Democracy in Iraq?

December 23rd, 2007

I begin by stressing the historical rarity of democracy. Civilization has a good 5,000 years of history now, and during those 5,000 years, with all those different cultures and different political experiments, the number of stable democracies we can point to is frighteningly small: some of the Greek city-states, early Rome, England beginning sometime between the Glorious Revolution and 1850, the USA, and a good number of developed nations in the 20th century. Democracy does not come easily; it requires very special conditions to work. Indeed, there is not yet a single polity in the world that can lay a convincing claim to being a full democracy. The best examples in Europe and North America are still subject to criticisms regarding the special powers enjoyed by the wealthy in their governance.

Democracy cannot take root in unprepared soil. A culture must possess a number of important traits in order for democracy to function. The first of these traits is high literacy. People cannot rule themselves if they cannot inform themselves on the political issues. Examine this map of literacy rates around the world. Note the strong correlation between literacy rates and democracy; that’s no accident. Literacy is not a sufficient condition for a well-functioning democracy, but it’s certainly a necessary one. Note that Iraq’s literacy rate is below 50%. There is no way that this country is ready for democracy.

But that’s only the beginning; there’s another crucial consideration. Throughout history, the most common form of social structure is what I will call an “authoritarian patronage system”. The basic structure is a pyramid ruled by the Top Dog, with lesser dogs at successively lower levels, all the way down to the base of regular folk. Obedience flows up the pyramid and goodies flow down. In effect, the Top Dog buys the loyalty of his underlings, each of whom buys the loyalty of those underneath him, all the way down to the bottom. This basic structure permeates every single society on the planet, even the democracies. The American democracy has certainly not rid itself of patronage: we see politicians “taking care” of their friends in just about every level of government, from municipality to the Presidency. Patronage systems are universal.

Patronage is fundamentally and profoundly inimical to democracy, because it runs counter to the rule of law. The rule of law establishes that policy is determined by commonly agreed upon standards. If you deserve a goody, you get it regardless of how some big dog feels about you. In the rule of law, antagonizing a big dog doesn’t mean anything, because big dogs can’t retaliate against little dogs. Only the law determines how these things are done. At least, that’s supposed to be how it works. Again, since we don’t have full democracies, it is still possible for politicians to retaliate against those who cross them, and to favor those who are loyal to them.

Here’s the crucial problem in making the transition from authoritarian systems to democratic systems: how do you replace patronage with the rule of law? The killer problem is that everybody has to have confidence in each other’s sincerity. If you decide to play by the rule of law, and your enemy decides not to, he’ll play you for a patsy, take advantage of your cooperative attitude, and grab power, shoving you aside in the process. Every society has its antagonistic parties, and obedience to the rule of law requires these parties to trust each other – something they develop no experience in while living under a patronage system.

In practice, this transition has been accomplished by a slow process, with laws steadily reducing the power of the patrons and incrementally replacing patronage with legal rights. This process has been underway in England (and its daughter polity, the USA) for about 800 years. France tried to make the jump overnight in 1789 -- that came out badly. They oscillated through several revolutions all through the 19th century. French democracy didn’t really stabilize until early in the 20th Century. German democracy got started in 1848, went through many vicissitudes, made an impressive early effort in the Weimar Republic, and then finally got its feet in the 1950s.

Japan provides a fascinating example of a really odd way to bring about democracy. As part of the Meiji Restoration, Japan made an effort to import democracy along with all the other Western ideas. They made a real college try at it, but they didn’t have any idea how to do it properly. Japanese democracy collapsed in the 1930s, but was restored by the Americans after World War II. However, the Americans can’t claim any of the credit for Japan becoming democratic. The Emperor simply declared that the Japanese would be democratic, and the obedient Japanese went to work embracing democracy. Again, they really didn’t have a good idea how to do it, but the Emperor said so, and that was that. This is important, because the Emperor provided them with the means to replace the patronage system with the rule of law. Each Japanese politician knew that every other Japanese politician revered the Emperor and would obey his dictate. Thus, the Japanese didn’t have any of the problems with mutual trust that other societies have had.

Russia provides us with a beautiful example of the other side of this coin. Russian culture is profoundly paranoid. These people have been invaded by the Mongols, the Tatars, the Poles, the Turks, the Swedes, the French (twice), the Germans (twice), the Americans, the British, the Japanese -- at one time or another just about everybody has grabbed a piece of Russia. And their own history has been a bloody sequence of horrors and mass murder. Yes, the Russians are paranoid -- they’ve got good reason to be. They don’t trust anybody. And that’s why they have never been able to make democracy work. Without that sense of trust in each other, they can’t make possibly live by the rule of law. They NEED a strong man ruling the country just to keep them from each others’ throats.

The Latin American countries provide another example of how long it takes to build a democracy. They were all liberated from Spain in the early 19th century, and they all immediately proclaimed themselves to be republics -- and none of them were at all democratic. They were all aristocracies of landowners in league with the military. The head of state was almost always a caudillo, who made sure that the landowners were secure in their positions, much to the detriment of the population at large. There were frequent revolts against these oppressors, with varying degrees of success. By the early 20th century there were a number of feeble democracies in place. Slowly, slowly, the growing populations forced the landowners to cede more power to the populace. It was a herky-jerky process, with periods of progress interrupted and set back by military coups. By the end of the 20th century, most Latin American countries had established a decent democracy. Only one, Cuba, is still patently undemocratic. Several more (Venezuela, Guatemala, Bolivia) are still caught up in the class warfare of old and have not become decently democratic. Overall, I think it safe to say that the Latin American countries required about 150 years to establish stable democracies.

Another set of examples comes from the African nations, which were liberated in a burst during the 1950s. None of these nations can rightly be said to be stably democratic. (I’m not including South Africa in this group because it has a unique history.) There are a few that have established stable regimes that are generally beneficent, but none that can lay claim to genuine democracy.

The most rapid democratization of a country vaguely similar to Iraq was the experience of Turkey, which went from absolute despotism in 1918 to enlightened despotism with hints of democracy under Ataturk, military rule alternating with shaky democracy for many decades, and finally something vaguely democratic began to emerge in the 1980s. Turkish democracy is still weak, and we still don’t know if it will stick, but I think that they crossed an important line with the election of the AK party in the last few years. It took 80 years, but Turkey appears to have finally established a stable democracy.

So now let’s turn to Iraq. Here’s a country with 5,000 years of history, all of it despotic. Iraq has always been ruled by a tyrant. Sometimes that tyrant has been moderately benevolent; often he has been malevolent. The Iraqis have nothing in their history to show them how the rule of law works; they have never lived under the rule of law. And so a bunch of naive Americans think that they can snap their fingers, declare “Let there be democracy!” and it will simply spring to life. What a crock!

There’s no question that Iraq will eventually establish a stable democracy, for that is the direction of development of all polities, but history clearly demonstrates that it will take about a century to make the transition to a stable democracy. Which means that Mr. Bush’s second political goal in invading Iraq was hopelessly misguided and doomed to failure. When we pull out our troops, the existing government will hang on for a few years, but political violence -- revolutions and coups -- is inevitable.