With Democracy For All and Freedom for None

It would be tempting to attribute the disaster spreading across the Middle East to a brief flirtation with democracy snake oil, but for the better part of the last century the political class of the United States could talk of nothing else. Nearly every war was fought to spread democracy, protect democracy or worship at the altar of democracy.

For much of the 20th century it was the working assumption of the sort of men who got up to give speeches in crowded halls that it was democracy that made America special. But it is not so much that democracy made America special, as America made democracy special and workable.

In a poignant historical irony, American democracy went into a prolonged decline just as its political class was busy speechifying about the importance of exporting it abroad. Government authority became centralized and elections began to come down not to ideas, but to divided groups fighting it out in a zero sum struggle for total control of each other’s lives. American democracy has been exported to Iraq. And Iraqi democracy was exported to America.

With unlimited authority vested in the government, we no longer have elections to decide policy, but to determine whether an oppressive social and cultural agenda complete with a loss of civil rights will be forced on the rest of the country. And our last election was as polarized as an Iraqi election and with a similar outcome.

Democracy was never the solution for the Middle East; a region that is properly multicultural in the sense of being a collection of quarreling tribes, religious factions and ethnic groups. And all that democracy accomplished was to give the majority another tool for oppressing the minority. Instead of bloody revolts leading to dictatorships, there were bloody revolts leading to elections which then led to dictatorships. And only a fool or Thomas Friedman would consider the addition of this extra step to be any kind of improvement.

A multicultural society does not invalidate government by popular vote unless that society is also so split along tribal lines that elections are decided based on the rate at which races and religious groups make up that society. When demographics become valid predictors of political outcomes, then democracy becomes theocracy and ethnocracy.

The Muslim world lacked limited government and its democracy experiments were doomed to become one type of horror show or another. The two dominant streams of political ideology in the region are Socialist and Islamist. The difference between the two is that the Socialists are mildly Islamist and the Islamists are mildly Socialist. Both of them however have no tradition of respect for the law and are motivated by utopian programs based on absolute power.

There was never going to be a good outcome. Understanding that democracy would no more solve the region’s problems than shooting a rabid dog full of PCP would improve its mood was as easy as looking at the dominant political movements that were going to compete in such an election.

American leaders were ill-prepared to grasp this because the Republicans were still besotted with an idealistic vision of American democracy propounded by the Democratic Party in the first half of the last century and utterly incapable of understanding that democracy is a tool and it only works in the hands of a people of good character.

No major Republican leader has spoken against the democracy export business because questioning the export of democracy to another country also questions the character of the people there. Republicans talk about American Exceptionalism, but limit it to the country’s political systems. In such a narrow reading, America is superior because its political systems are superior, not because its people are any different or better than anyone else.

But people define systems more than systems define people. Democracy works differently in Phoenix than it does in Detroit and democracy in Cairo works differently than it does in Tokyo. The ballot box is a Rorschach inkblot, an open space that people interpret and make use of in their own way. For some people the ballot box is a means of controlling one’s masters. For others it’s a way of appointing masters who will control and steal from other people on their behalf.

The Democratic Party could understand the expected outcome, but could not be expected to see anything wrong with it. The Muslim Brotherhood was just doing what they were trying to do; take power and then exploit the election to rewrite the laws, destroy any existing checks and balances and use an economic crisis and temporary rule to ram an entire cultural agenda down the throats of the country in order to transform it into a place more to their liking.

A fanatical ideology that disguises its intentions well enough to make it past the polling places and into the government is democracy’s silver bullet; whether it’s fired from a gun wielded by the left or by the Muslim Brotherhood. And if there is a large enough electorate cheering it on, then democracy becomes populist tyranny. It becomes what all unlimited power does, regardless of whether it’s wielded by men who seized power with bloody axes or after a vote count, it becomes unlimited repression.

Limited government is the missing ingredient in such democracies, but limited government is also the first up against the wall after the democratic revolution has been completed. Fanatics don’t believe in limiting their own power. They believe that the only way to make things right is with unlimited power. They cannot be trusted because they do not put any principle or value above getting their own way. The law means nothing to them, truth and honor even less, ethics is a dead letter and as radicals they have no long term investment in the republic and don’t mind if it perishes while they tear its values and institutions down.

