The preconditions for democracy

I stumbled across two bizarre articles by right-wing ‘thinkers’ last week, which shared a common thread, although they had very different main themes. The Weekly Standard (http://www.weeklystandard.com/Utilities/printer_preview.asp?idArticle=12266&R=ECBD396FA) was deploring polygamy (and also indirectly gay marriage, on the grounds that once you redefine marriage to include new forms, you cannot then stop its extension to other forms. To which the short answer is, of course you can. Saying that mixed-race marriages were allowed in the US didn’t automatically mean that gay marriage was). Meanwhile Roger Scruton was castigating Francis Fukayama for his universalist beliefs (http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article.jsp?id=3&debateId=137&articleId=3605). (Scruton also claims that the European Union is ‘dedicated to extinguishing not only the national loyalties of the European people, but also the Christian culture and democratic institutions that had thrived in them’, which suggests an EU with far more vision and purpose than anything we’ve seen lately).

The link between the articles was democracy, or at least the preconditions of it. In response to Fukayama’s view of the urge for democracy as universal, Roger Scruton says ‘the march of history towards liberal democracy is a local achievement of Christian culture.’ Meanwhile the Weekly Standard article showed the bizarre train of thought that monogamy was what made democracy possible, because monogamy led to the love marriage and hence concern about the rights of the individual. In contrast, polygamy produces autocracy.

A few minutes thought would provide sufficient counter-examples to test and reject both theories, should testing the theories be what the authors intended. (Of course, it isn’t – the point is to show that the Other (Muslims, liberals etc) is inferior to us). Classical Athens managed democracy without Christianity, love matches or concerns for universal human rights (no rights for slaves). India has managed well democratically despite a tradition of arranged marriages. The Western countries in the lead in the eighteenth century on the theories of human rights and democracy were Revolutionary France (anti-religious) and the United States (whose Founding Fathers tended to be Deists rather than Christians).

I don’t know if anyone has done rigorous scholarly studies on the characteristics that help countries sustain democracy and those that hinder it. It’d be difficult to do without triumphalism, but it would be a useful exercise. Anything to counter the fantasies both of Fukayama (that democracy is the default condition of humanity) and right-wingers who think that ‘lesser breeds’ must remain permanently ‘without the law’.

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2 thoughts on “The preconditions for democracy

  1. Interesting. I disagree with Scruton; from what I’ve learnt through studying History, Christianity (especially Roman Catholicism) has been quite autocratic! For example, Pre-Revolutionary France (where religious minorities, eg Protestants, were persecuted!).

    As for the conditions that sustain democracy; economic prosperity has got to be one! Economic crises in Pre-Revolutionary France, and Germany (circa 1930) led to radical change.

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    • Religions as a whole, have, I think, a rather ambiguous relationship with democracy. On the one hand, religions which affirm that all humans are equally God’s creatures and therefore to be valued potentially contribute towards the view that all may equally share in government. On the other hand, most religions (particularly revealed religions) tend to have some kind of division of the world into those who are more holy/godly/enlightened etc and the inferior remainder. It then becomes easier to claim that such unenlightened etc. people shouldn’t be allowed to decide important matters (because they are bad or ignorant or unfaithful), but should just do what the properly religious tell them to. [There are of course secular equivalents of this tendency as well – most Enlightenment thinkers were not big on democracy, if it meant the unwashed masses getting ideas above their station].

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