Why do most westerners believe in liberal democracy? Why do the vast majority of us believe that the best form of government requires competitive open elections, divided powers, independent judiciaries, a free press and all the other common attributes of modern democracy? Most of us would assert that we do so because we believe that liberal democracies systematically make more wise and humane decisions than do other types of government.
If most of us think this way, however, why does a significant segment of the Left in the West always argue that in any conflict between a liberal democracy and some form of autocracy the liberal democracy deserves most of the blame?
If leftists really believed in democracy they would default to the democracy in every conflict. Occasionally, of course, the democracy would be at fault but democracies would not make poor decisions systematically. The events by which the Left could lay blame at the feet of the democracy would be comparatively rare. Yet we see the opposite pattern throughout the 20th century and into the current day.
Before Hitler attacked Stalin, the Left held that WWII resulted from the corrupt social and economic order of the West in general. They asserted that both the democratic allies and the autocratic Axis shared equal blame in the war.
During the Cold War, leftists wrote entire libraries blaming the western democracies for the entire conflict. In the most common formulation, communists were non-doctrinaire realists whereas democracies routinely acted from irrational hysteria, xenophobia and greed. This formulation reached its bizarre zenith during the Indochina war, which pitted the Soviet Union, China under Mao, North Vietnam under Ho Chi Min and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, against the traditionalist people of Indochina and democratic America. The sides couldn’t have been clearer. On one side totalitarian autocrats, and on the other side the world’s second-largest and oldest democracy and its increasingly democratic proteges. The Left came down firmly on the side of the autocrats, granting them victory. The resulting megacide, ethnic cleansing, 20 more years of war and general crushing poverty and oppression should have been easily predictable for any true believer in democracy, so why was the Left so surprised by the outcome? Perhaps more important, why do so many still insist that abandoning the people of Indochina represented a superior solution to continuing to support the region’s evolution toward free societies?
Nothing more typifies the Left’s seeming distrust for democracy today than its position on the decades long conflict between democratic Israel and the autocratic Arabic states and sub-national groups. The Left’s position boils down to one simple refrain: Over the last 60 years, democratic Israel has systematically made more selfish, stupid and generally inhumane decisions than have the autocratic Arabs. According the Left, the autocrats, most of them in power for life, have for decades been the ones making the best decisions about the conflict. Israel with its competitive elections, multiple political parties, rotating leadership, independent judiciary and free press systematically makes the bad decisions that perpetuate the conflict. The Left believes that the collective reasoning of millions of Israelis from all walks of life and political orientations systematically makes worse decisions than do a literal few hundred autocrats on the Arab side.
Clearly, as a person’s views move leftward from the center the contempt for liberal democracy grows. Leftists pay lip service to it but when push comes to shove they come down on the anti-democratic side virtually every time. Most of the evils of the world during the last 60 years arose and persisted as a result of the Left’s eagerness to turn its back on democracy. I think that those who generally support democracy should challenge leftists to explain themselves every time they choose autocracy.
24 thoughts on “The Democracy Presumption”
Good anti-left points! Still … Is “belief” in liberal democracy that widespread? It isn’t chez moi. As far as I can tell, it works pretty well in some places at certain times under certain circumstances. But I can’t see why it should be the One and Only Way, or why anyone would consider it to be universally applicable. I remember touring Morocco years ago as a student and thinking, Good lord, it’s scary, the idea of putting guns, or transistor radios, or democracy in the hands of these people. But maybe I’m the weirdo. Maybe 99% of people “believe in” liberal democracy. But doesn’t that make them … a bit religious where liberal democracy is concerned?
The left supports autocrats because the left does not like the choices that democrats (small d) make. The autocratic left and the autocratic right believe that ordinary men are incapable of making decisions that are is in their best interest. Such decision making should be left to their betters.
And who are their betters, the highly educated people who were could manage the politics of academia, or the winners of the lucky gene lottery, or the truely isolated who live in the fantacy that is entertainment.
So since Autocrates appear to listen to them they support the autocrates. The rest of us just want them to go away and get out of our lives.
But doesn’t that make them … a bit religious where liberal democracy is concerned?
I don’t think so. Many people believe in democracy just because they inherited the concept but there are sound reasons to believe that democracies systematically make better decisions.