Limited government embodies respect for the individual, for the values of one’s neighbors and their right to keep living their lives the way that they always have. If you believe in the essential decency of people, then you are also willing to leave them alone. If however you do not believe that people will make the right decisions on their own, then you invariably reject limited government.

The individual as a moral entity is at the heart of limited government. The left, which denies the individual, viewing him only as a representative of a race or a class, of a brainwashed polity in thrall to movements and false beliefs that must be crushed, has no room for limited government. Neither does Islam, which rejects human free will, for the moral imperative of the Jihad and the forced conversion of infidels.

Democracy without the individual means as much as a million monkeys composing Shakespeare. Without the individual, the ballot box is only a tool for collectivist impulses and identities, for a makeshift insecure majority imposing its will on a minority or a coalition of insecure minorities doing the same thing to a majority. There is nothing special or exceptional about such behavior.

Limited government deriving from individual freedom is the only thing that lifts democracy above the violence of the mob. The Muslim world never had that and so its experiments with democracy were doomed to be nothing more than a baton being passed from one form of tyranny to another. More tragically, the United States which once had it is losing both the limited government and the individual freedom. And that means that democracy in America is bound to follow the same path as in the Muslim world, where democracy becomes only another way of taking over a country.

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  • http://www.adinakutnicki.com AdinaK

    Democracy fails (and will continue to do so, without a complete Islamic REFORMATION) in the Muslim world because they are raised in a wholly, diametrically opposed culture to western norms of democracy -http://adinakutnicki.com/2012/10/12/calling-for-an-islamic-reformation-via-strong-american-leadership-cold-war-messaging-why-excellence-morals-matter-commentary-by-adina-kutnicki/

    But it will take a non-appeasing, non-compliant western leadership to lead the charge. Do pigs fly?

    ALL the supportive evidence can be found within Islam & Blood – http://adinakutnicki.com/2012/07/13/islam-blood-a

    Little else needs to be added, at least when one understands the true dynamics of Muslim/Arab culture, beginning with the breast fed diet of jihad…jihad…jihad…all else flows from there.

    Adina Kutnicki, Israel – http://www.adinakutnicki.com/about/

  • Mary Sue

    Yeah, amazing how that "limited government" concept gets left out, to the detriment of the societies that do not implement it. Then Democracy becomes a caricature of itself.

    It's like I once heard, the difference between Democracy and USA's Representative Republic is, in a Democracy, if there were only 3 people (two men and a woman), the two men could theoretically vote to rape the woman and there'd be nothing she could do (because pure democracy has no morality attached to it, unlike the Rep repub.).

    • davarino

      Thats why the middle eastern countries do best with dictators. They keep a lid on the crazies

      • Mary Sue

        Saddam Hussein pretty much said he did what he did to keep a lid on the crazies.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "Then Democracy becomes a caricature of itself."

      This all goes back to the liberals and communists distorting definitions with political correctness and lies so that they can say what anything properly is. As I said recently, Saudi Arabia was described (post 911) as a "kind of democracy" too (on PBS). They don't even have elections!

  • Wjr

    You need to get your terms and the concept behind those terms correct. First, the United States is not and has never been a democracy. It is a republic. There is a vast difference. The early Greeks clearly demonstrated that democracy was a disaster due to the demagoguery of powerful rhetoric.

    The U.S. has been moving toward the disaster of democracy for many years. This is seen in the rapid swings of public opinion and the effect that this has upon governance. Indeed the internet is facilitating this movement.

    A republic ( from the Latin res publica) limits direct democracy by buffering the transient swings of public sentiment through institutional mechanism. The Romans were strong on laws and tradition. Recall that no Greek is remembered for a code of laws but several Romans are.

    The problem with republics is that they do best with monocultures. As long as the Romans were Romans the Republic worked. When Rome became an empire the system broke down and was replaced by an imperial system.

    The U.S. republic worked as long as there was a common cultural base — the old "melting pot" thinking for the relatively common cultures of Europe. We have become like the old Austrio-Hungarian Empire – a melting pot without a fire. Thus a continual diminution of the common culture. We have done this by the choice of a few.

    • Fred Glass

      Even if the author did get his terms "correct" as you suggest. it would not take away from the very profound observations the author has made and which were the substance of his article.
      Fred Glass

    • objectivefactsmatter

      "First, the United States is not and has never been a democracy. It is a republic. There is a vast difference."

