“Democracy” is always threatened, it seems, generally by persons or movements the speaker dislikes.  The very word carries an aura of sanctity that anyone would always claim, to justify their aims, recruit allies, or tar adversaries.  To be sure, in 2023 there are real concerns: a war of aggression in Ukraine; ‘backsliders” in Hungary, Turkey, and India; China’s threat to Taiwan; election deniers in the U.S. and Brazil; “woke” schools; anti-abortion legislation; classified documents on the loose; and economic squeezes fueling unrest around the world.  Are they all really about democracy?  Are any about a fundamental first value, as we generally feel that democracy is?

In Ukraine, for instance, democracy is not directly at stake.  Certainly Ukraine’s independence is.  Certainly Ukraine is “more free” that Russia, apparently by a wide margin.  But Ukraine itself is not a full democracy, and corruption in the political system is widespread enough to have triggered a purge of corrupt officials last week.  We must support Ukraine but not because it has a deeply engrained democratic culture like France or New Zealand, but because it is a victim of unprovoked, full scale, unilateral aggression.  True, Ukraine has been developing in its freedoms, and Russia would quash that progress.  But there is a deeper concern: a world that accepts force as a tool to pursue international interests is a world where might makes right.  Freedom cannot have value in such a world; some quirky country may entertain it, but only if its own might is sufficient to defend itself.  

America holds that all persons are equally endowed with unalienable rights, and that governments exist to secure those rights – not because we oppose constraints on us specifically, but as a principle.  Our founding on principle gives us an existential stake in stopping aggression.  Aggression and wars have gone on since time out of mind, but most cases since 1945 have involved internal conflicts, border disputes, or egregious abuses by the invaded.  The question of aggression is usually qualified, complex, or clouded.  Only Putin in Ukraine and Saddam Hussein in 1990 have so blatantly defied the moral norm against starting wars.  We need to work not only to stop such aggression, but to ensure that the aggressors are penalized.  Democracy may or may not be directly in play – Kuwait remains a monarchy – but America has a stake in protecting that norm.  It says that principle trumps might.  Our legitimacy depends on the sanctity of principle.

Distinguished columnist Martin Wolf previewed his soon-to-be-released book in a Financial Times piece, “In Defence of Democratic Capitalism” this past week.  His underlying thesis, that “it is impossible to sustain a universal suffrage democracy with a market economy if the former does not appear open to the influence – and the latter does not serve the interests – of the people at large,” is telling.  It ties electoral democracy to free market economics.  Wolf makes the case that the two together have made for the most successful societies in history, which serve both personal liberty and prosperity.  But which is the fundamental point, the prosperity or the liberties?  The Chinese Communists deem basic prosperity for all as the first value, and the many liberties that we defend as inequitably applied and therefore of lesser value.  If indeed there is a trade-off between the two, what is our first value?  Where does “democracy” fit, and in what variations?

The Declaration of Independence stipulates that government is just only if it has the consent of the governed.  How does that qualification fit with democracy?  Even dictatorships have some degree of quiescent consent of the governed – at least until they do not.  Conversely, the most open and established electoral systems may fail to offer the governed what they really want, so that a regime chosen by electoral majority may yet be less than fully just.  To be sure, free and fair elections are the best way to discern the choice of the governed, among the existing options.  And no one can demand choices that no one offers.  But electoral government may not exactly equate either to democracy or to consent of the governed.

Martin Wolf is of course right: the liberal democratic societies are in fact the most prosperous, freest societies in history.  And free and materially secure populations have generated inventions and creations that exhibit freedom’s sublime value.  But the world is entering into a period where different value systems – or habits of identity and lore- will clash, and new findings from cosmology to genetics upend everyone’s living assumptions.  Disorientation and fear can unmoor people from their deepest values.  So Americans need to keep the underlying point of a word like “democracy” clearly in view.  Our deepest concern is not for any system nor any governing practice, however it is called. We exist in the name of the unalienable rights, which governments must protect. Clarity in our deepest conviction is the best defense against losing it.  


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