Democracies simply bring more brain power to bear on any particular problem. It takes the consensus of more people to reach a decision within a democracy. Democracies draw on a wider social spectrum for talent. The competitive nature of democratic politics means that politicians that back ideas that don’t work lose power. In the case of warfare, the people who must fight wars and bear the direct consequences of it that influence the decision to go to war.
In autocracy, few people make decisions. All decision makers usually come from the same insular subset of the population. Absence of competition means failed policies do not get corrected. The decision to go to war is not made by those who must fight it. The potential for systematic error is much higher.
Shannon, I really enjoyed this. I do have a quibble – The resulting megacide, ethnic cleansing, 20 more years of war and general crushing poverty and oppression should have been easily predictable for any true believer in democracy, so why was the Left so surprised by the outcome? Where do you get the idea that the left was surprised – those tragedies have not sufficiently registered with much of the left so they remain unsurprised & sure of their own virtue.
Your probably right. Boomer Leftist simply ignored the outcome and for younger Leftist, the tragedies simply disappeared down the memory hole.
“Is “belief” in liberal democracy that widespread? It isn’t chez moi.”
Given what happened in the Weimar Republic and Iran in 1979, I tend to agree. Liberal Democracy coupled with a Republican system that allows interest blocks to jockey with each other and avoid mob rule is best. I think that the Iraqi constitution is a mess becuase it relies too much on liberal parliamentary democracy, and not enough on republican principles. Sometimes I think that no one in the State Department has ever read “The Federalist Papers”.
The Federalist Papers are anathema at the State Department because it is a creature of the Jeffersonians, and the Federalist Papers were primarily the work of Alexander Hamilton (lthough Madison, who wrote a large number of the papers, was a Jeffersonian). The Jeffersonians never did like the Hamiltonians for their support of a unitary executive.
As for autocratic Leftism in general, A Western Heart has long adovcated a new view of Left and Right, with Left being defined as those who would impose a world view (common characteristics of what we would refer to as leftwing and rightwing extremists), and Right being defined as those who hold views largely akin to that of the Classical Liberals of the Adam Smith school of thought.
The founders’ & the Enlightenment’s strong belief in the open marketplace of ideas (and of markets & of religions, etc.) is necessary to a democracy. The lack of faith in democracy arises from the same doubts about one’s fellows (and elitism) that is embodied in speech codes, indoctrination rather than education in the school system, heavy regulation of business, censoring of (or forced participation in) open displays of religions. The tensions between left & right often arise from such divisions. Democracy is the civic, political expression of that open marketplace.
Those early guys were not far removed from the Puritans who believed in our innate sinfulness (and some were Calvinists). But they had more confidence in their fellow citizens than those preening & self-righteous leftists of today, who claim that man is naturally good and after a while you realize that they think that is true of themselves, but they have doubts about everyone else.
Maybe State was jeffersonian 100, or even 50 years ago, but I don’t think that Jeffersonian principles rule at State today. If anything, socialist ones do.
Very nice analysis, Shannon. I’m sure any collectivist reading it would be apopletic and spraying spittle by the second paragraph—a sure sign you’re on the right track.
There are a couple of very basic reasons the alliance between autocrats and leftists seems to go on and on, regardless of consequences.
First and foremost is the utter, implacable hatred for the concept of individuals living their lives as they see fit, doing pretty much what they want, thinking their own thoughts, believing what they feel in their hearts is right, without any requirement that someone else in authority approve and permit any aspect of it.
Stop and think about it for a moment. For millenia, those who could sieze power (and that was the only way it could be gained) would literally demand to be obeyed absolutely, in all things, legal, social, religious, and intellectual.
If anyone voiced disagreement, objected to the proposed policy, preached a different message, or even belonged to the wrong tribe, they would be flayed, burned, torn apart, subjected to the most gruesome tortures that depraved minds could devise, and if anyone so much as looked like they objected, they would get the same, as well as their whole family.
The disdain, contempt, the utter hatred the ruling classes had for the concept that ordinary people should be able to make decisions for themselves is literally inconceivable to those of us for whom the idea is as natural as air to breathe.
Likewise, the collectivist doctrines of the (then)revolutionary philosophers and parties who formed the basis for the socialist/anarchist/marxist matrix were grounded in an implacable opposition to private initiative, private property, private economic enterprise, individual decision making.