      It's a democratic republic. It's a flavor of democracy that we forget we need to define explicitly. It might be too late for small measures in that regard.

  • Spider

    We are successful not because of Democracy but because we ae a Constitutional Republic. All Is-lamic majority countries will use the Qu-ran for their Constitution guaranteeing that they will just become Sharia hell-holes.


    Very accurate, spot-on analysis by Greenfield.

  • riverboatbill

    Islamic democracy is an oxymoron.

    • objectivefactsmatter

      Indeed. Thanks for reminding me; so is "Nazi Democratic Republic" and "Shinto Democratic Republic" and it's why we had to destroy them and force a constitution on them. What's wrong with learning valuable lessons from history?

  • Phil

    I think Daniel Greenfield is setting new records in writing; no-one else has ever written so many “instant classic” essays as a proportion of their total output; and these essays are full of “quotable quotes”. I can think of no-one else who is so obviously “the next Theodore Dalrymple”; Greenfield deserves a Wikiquote page as soon as possible.
    On the above essay, I recall a memorable pithy assessment by someone whose name I can’t remember: it went: “Democracy, Multiculturalism, Immigration: pick which TWO you want”.

  • UCSPanther

    There were undoubtedly those who, in the early 1950s thought that Gamal Nasser and his "Free Officers" Junta would bring greater political freedom to Egypt, but instead, the opposite happened. This is history repeating itself.

    The Middle East did not have an effective equivalent of our Magna Carta, the first and ultimately successful attempt to bring about the concept that even a King was subject to the laws of the land and had to respect his subjects' concerns in order to be allowed to rule. They still do not have any proper law and order, or any of the other conditions that the concept of Western Democracy needed to even stand a chance of getting of the ground as a viable idea.

    Until all that changes, Democracy will not exist in the Middle East.

  • http://whatdirectdemocracymightbe.wordpress.com/ Daryl Davis


    Your wonderful article stops notably short of laying out a concrete plan to restore this faltering representative democracy. In a rigid two-party polity such as ours, in which the Supreme Court uses the 14th Amendment to abrogate state laws in favor of federal legislation, even fiscally responsible, limited state governments cannot survive. It's a winner-take-all, dictatorial system emanating from Washington D.C. now.

    Is the answer yet to come from Congress? Seriously.

    We ought to be rid of the Congress — divide the nation into its constituent voting precincts, prohibiting any one from imposing a debt upon another. If many precincts wished to proliferate entitlement programs, then they alone would sustain them and live under them.

    This is true representative democracy. And true freedom.

    Wjr: Spare us the lessons concerning the wisdom of direct democracy based primarily upon the folly of ancient cultures. Shall we also judge the validity of a constitutional parliamentary system based upon the current failure in Iraq'? At least this would confine your weak argument to our modern world. Thoughtful adults are capable of creating better systems than the crude ones that failed in early history. See Switzerland.

  • Sean Porbin

    The prerequisite to democracy is freedom of speech. It rests there. Shiria type anti-blasphemy laws entrenches barbarism while limiting the ability to criticize it or vote against it.____Submit this… that Benghazi was all about the narrative of the video and justifying anti-blasphemy laws here in the US. This would 1) be the same M.O. as Fast & Furious i.e. start with the narrative and build a reality to support it 2) explain why the Egyptian consulate apologized for a video 17 people saw BEFORE the anticipated attack i.e. planting the narrative.____Democracy fails where free speech fails. However Mr. Greenfield… compelling as always.____

  • Elaine Connelly

    There cannot be a democratic Islamic State, Islam is the complete opposite of Democracy or a Republic. Islam is a cult and a really horrific one at that. Any Muslim can kill his wife, daughter and call it an honor killing. The women cannot be educated, they cannot go out in public without a male relative, God forbid they dress in western dress. There have been quite a few incidences in the United States where a muslim girl talked to an american boy and was tortured to death by her mother, father and siblings. How in the world can anyone consider Islam a valid religion? ISLAM IS A MURDEROUS CULT.

  • Gloria Stewart

    As usual Daniel Greenfield is right on the mark. He is, I believe, the most knowledgeable observer and writer on the Middle East.

