Tag: democracy

Democracy in Tunisia?

In the wake of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication in Tunisia on Friday, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed the need for quick elections in a country that has never known democracy, freedom of the press, or the rule of law:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton …  reacted Friday to Ben Ali’s departure with a statement condemning government violence against protesters and calling for free elections.

“We look to the Tunisian government to build a stronger foundation for Tunisia’s future with economic, social and political reforms,” she said… .

President Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters and urged the government to hold elections that “reflect the true will and aspirations” of Tunisians.

I’m reminded of Fareed Zakaria’s concerns about the blithe promotion of elections in his article “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (pdf; later expanded into a book, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad):

…for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property. In fact, this latter bundle of freedoms—what might be termed constitutional liberalism—is theoretically different and historically distinct from democracy. As the political scientist Philippe Schmitter has pointed out, “Liberalism, either as a conception of political liberty, or as a doctrine about economic policy, may have coincided with the rise of democracy. But it has never been immutably or unambiguously linked to its practice.” Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the Western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not….

Constitutional liberalism, on the other hand, is not about the procedures for selecting government, but rather government’s goals. It refers to the tradition, deep in Western history, that seeks to protect an individual’s autonomy and dignity against coercion, whatever the source—state, church, or society. The term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain, beginning with the Greeks, that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it rests on the tradition, beginning with the Romans, of the rule of law….

Since 1945 Western governments have, for the most part, embodied both democracy and constitutional liberalism. Thus it is difficult to imagine the two apart, in the form of either illiberal democracy or liberal autocracy. In fact both have existed in the past and persist in the present. Until the twentieth century, most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies or, at best, semi-democracies. The franchise was tightly restricted, and elected legislatures had little power…. Only in the late 1940s did most Western countries become full-fledged democracies, with universal adult suffrage. But one hundred years earlier, by the late 1840s, most of them had adopted important aspects of constitutional liberalism—the rule of law, private property rights, and increasingly, separated powers and free speech and assembly. For much of modern history, what characterized governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional liberalism. The “Western model” is best symbolized not by the mass plebiscite but the impartial judge….

It is odd that the United States is so often the advocate of elections and plebiscitary democracy abroad. What is distinctive about the American system is not how democratic it is but rather how undemocratic it is, placing as it does multiple constraints on electoral majorities….

While it is easy to impose elections on a country, it is more difficult to push constitutional liberalism on a society. The process of genuine liberalization and democratization is gradual and long-term, in which an election is only one step. Without appropriate preparation, it might even be a false step….

Today, in the face of a spreading virus of illiberalism, the most useful role that the international community, and most importantly the United States, can play is—instead of searching for new lands to democratize and new places to hold elections—to consolidate democracy where it has taken root and to encourage the gradual development of constitutional liberalism across the globe. Democracy without constitutional liberalism is not simply inadequate, but dangerous, bringing with it the erosion of liberty, the abuse of power, ethnic divisions, and even war.

Let’s hope that the new leaders and the newly active citizens of Tunisia focus on developing freedom of the press, civil liberties, the rule of law, and constitutional limits on the power of government–including economic policies (pdf) more conducive to growth and progress–even as they move toward holding elections.

Venezuelans Vote on Sunday to Defend Their Moribund Democracy

Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday for a legislative election that will test the extent to which democracy still exists in their country. It’ll be the 13th election since Hugo Chávez became president in 1998 (these include constitutional referenda, gubernatorial, legislative and presidential elections, as well as a recall vote).

Some would say that all these elections prove that Venezuela is a true democracy. I would argue that democracy means more than simply voting. It involves separation of powers, constitutional checks and balances, and freedom of the press. None of these exists in Venezuela anymore.

Even the electoral process is deeply flawed. Just as in previous elections, nobody expects the vote on Sunday to be fair: Independent international observers have again been barred from entering Venezuela. Most of the media are owned by the government, and the remaining private outlets must submit to the constant cadenas (presidential addresses) that the government requires private TV and radio stations to air. From 1998 to September 19th, broadcasters aired 2,072 cadenas for a total of 1,430 hours of transmission (almost two months of 24-hour broadcast).

Moreover, prominent opposition figures have been disqualified from running due to technicalities and dirty tricks. Others have been imprisoned or have fled the country. The electoral body is controlled by the Executive and the voters’ registry has not been independently audited in the recent past. It contains such anomalies as 32,000 people older than 100 years, persons registered multiple times, and 2,000 voters that share the same address.

Despite this daunting scenario, the opposition stands a good chance of making significant gains in the National Assembly. However, it remains to be seen if Chávez will allow even a modest voice of dissent in a country where he has long exerted total control over all government institutions. There will be a three-month period between the legislative election and the installment of the new National Assembly. It wouldn’t be a surprise if, after Sunday’s vote, Chávez moves to curtail the powers of Congress, just as he did with the powers of governors and the mayor of Caracas after the gubernatorial elections of 2008.

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have  failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power.

Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet,

… a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code.

As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.”

By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

“Deem and Pass” and TARP

The leaders of the House of Representatives plan to address health care through a “deem and pass” strategy.  Professor Michael McConnell believes this strategy violates the Constitution.  But put that aside for now. Ms. Pelosi has chosen “deem and pass” because, as she said, “people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” The “people” in question are House Democrats whose votes are essential to passing the bill.  These members fear voters would penalize them for voting for the Senate bill. As the Washington Post put it, “deem and pass” would “enable House Democrats not to be on record directly as supporting the Senate measure.”  A House Democrat running in a tough election will be able to deny voting for the Senate bill if it passes into law. We would then have an odd situation in which a bill became law even though only a minority of House members are willing to take responsibility for having supported it. It would be, as it were, a mystery how the bill became law.

