Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Current problems in the history of democracy

I have a long-standing interest in the history of democracy as a world phenomenon. What I've written on this subject has been done in collaboration with Phil Paine.

Recently Phil has been writing in his blog about the coup in Thailand. Thailand, he points out, is a pretty important country with a lot of potential and a lot of problems. After reading various news sources and corresponding with people from Thailand, he has concluded:

The fact that Prime Minister Thaksin just happened to be the richest man in the country makes it plain that his regime was "democratic" in name only. That is not what happens in genuine democracies. It is clearly no real loss to the world democratic movement that he has been ousted, even though the precedent of military action is extremely damaging. But Thailand is still left in the position of having no real democratic infrastructure.
What is a democratic infrastructure? It is local democratic institutions well-integrated with higher levels of government:

In a functioning democracy, a head of state gets into their role by working their way through layers of public service, until they have proven themself responsible to larger and larger electorates. The most successful national democracies were built on foundations of democratic process on the local level.

Thai democracy, says Phil, was a "shell" or "mock" democracy, because no such process produced the regime of Prime Minister Thaksin.

Phil then makes this further point:

The existence of such shell democracies or mock democracies is more of a hindrance to evolving functioning democracies than outright dictatorship. With a crude dictatorship, the problem and the alternative are clear. With shell democracies, ordinary people are left with the impression that this kind of "big man" autocracy is what the word "democracy" is supposed to mean, and so the idea of democracy itself falls into disrepute.

Speaking of things that throw democracy into disrepute, what can one say about the current situation in the United States, a country that likes to think of itself as the foremost champion of democracy? Congress, under a great deal of pressure from the White House, seems set to pass a bill not only legitimating torture, but abrogating the principle of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus is a procedure which says no one can be imprisoned unless a court determines that there is legitimate reason to do so. Although the current bill is being presented as a defense against foreign terrorists, Americans too could be arrested and held indefinitely under its provisions.

I will restrict myself to saying that although English warlords of the 13th century, when writing Magna Carta, keenly appreciated how important the principle and procedure was to their continued freedom, Americans of 2006 seem to be largely oblivious to what is happening, and their elected representatives are going to pass the bill.

This is a major event in the world history of democracy.

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