By Greg Godels
December 27, 2021
As part of the new Cold War orchestrated consensually by leaders of the two US political parties, a battle over democracy has emerged.
Aligned on one side are a group of bogus-independent, non-profit organizations like Freedom House (90% US government funded 2017), V-Dem Institute (funded by various governments, World Bank), Polity Data Series (funded by the CIA until 2020) that purport to rank and score nations on their level or degree of democratic governance. Not surprisingly, the countries that are aligned with their sponsors score high on democracy, while those who rival or conflict with their sponsors show poorly.
Despite these glaring conflicts of interest and transparent biases, scholars and pundits throughout the Atlantic alliance uncritically cite these results, thereby readily enlisting in the new Cold War encouraged by Western political elites.
Arrayed on the other side are those countries designated as foes of democracy– The People’s Republic of China (PRC), The Russian Federation (Russia), The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran), The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Venezuela), The Republic of Nicaragua (Nicaragua), (The Republic of Cuba) Cuba and others– all of which proclaim their commitment to equal or greater democracy than their Western counterparts.
The war over democracy escalated with the Biden administration calling for a “Summit for Democracy” on December 8-10. Foregoing any pretense of dialogue, the US State Department refused invitations to those countries on its hit list, turning the event into an orgy of self-congratulation and a rebuke of those falling short of US ideals. Other countries like Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Colombia, and India, noted for their retreat from democratic norms, were welcomed with open arms.
At the same time, the mainstream media, including The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, are bemoaning the “backsliding,” “decline,” or “weakening” of US democracy. Establishment pundits express alarm over the Trump-turn in US politics, the increasing hostility between the two parties’ partisans, and charges and countercharges of electoral corruption.
Yet, they are oddly tolerant of the decisive role of money in “democratic” deliberation and the corrosive influence of corporate power, two anti-democratic trends that persistently worsen with the growth of economic inequality and profoundly undermine democracy.
Quoting R. Williams, Brian S. Roper in The History of Democracy makes this salient point: “Democracy ‘is a very old word… It came into English in the sixteenth century from a translation of demokratia, Greek, from the root words demos— people, and kratos— rule. It is at once evident from Greek use that everything depends on the senses given to people and to rule’” (page 1).
It has taken hundreds of years for capitalist ruling classes to concede that “demos” means all of the people and not merely “white males of substance.” In the US, that awakening only became nominally universal with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted fifty-six years ago as a response to a determined peoples’ movement.
As for kratos, there have been many models of democratic rule since the early Dutch, US, and French Republics, models that allow for power-sharing monarchies, socialist democracy, constitutions, multiple parties, direct and indirect elections, short or long electoral terms, single or multiple houses of congress or parliament, various vote-counting and weighing schemes, and a host of other wrinkles that democratic theorists have devised.
From even a casual glance at history, it should be, therefore, clear that who constitutes the people and what constitutes governance or rule are highly contested. Nevertheless, history does demonstrate that social movements have forced further democratization upon existing ruling classes. In general, there has been a trend towards an expanding demos and a more diverse kratos.
This suggests that perhaps it is more useful to view democracy as a process, rather than a categorical state-of-affairs, a fixed political achievement.
Countries become more democratic or less democratic in the same way as they become more just or less just. Like justice, democracy is not a success-term, but a relation, a measure of the direction of change, a constantly moving target. For an illustrative example, consider a newly liberated former colony that is certainly more democratic than its previously dominated status regardless of the kind of political institutions that it chooses. Surely, this makes more sense of democracy than the idealized model celebrated in Western patriotic grammar school textbooks.
It is the height of arrogance for Western ideologues to insist that some countries have crossed a supposed line separating enlightened democrats from “authoritarian” pagans. Democracy is a process and not a merit badge.
For nation-states, “democratization” should be the watchword, the never-ending process that places more and more decisions in the hands of more and more people. From this perspective, popular revolutions would count as the most democratizing process of all, liberating masses from elite oppression and imposing the rule of the majority over the former rule of a minority.
The era of the great bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries– the Dutch, English, and French risings– were clearly and unmistakably a time of great democratization with the liberation of masses of people from feudal constraints and/or absolutist rule (the US revolution ill-fits this pattern). The new ruling classes created new procedures and institutions to guarantee both that the gains were secured and that no new challenges to the new rule would arise. They were far from completing the democratic project.
The heralded and high-minded constitutions of the period (including the US constitution) created new institutions– parliaments, congresses, executives, etc.– and procedures– lawmaking, rights construction, voting regulations, etc.– that were believed by their creators to be constitutive of democracy.
In other words, the various “founding founders” thought they had captured the essence of democracy in a set of rules for its continued implementation, as if democratization was completed with declarations and constitutive documents.
What the bourgeois revolutionaries failed to understand was that procedural democracy– a worthy product at the ascendency of the bourgeoisie– was a great achievement, but one not adequate for all times or adequate for the continued march of democratization under changing conditions. Bourgeois democracy certainly expanded the participation of the masses (and assured the dominance of the bourgeoisie as a class!), yet it too often failed to guarantee rule for the people.