Marx and his followers went so far as to call for the reinvention of humanity completely—a new socialist man who would be molded from the cradle to live, think, believe, and work only as the needs of the proletariat required.
It is no surprise, then, that the autocratic system could produce a Hitler, while the leftist system produced his dark twin, and erstwhile ally, Stalin.
They never were in opposition to each other—they always were the reverse sides of the same coin.
And so, to answer the question, how could they consistently choose, in tandem, to oppose democratic, representative systems even when the consequences of that which they supported were so deadly?
Deny the operation of cause and effect. Nothing else is required. It can always be a bewildering surprise, then, and the work of sabateurs and counter-revolutionaries when things go bad, when the corpses begin to pile up, when people starve and lie dead in the street.
As Zhivago says to the commissar when he diagnoses the man dead in his bed from starvation, “It’s another thing we don’t have in Russia—starvation.”
If you don’t acknowledge something, it doesn’t exist. If you deny it, it didn’t happen. If it was unavoidable, accidental, the result of sabotage and counter-revolutionaries, if it was not your fault, then it couldn’t have been your policies that made it happen. You just need to try harder next time. Never give up the faith.
And, in the final analysis, that is the basis of the marriage. Two faith based, religious movements united in their hatred for all those who have the temerity to demand that their minds and hearts belong to them and them alone.
The independent mind is always the most deadly threat to any collectivist mentality. I am a free man and, as such, the most dangerous man alive. Every breath I take is an affront to the collectivists from both the left and the right.
Good. My life has purpose.
What veryretired said. The left hates individual freedom, private property and private enterprise. At the same time there’s a sort of perverted sense of noblesse oblige operating here with regard to the left’s constant pointing to the bad behavior of liberal democracies to justify the even worse behavior of autocrats and terrorists. How can these poor beleagured people be expected to govern themselves wisely when Israel/America/the West has been exploiting them for so long? They don’t know any better.
I don’t think that the Left is evil. Very often, the dispute between the Left and the Right* reflects the tension between equality and liberty. If you believe equality is paramount, you will favor collective rights over individual rights, and a greater or lesser use of the state to enforce equality. The extreme form was Pol Pot’s attempt to start human society from “year zero” by reducing all elements of the population to their most primitive and least differentiated state. Its least extreme form is probably something like the graduated income tax.
Only the most extreme will say they oppose liberty; the rest will only say they support virtue. They will refer to the “common good” and characterize their opponents as privileged and selfish – in other words, lacking in virtue.
*At least the modern American Right, which is closer to the 18th C Whigs than anything else.
Besides, democracy and frequent elections are like having an “undo” function built into your society. The only people who would not want that are those who believe they are never mistaken.
I don’t think that the Left is evil.
I don’t either. I do think however that despite their intellectual pretensions, they are not very reflective. The Left’s sin is one of pride. They believe themselves to be (1) much smarter than everyone else and (2) more honestly altruistic.
The accidental evil that Leftist do results from their prideful blindspot. Mostly they cannot see that the vast majority of Leftist ideas boil down to baroque rationalizations as why articulate intellectuals should be the highest status members of the entire society. That is why they like talking solutions to problems. They unconsciously frame every problem in such a means that the obvious solution is articulation. The prevent or stop wars only via diplomacy, reduce crime and violence via moral education, etc.
Since they have no concept of their own innate and universally human selfishness they never question their ideas. They must be right and even if they are wrong they still deserve status because they always intend to do good.
Those of us on the right tend to think that humans, including ourselves are right bastards whose innate selfishness must either be harnessed for good or suppressed. Likewise, we are pretty convinced that nobody is a smart as they think they are.
I’m not sure where this goes, but it does seem a paradox: Those who value equality begin with the belief that some are not equal – those that have the right to enforce the unnatural condition of that equality.
The left often assumes the common man doesn’t know what is good for him. Of course, few of us don’t want some essential civic charity which acts toward leveling, but some of us prefer that to be given as freely as possible and that our society allows for the diversity of others’ goals & therefore encourages self-reliance as much as possible.
I never did get a response from you.
Oh, I believe in the presumption of liberty, not the presumption of democracy. Then again, I’m a libertarian.
Of course one assumes that “democracy” refers to a republic in which representatives are chosen in democratic elections. It seems to me that “republic” is a far more accurate term in the U.S. case.
