices that depended for their meaning and efficacy on the broader cultural networks that sustained them in Western nations, particularly Britain.

​For Peter Rutland, the failure of democracy in Russia can be attributed to many causes, including the lack of experience with democratic institutions, the economic collapse of the 1990s (which discredited the new political system) and the oil curse. Rutland drew attention to two factors which may have broader implications for democratic theory. First, there is the Tocquevillian argument that the lack of respect for rule of law may be rooted in the erosion of religious belief, a result of decades of Soviet secularization (a point underscored by Joshua Mitchell).Second, he argued that uncertainty over Russian national identity in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet multi-national state made political leaders insecure and unwilling to embrace contestation, the key element of a democratic polity. Schumpeter’s minimalist definition of democracy, as Nadia Urbinati pointed out, proved to be too maximalist for post-Soviet Russia.

African political thought was also present in the conference. Ajume Wingo argued for a conception of political freedom based on the capacity of citizens to act in a surprising way within their community using traditional African narratives and normative accounts.  Citizens’ capacity to surprise requires a degree of privacy and non-domination that makes it possible for them to choose their own courses of action according to their own reasons.  That capacity to surprise also requires a democratic society to be flexible and responsive enough to accommodate, rather than quash, unpredictable behaviors.  Maintaining that flexibility and responsiveness also demands that a democratic government be aware of the unpredictable preferences of individuals in the community and respond to them rather than purge those behavior as is often the case in many African states like Egypt, Libya, Somalia and DRC. For Lawrence Hamilton, African freedom can only be possible if basic needs are met and actual political representation exists.

The consolidation of democratic rule in Latin America has inaugurated a lively debate about the nature and potentials of democracy. For Enrique Peruzzotti, two contrasting views dominate the debate: a liberal/republican understanding of representative government and the advocates of populism as radical democracy. The liberal/republican perspective is organized around an institutional concern for limited government. Its diagnosis is clear: The lack of effective formal checks on the Executive leads to a form of democracy in which the president rules unconstrained  by the usual checks and balances. For proponents of populism, what the region urgently awaits is a form of democracy that can properly express the political aspirations of the people (what Diego von Vacano termed “Democratic Caesarism”). The enforcement of the principle of popular sovereignty demands the strengthening and centralization of presidential power, not its limitation, an idea that, as Nicolas Shumway pointed out, can in fact lead to fear of the masses, or “demophobia.” The existence of a vibrant field of mediated politics ought to ensure a permanent presence of the principle of popular sovereignty in the democratic life of Latin America.

Zack Elkins’s study of the various constitutions found in in the history of Latin America showed how ideas are put into practice through constitutional design. He pointed out that some of the most intriguing clauses in national constitutions are those that define the nation and its members.  These are the kind of emphatic statements typically prefaced by the stem words, “Brazilians are those who…,” followed by a host of criteria.  Compared to other sources of national identity, these clauses are not particularly subtle.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more prominent source (the constitution) or a clearer definition of membership than these provisions.  Of course, the purpose of these citizenship clauses is to bestow membership privileges on some but not others.  And, just as obviously, these clauses can vary in their exclusivity.   By international standards, citizenship rules in Latin American constitutions have historically been remarkably inclusive.  These rules likely have real consequences, some welcome and some unwelcome. One might argue that a more demanding set of citizenship requirements might result in citizens who value the membership more, an attachment that could, in turn, imply a deeper commitment to society and participatory governance. However, there is another consideration, having to do with national unity.  Citizens of multiethnic Latin American countries with inclusive citizenship rules tend to live together in comparable harmony (A point challenged by Will Kymlicka).

Towards the end of the debates, Joshua Cohen asked the participants to think about what would be considered success if we were to think about democracy in a comparative way. One response was that the term “comparative” ought to be dropped, so that those who think about political ideas from non-Western perspectives as seen as doing political theory proper. Another response, provided by Anne Norton and Melissa Williams, was that since political life and language are not always expressed with air-tight linguistic logic, political reasoning of different kinds ought to be allowed into the public sphere. A third response was given indirectly by Gary Jacobsohn, who used ideas he gleaned from his comparative constitutional studies of India to think about the role of religion in the U.S.: Perhaps success is when we think about America using lenses derived from other areas of the world and not always as exceptional, an idea that was echoed by Alan Ryan’s critique of contemporary democratic practices in the United States.

The prospects for democracy, at home and abroad, seem mixed. The conference showed us that many of the problems of democratization in the developing world are also with us in the U.S. It also presented the reality that, for the Middle East, Islam plays a largely hegemonic role in the public sphere, which may contradict some key elements of a liberal kind of democracy. Still, we see democratic elements in the Islamic tradition that need further burgeoning. For the Chinese perspective, we find that Confucian values are not incompatible with equality, and that we need more intercultural translation and communication to understand East Asian models of democracy. The African view tells us that we must recognize that political life is largely about community narratives, rather than rational individualism. And the Latin American debates around democracy show us that there are two competing alternatives, the liberal and the populist, that are generating intense — and healthy — discussion within Latin American publics as well as elites that create new constitutions. Democracy seems to be an idea that is found not just inside the “West” (a contested term in itself), but its road to success is littered with obstacles.

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