In discussions of democracy, the distinction between rule by the people and rule for the people is too often overlooked or conflated. There is no reason to presume that a system constructed to establish rule by the people will necessarily produce rule for the people. Cynics can readily manipulate well-meant institutions from benefitting the people. Fair rules do not guarantee just outcomes.
There is every reason to believe that, in a class society, the best of procedural democracies will not rule in ways that favor all or even most of the people. Nowhere in the constitutions of the bourgeois democracies will be found the recognition of the existence of social classes and the question of their relationship to democracy or democratization.
Certainly, the history of the US two-party system for all of this century, last century, and beyond has seen the government generally favor the interests of a small minority of the wealthy and powerful over the interests of the majority of working people. Others can argue whether the procedures established by the supposedly all-wise “founding fathers” is the most perfect example of how a democracy should be organized. But shouldn’t its failure to rule for the people count against its democratic content? How democratic can a “democracy” be if it fails to serve the interests of the people that it rules?
The stunning growth of economic inequality– itself a constant in the Western “democracies” — surely demonstrates a failure to measure up to the performance test of a purported democracy: are the people better off than with any alternative political arrangement besides bourgeois democracy?
Opinion poll after opinion poll show that the majority of the people– the supposed beneficiaries of democracy– want guarantees of housing, jobs, health care, education, safety, etc., guarantees that Western ‘democracies’ consistently fail to deliver.
Detaching a concept of democracy from the wellbeing or interests of the people knows no greater cynicism. Democracy without a connection to the interests of the majority is faux-democracy, a mere parlor game.
Obsession with the form of democracy– the obsession fostered by capitalist leaders– blinds far too many to the importance and centrality of the content of democracy, a distinction too often overlooked in the conversation over democratic governance.
Democratic form that fails to deliver for the majority of the people is a mere empty shell, as the current US “democracy” demonstrates.
In the ‘democracy’ wars, The People’s Republic of China is now clearly in the sights of many in the developed capitalist countries, especially the US. The rise of PRC economic power, its rivalry with US influence in the world, and PRC’s independent stance in global politics has increased the enmity of the US and its allies to the point of a new Cold War.
Like the old Cold War with the Soviet Union, PRC’s enemies focus on the fact that the PRC is a “one-party” state. That is, the Communist Party takes a leading role and the deliberative organs are not organized around two or more parties. Instead, the operative councils and parliament are non-partisan, composed of both Communists and non-Communists.
Ironically, most of the founders of the heralded Western ‘democracies’ never envisioned, nor wanted parties or factions; yet multiple parties have become a litmus test for democracy in the eyes of the Atlantic alliance watchdogs. Indeed, these same watchdogs have since raised the bar again to deny democratic governance exists among several countries that have party systems and robust elections. They are said to have ‘authoritarian’ tendencies, a slippery idea coined to obscure, rather than shed light on the democracy debate.
The People’s Republic of China has responded to the ‘democracy’ wars with a report entitled Pursuing Common Values of Humanity — China’s Approach to Democracy, Freedom and Human Rights, written by New China Research (NCR), affiliated with the Xinhua News Agency. The 88 page document is a comprehensive argument for the democratic content of PRC governance. While the report develops a number of provocative, fresh ideas, it has received no more than superficial note in the monopoly media, an indication of the deeply dogmatic prejudice of Western commentators.
The NCR report quotes PRC leader Xi on bourgeois democracy: “If the people are awakened only at the time of voting but go dormant soon after, if they listen to slogans at the time of the election but have no say after the election, or if they are favored at the time of canvassing but are left out in the cold after the election, such a democracy is not a true democracy.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) argues for a new type of democracy that it calls “whole-process democracy,” a democracy that “pursues the unification of process and results-based democracy, procedural and substantive democracy, direct democracy and indirect democracy, as well as people’s democracy and state will.” The CCP counter poses whole-process democracy to “democracy for the few,” “one-time democracy,” and “pseudo-universal democracy.”
To my mind, “Whole-process democracy” is not rendered a completely transparent concept by this report– some formulations remain vague. Others can judge for themselves, but the document and the accompanying ideas are surely worthy of careful study.
It should be evident nonetheless that the CCP recognizes that the test of democracy is how well it delivers for the people, that robust democracy must be more than procedural, that it must be substantial (results-oriented), as well.
To bolster the claim that the test of democracy is fidelity to the interests of the people– substantial, material democracy– and that People’s China meets that test, the NCR cites a Harvard Ash Center study by Cunningham, Saich, and Turiel that shows trust of the population in the Communist Party of China has exceeded 90 percent for over a decade.
In May of 2020, I cited a similar study, the Edelman Trust Barometer, that placed the PRC at the top of the list of 26 countries surveyed in terms of popular trust (the US, Germany, France, UK, Australia, Spain, Japan, and Russia all fell into the “distrust” bottom of the survey). So much for the “rule by the people” in the heralded capitalist countries.
How do Western political theorists reconcile their consistently negative portrayal of Chinese democracy with the high level of trust held by the people of the PRC in their governance?
By simply ignoring it.
A deeper, less smug discussion of democracy might be a good antidote to Western conceit in the ‘democracy’ wars.