    I would like to add some observations. Islam and classic liberal democracy (I do not use the term 'democracy' in the literal sense, nor, I assume does Mr. Greenfield) are incompatible. Muslims do not develop critical thinking skills that are a pre condition for free citizens. Their Koran, hadith, and Sira do not permit it as do our Old and New Testament. Since Muslims are taught exclusively in their early years from these three sources, their minds are set when they reach adulthood, even if they come to the West.

    A well known Muslim conqueror (I forget his name) when asked whether he would destroy the library in Alexandria, said (this is a paraphrase) that if the books in the library agreed with the Koran, they were redundant, and, if they did not, they were blasphemy.

    Muslims cannot accept the rule of law – the true pre condition for a free country. Their Sharia is a subjective free for all. and conclusions cannot be reached by linear reasoning. This is the opposite of English Common Law and its various derivatives. If a Muslim perceives – I said 'perceives' – that one has criticized Mohammed, Allah, or the Koran he can accuse him of blasphemy. Good luck getting out of that one. A Muslim is under obligation to kill an apostate – a clear underwriting of vigilante law.

    There might – I say might – have been an excuse to have been optimistic about the Arab Spring when it began. But do many fewer believe in it today? Do they slap themselves in the head and say "Was I ever wrong". No, and the stupidity continues.

    • freespirit

      Great essay…I wanted to correct you,cause I believe that the early Christian inflamed the library in Alexandria-Egypt. That is a historical fact,as well as it is a fact,that as well as there is no secularism in the society,there will be no progress. And it doesn't mateer if there is a "peacefull" form of a state religion…it will always be selfish and hermatized this society,regarding the new ideas.

      • Mary Sue

        no, actually, it's not.

        [Tom] Harpur refers to the "utter destruction of 500,000 to 750,000 books and scrolls" by a "Christian mob." In fact the majority of damage to the library was done by Ptolemy VIII in 89-88 BC, when he burned most of the city, and Julius Caesar in 47 BC, when he partially destroyed the library; then some of the volumes were moved to Rome to replenish libraries there. The next destruction of the library occurred in 273 under Aurelian when he burned the city — not targeting the library itself.

        Please note that Harpur incorrectly dates Aurelian to the fourth century — he was a pagan emperor who lived in the third century — and he attributes this destruction to "Emperor Aurelian and the Christians". In fact Aurelian was a pagan who set up a religion dedicated to Sol the sun god.
        Harpur says that the Serapeum, "to which most of the books had been moved," was burned down on order of Theophilus, in 400. The name is right, but the date was 391, and the books had not been "moved" there — the Serapeum was just a small temple library, only a shadow of the one destroyed earlier by pagans themselves.

  • tagalog

    The kind of democracy Mr. Greenfield is talking about is what the Classical Greek philosphers were thinking of when they considered democracy. For them, democracy, the direct rule of the people, was chaotic and invited inevitably the rise of the tyrant.

    Americans and the English discovered a workable form of democracy, the republican form of government. But republicanism requires a willingness to agree that some group of people must have enough authority and enough virtue to lead properly. It also requires a responsible method for choosing leaders, something we have lost since we discovered that we can vote ourselves largesse from the national treasury. We have lost all virtue in these latter days since the end of the Depression, and we have spat in the face of any pretensions to authority so that no one feels safe claiming that some value is the "right" one. That dooms us as a nation. Other cultures never developed any national feeling for such things, so of course their democracies are likewise fated to fail.

  • Gloria Stewart

    To Free Spirit and Mary Sue

    Actually there is some question as to who burned the library. Plutarch blamed it on Julius Caesar, though the library was not Caesar's primary target when he started the fire. Historian Edward Gibbons blamed in on Theophilus and Bishop Gregory blamed it on Caliph Omar.

  • Stuart Parsons

    It should be remembered that these so called crazies are following the instructions that the wonderful 'Prophet' received from the mighty Allah via a six hundred winged angel named Gabriel. These wonderful people who are being maligned as crazies, know Satan might sleep in their noses at night and angels will not enter a house containing a dog or a picture. Furthermore, they know impotence can be cured by eating boiled eggs with Quran verses written on them and they have no need to worry if a fly falls into their drink. The fact that they are wise and powerful is fully attested to by the fact that when Satan hears the Muslim call to prayer he loudly passes wind and flees. Oh my god Allah must be a wonderful god because the Sun sleeps under his throne at night.