Outlook's Third Annual Spring Cleaning List


Let's get rid of 'democracy'


"Democracy." Let's dump it; toss it on the scrap heap of history. The concept remains worthy, but the word is rapidly being exhausted of all residual value.

Democracy is much more than the elimination of an undemocratic leader. What we have seen this year, unfolding on our television screens and laptops, looks like democracy, but as any Parisian schoolchild can recount, the path from the barricades to a functioning parliament can be tortuous. After the Jacobin terror sent more than 14,000 victims to the guillotine, France (and most of Europe) got Napoleon, whose excesses ultimately led to a restoration of the monarchy. Five years from now, we are more likely to see another Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or another Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, than to see a functioning representational government in any of the countries now undergoing the "Arab spring."

The instant transfer of political power is intoxicating, but it should not be confused with democracy itself. Neither can a functioning democracy exist without fair elections, and a social compact that accepts representational government and the discipline of abiding by its decisions.

Truth be told, our government's commitment to democracy in other countries is almost whimsically inconsistent: clearly greater in Libya than in Saudi Arabia, less in Bahrain than in Iran. We are constrained from actively promoting democracy in China by our enormous national interests there; but in Congo, where our interests are negligible and the outrages against democracy are constant, we do nothing. The misappropriation of the word is so great as to be silly. Perhaps the late George S. Kaufman had it right when he noted that "One man's Mede is another man's Persian."

Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC's "Nightline" from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for "BBC World News America."

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