This all reminds me of the TARP legislation. In my recent policy analysis of how Congress performed badly in the TARP case, I found that members of both of chambers were concerned mostly with avoiding responsibility for voting for the bailouts. In the tough cases, and probably many others, Congress does what it can to avoid being held accountable.

Many people inside DC will look at “deem and pass” through the lens of political hardball. If Pelosi can pull it off, she will be praised as tough and shrewd, a risk taker who gets her way by any means necessary.

But there is a larger problem here.  The willingness and capacity of Congress to shirk responsibility for its acts suggests deep institutional decline and corruption.  That decline implicates more than Congress itself. How can representative democracy work if voters cannot hold their representatives accountable?

Drug Violence in Mexico

The apparent drug gang killings of U.S. consular employees this weekend in Juarez, Mexico are a bloody reminder that President Obama is getting the United States involved in yet another war it cannot win. Drug gang killings also occurred in Acapulco, with a total of 50 such fatalities nationwide over the weekend.

Unfortunately, Obama has responded to the latest incident by following the same failed strategy as his predecessors when confronted with drug war losses: a stronger fight against drugs.

Though the deaths are the first in which Mexican drug cartels appear to have so brazenly targeted and killed individuals linked to the U.S. government, illicit drug trade violence has killed some 18,000 people in Mexico since President Calderon came to power in December 2006—more than three times the number of American military personnel deaths in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

The carnage only shot up after Calderon declared an all-out war on drug trafficking upon taking office. After more than three years, the policy has failed to reduce drug trafficking or production, but it is weakening the institutions of Mexican democracy and civil society through corruption and bloodshed, which are the predictable products of prohibition.

The 29 people killed in drug-related violence this weekend in a 24 hour period in the state of Guerrero sets a dubious record for a Mexican state. And an increasing number of Mexicans, including former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda, are calling for a thorough rethinking of anti-drug policy in Mexico and the United States that includes legalization. Legalization would significantly reduce drug cartel revenue and put an end to an enormous black market and the social pathologies that it creates.

Six Reasons to Downsize the Federal Government

1. Additional federal spending transfers resources from the more productive private sector to the less productive public sector of the economy. The bulk of federal spending goes toward subsidies and benefit payments, which generally do not enhance economic productivity. With lower productivity, average American incomes will fall.

2. As federal spending rises, it creates pressure to raise taxes now and in the future. Higher taxes reduce incentives for productive activities such as working, saving, investing, and starting businesses. Higher taxes also increase incentives to engage in unproductive activities such as tax avoidance.

3. Much federal spending is wasteful and many federal programs are mismanaged. Cost overruns, fraud and abuse, and other bureaucratic failures are endemic in many agencies. It’s true that failures also occur in the private sector, but they are weeded out by competition, bankruptcy, and other market forces. We need to similarly weed out government failures.

4. Federal programs often benefit special interest groups while harming the broader interests of the general public. How is that possible in a democracy? The answer is that logrolling or horse-trading in Congress allows programs to be enacted even though they are only favored by minorities of legislators and voters. One solution is to impose a legal or constitutional cap on the overall federal budget to force politicians to make spending trade-offs.

5. Many federal programs cause active damage to society, in addition to the damage caused by the higher taxes needed to fund them. Programs usually distort markets and they sometimes cause social and environmental damage. Some examples are housing subsidies that helped to cause the financial crises, welfare programs that have created dependency, and farm subsidies that have harmed the environment.

6. The expansion of the federal government in recent decades runs counter to the American tradition of federalism. Federal functions should be “few and defined” in James Madison’s words, with most government activities left to the states. The explosion in federal aid to the states since the 1960s has strangled diversity and innovation in state governments because aid has been accompanied by a mass of one-size-fits-all regulations.

For more, see DownsizingGovernment.org.

Democracy Will Survive Citizens United

At Politico Arena, today’s focus is on the Court and campaign finance.

My comment:

The ink is barely dry on today’s Citizens United opinion, and the hysteria has already begun.  Set aside the misunderstandings we’re seeing in some of the comments here at the Arena – corporations still cannot, for example, contribute directly to campaigns – even some of those who understand the law and this decision would have us believe that the world as we know it is coming to an end.  Thus, the inimitable Rick Hasen, whose knowledge of these issues is second to none, tells us that “today’s Supreme Court opinion marks a very bad day for American democracy.”  And attorneys at NYU’s Brennan Center, which made its reputation promoting campaign finance “reform,” head up their post with this: “After the Flood: How to Save Democracy Post Citizens United.”  One imagines the Dark Ages just beyond the gloaming.
 
Over on the Hill, meanwhile, Senator Russ Feingold, who’s having a bad day in what must for him be a bad week, promises darkly, “In the coming weeks, I will work with my colleagues to pass legislation restoring as many of the critical restraints on corporate control of our elections as possible.”
 
Relax.  Half of our states, states like Virginia, have minimal campaign finance laws, and there’s no more corruption in those states than in states that strictly regulate.  And that’s because the real reason we have this campaign finance law is not, and never has been, to prevent corruption.  The dirty little secret – the real impetus for this law – in incumbency protection.  How else to explain the so-called Millionaire’s Amendment, which the Court struck down in 2008.  That little gem in the McCain-Feingold “reform” package exempted candidates (read: incumbents) from the law’s strictures if they were running against a self-financed “millionaire,” who could not be prohibited from spending his own money campaigning.  Thus, the nominal rationale for the incomprehensible edifice we call “campaign finance law” – to prohibit corruption – suddenly disappeared if you were running against a millionaire.  Well, the Court, fortunately, saw right through that.  And a majority on the Court saw the light in today’s decision, too.  The First Amendment is not a “loophole.”  It’s the very foundation of our democracy, and we are the stronger today for this decision.