Elections don’t guard rights by Ralph Peters
Democracy vs. freedom
Elections don’t guard rights
- By RALPH PETERS
- Last Updated: 12:10 AM, June 20, 2013
- Posted: 11:21 PM, June 19, 2013
With the very best intentions, we got it wrong. By elevating the establishment of democracy above all other priorities in states beyond Europe, we got elections — then had to watch freedom suffer.
The roads to Tahrir, Taksim and Red Squares have been paved with good intentions, but led to the oppression of those who shared our values.
The headline example is Turkey, whose democratically empowered prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was welcomed at the White House as a “friend” by our president — even as his government methodically undercut the country’s secular constitution, imposing his party’s Islamist values step by skillful step and imprisoning more journalists than China.
Mesmerized by elections, we forgot freedom.
Prime Minister Erdogan constantly cites his party’s election wins — with just over 50 percent of the vote last time around — as justification for imposing his Justice and Development Party’s Islamizing agenda on the entire population.
This month’s impassioned demonstrations and strikes in Istanbul, Ankara and other Turkish cities were triggered by the planned destruction of the last green space in Istanbul (and exacerbated by restrictions on alcohol sales), but are really about the struggle between those Turks who lean West and want social freedoms, and a government intent on reestablishing Turkey as an Islamic Middle-East hegemon.
Turkey has been a cultural conduit and invasion route between East and West for millennia. Today, it’s the cockpit of a new East-West struggle our politicians dread to acknowledge, a profound contest over the extent to which a majority can demand conformity from the dissenting individual (all too often in the name of a god).
Our president clings to “democratically elected” Erdogan even as Turkey beats freedom demonstrators to a pulp, backs Muslim Brotherhood factions in Syria’s civil war, exploits a staged confrontation with Israel and does its best domestically to pack ministries, courts and the military with Islamists.
Last Wednesday’s walk-out by the nation’s lawyers in sympathy with the freedom demonstrators had more to do with Erdogan’s subversion of the judiciary than with saving trees.
In Russia, Putin cites his election wins as justification for increasing tyranny, as do his clones in much of the former Soviet Union. Across the Middle East, sectarian leaders exploit election victories to exclude minorities from any hope of future power through the polls (elections that bring religious parties to power do not appear to come with a reverse gear). Democracy is, indeed, advancing, but freedom is retreating.
Democracy as we know it works within our practiced culture. For us, it’s the zenith of human self-organization. Disagree angrily though we may, we’ve learned to grit our teeth and compromise with political opponents in the clinch. The recent IRS debacle, for all the grandstanding on Capitol Hill, displayed our system’s strength: Members of Congress from both parties were genuinely shocked.
But we who self-govern in the Anglo-American tradition have had eight centuries of practice, with plenty of errors made along the way. Americans didn’t start from scratch in 1776, but inherited a tradition of the rule of law and impartial judicial institutions, of individual rights and of tolerance (however reluctant) of minority rights. We would even fight a great civil war over the rights of a never-before-enfranchised minority, an event that remains unique in world history.
And then we convinced ourselves that what has worked well for us must work for others with profoundly different traditions in societies at different stages of social and ethical development.
We were wrong. It’s time to face it.
We shouldn’t turn our back on democracy, but must recognize that the house needs a firm foundation that may take time to build. Instead of prodding ruptured societies to hurtle into elections — a pattern that gave us the treacherous President Hamid Karzai in Kabul and Baghdad’s sectarian partisan, Nouri al-Maliki, as well as the hapless President Mohammad Morsi in Egypt — we should stand for the rights of individuals and minorities, for guaranteed freedoms first. And we need to consider that there may be no universally applicable formula for getting to authentic, robust democracy in short order.
Democracy has worked well in two types of societies: The homogenous, such as Sweden or the Netherlands, where elections are about issues, not confessional or ethnic differences, and in diverse societies such as today’s United States that form and re-form fluid coalitions and where no single voting block can dominate all of the others.
Democracy consistently has disappointed in ethnically or religiously divided societies in which a majority tribe or faith wins the election and assumes the right to tyrannize minorities or “unbelievers.”
Conflating democracy with freedom, we elevated one narrow means over a desired universal end. It’s time for us to stand for freedom again.
Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst and author of the Civil War novel “Hell or Richmond.”