Monday, August 02, 2004

Obstacles to democracy

The following are excerpts from the best selling book, The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama.

Page 212

The founding of a liberal democracy is meant to be a supremely rational political act, in which the community as a whole deliberates on the nature of the constitution and set of basic laws that will govern its public life. But one is frequently struck by the weakness of both reason and politics to achieve their ends, and for human beings to "lose control" of their lives, not just on a personal but on a political level. For example, many countries in Latin America were established as liberal democracies shortly after winning independence from Spain or Portugal in the nineteenth century, with constitutions modeled on those of the United States or Republican France. And yet, not one of them has succeeded in maintaining an unbroken democratic tradition up to the present. Opposition to liberal democracy in Latin America on a theoretical level has never been strong, except for brief challenges from fascism and communism, and yet liberal democrats have faced an uphill battle winning and keeping power.

Page 216

The second cultural obstacle to democracy has to do with religion. Like nationalism, there is no inherent conflict between religion and liberal democracy, except at the point where religion ceases to be tolerant or egalitarian. We have already noted how Hegel believed that Christianity paved the way for the French Revolution by establishing the principle of the equality of all men on the basis of their capacity for moral choice. A great majority of today’s democracies have Christian religious heritages, and Samuel Huntington has pointed out that most of the new democracies since 1970 have been Catholic countries. [Samuel Huntington suggests that the large number of Catholic countries participating in the current "third wave" of democratization makes the latter in some sense a Catholic phenomenon, related to the change in Catholic consciousness in a more democratic and egalitarian direction in the 1960s. While there is clearly something to this line of argument, it would seem to beg the question of why Catholic consciousness changed when it did. Certainly, there is nothing inherent in Catholic doctrine that should predispose it toward democratic politics. The prior causes of change in Catholic consciousness would seem to be (1) the general legitimacy of democratic ideas that infected Catholic thought (2) rising levels of socio-economic development that had taken place in most Catholic countries by the 1960s; and (3) the long-term "secularization" of the Catholic Church, following in the steps of Martin Luther 400 years later.] In some ways, then, religion would appear to be not an obstacle but a spur to democracy.

But religion per se did not create free societies; Christianity in a certain sense had to abolish itself through a secularization of its goals before liberalism could emerge. The generally accepted agent for this secularization in the West was Protestantism. By making religion a private matter between the Christian and his God, Protestantism eliminated the need for a separate class of priests, and religious intervention into politics more generally. Other religions around the world have lent themselves to a similar process of secularization: Buddhism and Shinto, for example, have confined themselves to a domain of private worship centering around the family. The legacy of Hinduism and Confucianism is mixed: while they are both relatively permissive doctrines that have proven to be compatible with a wide range of secular activities, the substance of their teachings is hierarchical and inegalitarian. Orthodox Judaism and fundamentalist Islam, by contrast, are totalistic religions which seek to regulate every aspect of human life, both public and private, including the realm of politics. These religions may be compatible with democracy ---- Islam, in particular, establishes no less than Christianity the principle of universal human equality ---- but they are very hard to reconcile with liberalism and the recognition of universal rights, particularly freedom of conscience or religion. It is perhaps not surprising that the only liberal democracy in the contemporary Muslim world is Turkey, which was the only country to have stuck with an explicit rejection of its Islamic heritage in favor of a secular society early in the twentieth century.