Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Down With Democracy

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 8, 2004 --  

As White House officials continue propping up their disastrous experiment with imposed democracy in Iraq, circumstances much closer to home are proving how democracy is often not all it's cracked up to be. Marion Barry, Washington's notorious ex-mayor and one-time crack head, has announced plans to run for the city council seat representing the city's poorest and most disaffected neighborhoods.

Few people doubt that Barry will win. Re-elected mayor in 1994 on a platform of redemption after serving time in prison for a drug conviction, Barry's popular administration of cronyism continued until the bankrupt city was forced into receivership, eventually convincing a powerless Barry to retire.

If the semi-literate population of Washington's poor southeast side chooses such a terrible leader, one can only imagine who will be chosen by far poorer and less literate Iraqis who have much less experience with democracy.

The much derided arch enemy of America -- Iraq's Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada Sadr -- bears more than a passing resemblance to Barry. Sadr became a national figure by adopting the cause of Shiite residents of Baghdad's largest slum. Similarly, Barry rose to prominence as one of the more radical leaders of the civil rights movement. And while Barry's one-time nickname of "Mayor for Life" was figurative -- such a term's application to Iraq's first leader will likely be much more literal . If an Islamists like Sadr win the support of a majority of voters, as happened in Algeria's democratic experiment in 1992, it will likely be not only the first, but the last election that Iraqis see for decades to come.

Indeed, few poor nations have been able to maintain a democratic system for more than a decade or two. The world's only sizable examples, India and Costa Rica, provide no easily-copied models. And while both of these countries have relatively good records when it comes to human rights and the rule of law, neither has been successful in creating the conditions needed to rise them up from poverty. In essence, while democracy has brought their residents some advantages, it has been no panacea for their citizens' problems.

This raises the larger question: why is it even desirable that Iraq be a democracy? In its strictest meaning -- choosing leaders by popular vote -- democracy is hardly the best idea the Western world has to offer. The rule of law, constitutional limits on government power, widespread access to education, and a modern physical infrastructure are far more important. As East Asia has shown with examples in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, the critical components of a modern civil society can be produced without popularly elected leaders.

It is only once such a society exists that participatory democracy can really achieve what is its primary benefit -- keeping responsible leaders in check. So long as less civil-minded people are empowered to elect irresponsible leaders, building a civil society is all but impossible.

That starry-eyed Bush administration officials cannot see this truth is ludicrous, especially given what has happened in recent years just outside the White House's front door. During the rule of Marion Barry, the city's physical infrastructure deteriorated to near collapse, the educational system reached new lows, and the rule of law took a beating under corrupt Mayoral directives. Only once the federal government rescinded democracy in Washington DC and appointed receivers did conditions begin to improve.

The city of Washington has already learned the hard way that democracy is not always the answer. With the way the Bush administration is headed, the lesson for the Iraqis will prove much harder still.