Are Democratic Elections Feasible in the Middle East?

Americans are hopelessly infatuated with "democracy" and relentlessly try to export it.  The recent "Arab Spring" testifies to the seductive power of our proselytizing.  Protestors often demand "freedom and democracy" but mesmerizing slogans aside, why is "democracy" so valuable or what it does it mean to those risking life and limb for it?  The hard truth is that tribalism prone Arab nations will not become democratic.  Democracy cannot be commanded into existence; it requires a complex culture to flourish and that culture is in short supply in today's Middle East.    

When American leaders implore others to embrace democracy they usually mean free, regular elections.  Then add multiple political parties, a reasonably independent media to report events, and an honest counting of the vote, and voilà, there you have it -- instant democracy.  What could be simpler?  And, from time-to-time, thanks to American pressure (and bribery) such instant election-based democracies momentarily emerge (e.g., Afghanistan) before reverting to violence-filled, corrupt authoritarianism.

American champions of democracy ignore harsh cultural realities and without certain habits of mind, democracy is just brief interlude.  Failures far outnumber successes.  The democratic Weimar Republic lasted less than 15 years and was easily toppled by Hitler.  In Italy Mussolini similarly almost effortlessly pushed aside a democracy with shallow roots.  In innumerable Third World nations, from Zimbabwe to Venezuela, Kenya to Egypt, the pattern is "One Person, One Vote, One Time." 

So, what are the extra ingredients necessary for an enduring election-based democracy?  Three in particular strand out.  For one, the election's outcome ends the battle for power until the next election -- losers don't continue on with suicide bombers.  Political quarrels don't vanish, but the key question of who won is settled and the loser publicly concedes, thanks supporters, congratulates the winner, and then fades into the background.  Think of the razor thin 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election in which Nixon graciously conceded despite clear irregularities in the Illinois vote.  Recent violence in the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and countless places elsewhere exemplify this problem -- the loser just fights on regardless of the verdict.  A mini version of this occurred in the US after the 2000 presidential election.  When the Senate, as per Constitution, was certifying Bush's victory, a few disgruntled Democratic House members vocally disrupted Senate proceedings, and refused to leave the Senate floor until threatened with forcible removal by Capitol security (and the Gore camp encouraged this culturally aberrant behavior with all the talk of a "stolen election").

Democracy also requires that campaigns show self-restraint.  Democratic elections are not about annihilating enemies.  This is a murky line but there must be some limits lest conflicts escalate into civil war.  Democratic elections are peaceful, routinized forms of civil conflict, not opportunities to settle scores violently.  Yes, in some American states and cities voters may be enticed by free food and booze, even stuffing a ballot box or two, but bombing and kidnapping are impermissible.  Not even our worst cases of voter intimidation, e.g., what occurred in Philadelphia with the New Black Panther Party, entails actually killing opponents.

Functioning democracies also possess what is called a "loyal opposition."  That is, the defeated faction accepts its loss but still plays by the democratic rules, i.e., try again the next election.  Winners must therefore restrain themselves when dealing with losers, a norm that rests on the supposition that today's winners may be tomorrow's losers.  Even when electoral victories are decisive, majorities don't push too hard and in return expect the losers to behave themselves.  The power of this norm becomes clear when it is violated.  Conceivably, much of the public opposition to ObamaCare reflected the belief that the Democratic congressional majority, though technically within its rights, had over-stepped its power with backroom parliamentary maneuvers to enact hazy bloated legislation by razor thin margins that affected one-sixth of the US economy.

Lastly, democratic elections are not about replacing one kleptocracy with another.  Think Zimbabwe where those elected to power enrich friends at the expense of the defeated.  Again, moderation is essential.  Yes, the winning side in democratic outcomes gains some economic advantages (e.g., Obama's tilt toward labor unions) but democracy and kleptocracies are incompatible.  To proceed as if the winner deserves all the property of the loser almost guarantees elections that will quickly escalate into violence and ultimately, the end of democracy. 

