Democracy and Anti-Democrats

Over the last few years, events in countries like Algeria, whose free democratic elections were cancelled by army officers to prevent a probable Islamic fundamentalist victory, have drawn attention to a number of issues that are in urgent need of consideration. Apart from the fact that the political reverberations of the Algerian incident are still being felt throughout the region, the fact that it happened helped to focus attention on a thorny problem for democrats everywhere. Many people have found themselves plunged into a dreadful dilemma -- torn between their liberal democratic principles on the one hand, and the immediate and practical threats of oppression and the withholding of human rights on the other. To add to their anguish, the Algerian incident has been taken by certain Islamic fundamentalists to provide justification for their claim that democracy is little more than a tool of cynical Western capitalists.

Of course, the problem is much more complex if you do question the deceptively simple assumption that democracy is always a good thing. I'll make that simplifying assumption for my present purposes (though I'd like the chance to look at it some other time). Similarly, rather than tackling the real and murky world of politics, with its lies, evasions, and half-truths, I'll consider an imaginary and relatively straightforward example.

A country of indeterminate geographical location - let's call it Sylvania - organises free democratic elections. It soon becomes clear to political observers inside and outside the country that the victor is going to be a party called God's Holy Orthodox and Saintly Terrorists (GHOST) -- whose avowed aims include the dismantling of the democratic system and its replacement by a strict, unyielding, and permanent theocracy. The current government of Sylvania presumably has two main options: it can act to prevent such an undesirable result -- either by cancelling the elections or by banning GHOST; or it can leave matters as they are, considering itself bound by the democratic will of the electorate (I leave aside the more brutal alternatives -- they bring in extra moral complications, but they don't alter my basic point). What should be the attitude to these alternatives of a supporter of democracy?

Many - probably most - of us will feel rather a mixed reaction. Our principles tell us that, no matter how distasteful we may find the result of an election, that result must stand -- what else, after all, is the point of democracy? We are reminded of fine-sounding sentiments like Voltaire's: `I disapprove of what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it'. On the other hand, we may find the projected result so unpleasant that we should feel relief at its evasion or circumvention. There's a balance here, of course: after an extremely unpleasant result we're likely to accept the taking of harsher countermeasures than after a merely displeasing result. This mixed reaction might go unexpressed, or we might shamefacedly say something like `I disapprove in principle, of course, but to be honest I'm glad it's happened'. But should we disapprove, even in principle? Is our shamefacedness justified? Can one be both glad and a true democrat?

The main point of modern democracy is not, of course, government by the people. Rather, it's presumably that the citizens of a state have the right to choose their own government -- their own government, not that of other people. We don't countenance Sylvania's bloody and brutal invasion of its neighbour Freedonia on the grounds that the Sylvanians have elected a government whose manifesto commitment was world-domination. Nor do we accept the Sylvanians' plea that the invasion is for the Freedonians' own good (unless, of course, Sylvania is the United States of America -- but I'm concerned with what we should think rather than what many of us unfortunately actually do think). Aggression such as this is dealt with, more or less ineffectually, through the United Nations. All right, very ineffectually, but the point is that there is in principle a means of enforcing international law. There is no organisation which even pretends to attempt to deal with similar actions performed, not geographically, but temporally -- not across borders, but across generations.

Let us return to Sylvania's election dilemma. In most modern democracies there is provision for regular and reasonably frequent elections, and we judge a country's status in part according to whether or not it holds such elections; one every thirty years or so, or at the wayward whim of the party in power, and we'd be reluctant to accept the country concerned as truly democratic. But the election of the anti- democratic GHOST party in Sylvania, a party whose avowed aim is to replace democracy by theocracy, will result in the indefinite suspension of elections. That is, it will be the election, not merely of a government for this generation, but of the governments of who knows how many future generations of Sylvanians. Whatever you think of the rights and wrongs of selling yourself into slavery (about which I suppose there may be some question), there can surely be no justification for selling your children and grandchildren too.

After all, we don't usually treat time as being so much more of an excuse than space. The terrorist who plants a bomb which explodes many days later is accounted no less a murderer than the one who fires a long-range missile. If I succeed in cheating you out of next year's salary, I'm no less culpable than if I cheat you out of this year's.

It's true that a democratically elected government has a duty to respect the views and desires of its electorate, but it surely has a wider and overriding moral duty to humanity in general -- both present and future. So I take it that the true supporter of democracy can with a clear conscience approve of the suppression of the democratic rights of even a majority of the living when such suppression protects the democratic rights of millions yet unborn. The choosing of one evil over another is rarely a happy task, however often it may turn out to be a necessary one. Still, we can surely permit ourselves some little satisfaction in choosing the lesser evil when the greater is so great.

Peter J. King

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