Some younger minds may expect a bit too much “equality” from a system that is always called a “democracy”. Living in a democracy would be a nightmare, I’m sure.
It isn’t a matter of whether this or that group of collectivists is evil, it is that colectivists indulge in two utter fantasies.
First is the arrogance fantasy that says, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter what you think or desire, what you believe or don’t believe, what you want to do with your life, what dreams you have for you and your families’ future.
All that matters is that I, the holder of collectivist truth, know what is best for you, and all the other yous. I have decoded the secrets of life, of the economy, of society, of culture, of everything that is important. And so, everyone must do what I say, and will not be allowed to do anything of which I disapprove.
Second is the fallacy that intentions presume, indeed define, consequences.
Since I, the committed and totally dedicated collectivist, have only the good of all mankind, the TRUE public good, at heart, and everything I do is intended to bring that good about, therefore anything I do is, by definition, good for everyone.
Don’t you hear me proclaim that this measure is intended to abolish hunger and poverty? And am I not the holder of the universe’s secrets by my mastery of the inticacies of collectivist ideology and theory?
And so, the relentless response to the inevitable failure of collectivist policies is the demand that more of the same be done, more money, more effort, more ideological purity.
How many times have we heard how good their intentions were, it was just the execution that was flawed.
Ask any of the millions who were executed. I think they would say the flaw was not lack of effort, or resources, but of congruence with reality.
When ideology trumps all—morality, freedom, rights, humanity, reality itself, only disaster can result. And so it has been.
I never did get a response from you.
That is because (1) the Reason server ate my two attempts to reply (2) you post under a dead email address (3) I don’t hijack other threads.
If you send me mail at shannon love at sbcglobal dot net (no spaces of course) I will reply.
I believe in the presumption of liberty, not the presumption of democracy.
As do most but that is irrelevant to the point I wanted to make. I asked that in a conflict between a liberal democracy and some form of autocracy, which is most likely to make the best decisions?
Shannon, another great thought provoking post…
I don’t think the focus of leftist’s contempt is liberal democracy. That’s just a byproduct of their contempt for the population of those democracies.
Leftists suffer from enourmous arrogance of opinion, pride and contempt for their immediate fellow man. They march for the “rights” of people halfway around the world while they protest, insult and belittle the people they actually live with.
They are so upset that we would want to impose our ideas on places like Iraq and north korea, but they continually attempt to impose their own will on the majority around them.
When leftists get power they don’t hesitate to slaughter their own population to meet their ends…
Why they have so much contempt for the people around them is another topic, but I do think that’s at the root of leftist motivation.
I’m not sure that’s an accurate claim. Can you cite a few examples — more than one?
Here in the U.S. we have had the unfortunate habit of supporting anyone who was “on our side,” regardless how totalitarian that regime might be. This was especially true during the Cold War. Liberals, often, urged support of democratic mechanisms and democratically elected governments, while the right favored autocrats — in Iran, in Congo, in Guatemala, in Chile, in Argentina, etc., etc.
Broad brush arguments often have shaky premises, and I think the premise for this piece has already crumbled.
The U.S. has not always played the good guy in international relations, nor have we as a nation always supported democracy. World observers who remember how we upset democratically-elected governments in the past are more skeptical of our intentions, now, and it shows. We cannot get by pretending we were good guys all along. We have to walk the talk. It’s not an easy line to walk at all.
The question wasn’t whether the US has always supported democracy because we haven’t. The question is, given a conflict between a liberal-democracy and an autocracy which side will the Left default to? History suggest the Left reliably defaults to the autocracy side.
Quite an indictment against the broad, undifferentiated “Left” you lay out here, Shannon—free of caricature on all counts.
In contradistinction to the decadent leftists, conservatives and certain neo-liberals have consistently felt that liberal democracy is so important that sometimes you have to go so far as to destroy it in order to preserve it. The leftists hate democracy just that much.
Hence the strong Republican and even Democratic support for military dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc., even when said regimes were established in direct opposition to democratic governance.
A Republican administration even sold arms to theocratic Iran to help fund right wing guerrillas in Nicaragua (against the will of our own democratically elected legislature).
They love liberal democracy just that much.
As a smart realist once said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people. The issues are much too important for the… voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
The leftists are guilty of pride for thinking they know better than everyone else. The right is deserving of praise for knowing they are, and more importantly, acting like it.
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