All of these necessary traits (and several others) are cultural, the results of decades of experience and punishing violators, and cannot be created by paper proclamations.  Acculturating these norms runs counter to human nature.  Modern humans have existed for perhaps 180,000 years and during that period, with tiny exceptions, power rested on naked force.  Violent repression in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are reactions rooted in 9,000 generations of human existence, and are not aberrations.  In evolutionary terms, the penchant for peaceful democratic elections might be likened to an exceedingly rare genetic mutation.

Americans seldom recognize how we have been "trained" toward a culture undergirding electoral democracy.  We take the immense and successful effort for granted.  Most Americans grew up regularly voting in well-scripted school elections and watching them on TV, and "let's vote and abide by majority rule" was the mechanism to settle disputes.  Beauty pageants and award ceremonies (e.g., the Oscars) display a reoccurring pattern -- secret ballot votes, limits on campaign tactics while losers graciously accept the verdict.  Moderation was learned via sports -- "good sportsmanship" included post-game rituals such as shaking hands to cool lingering animosities.  I tell my political science graduate students that the informal pick-up basketball game usually typifies the strength of democratic norms -- players from both teams observe unwritten rules of fairness, quickly forget the game, even if a little rough, and then go off for beer and pizza.  Conflict is restrained, bounded, and transitory, just as it is in the political realm.

I seriously doubt whether Arab nations possess this facilitating culture.  Just observe hair-trigger recourse to violence, the infatuation with guns and militias, a willingness to fight to the death, cruelty toward defeated foes, and how the passion for revenge can trump everything, including peace and prosperity.  The British wisely understood the region -- after the Ottoman Empire's demise following WWI, Britain installed monarchies in the region as the "natural" political arrangement.  Judged by the subsequent peace, monarchy, not democracy, was the correct choice.   

Though "democracy" is a popular slogan among rebellious Arabs, I suspect that they really want is not democracy but a more equitable re-distribution of wealth coupled with less brutal authoritarian rule -- more cars and TVs, fewer secret police.  "Economic populism" is a more accurate description and this hardly requires the institutional bric-a-brac of electoral democracy.  A benign tyrant will suffice.  In the final analysis, then, election-based democracy should not be the gold standard when judging Middle East political progress.  Let us not be blinded by political fantasies.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.
Americans are hopelessly infatuated with "democracy" and relentlessly try to export it.  The recent "Arab Spring" testifies to the seductive power of our proselytizing.  Protestors often demand "freedom and democracy" but mesmerizing slogans aside, why is "democracy" so valuable or what it does it mean to those risking life and limb for it?  The hard truth is that tribalism prone Arab nations will not become democratic.  Democracy cannot be commanded into existence; it requires a complex culture to flourish and that culture is in short supply in today's Middle East.    

When American leaders implore others to embrace democracy they usually mean free, regular elections.  Then add multiple political parties, a reasonably independent media to report events, and an honest counting of the vote, and voilà, there you have it -- instant democracy.  What could be simpler?  And, from time-to-time, thanks to American pressure (and bribery) such instant election-based democracies momentarily emerge (e.g., Afghanistan) before reverting to violence-filled, corrupt authoritarianism.

American champions of democracy ignore harsh cultural realities and without certain habits of mind, democracy is just brief interlude.  Failures far outnumber successes.  The democratic Weimar Republic lasted less than 15 years and was easily toppled by Hitler.  In Italy Mussolini similarly almost effortlessly pushed aside a democracy with shallow roots.  In innumerable Third World nations, from Zimbabwe to Venezuela, Kenya to Egypt, the pattern is "One Person, One Vote, One Time." 

So, what are the extra ingredients necessary for an enduring election-based democracy?  Three in particular strand out.  For one, the election's outcome ends the battle for power until the next election -- losers don't continue on with suicide bombers.  Political quarrels don't vanish, but the key question of who won is settled and the loser publicly concedes, thanks supporters, congratulates the winner, and then fades into the background.  Think of the razor thin 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election in which Nixon graciously conceded despite clear irregularities in the Illinois vote.  Recent violence in the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and countless places elsewhere exemplify this problem -- the loser just fights on regardless of the verdict.  A mini version of this occurred in the US after the 2000 presidential election.  When the Senate, as per Constitution, was certifying Bush's victory, a few disgruntled Democratic House members vocally disrupted Senate proceedings, and refused to leave the Senate floor until threatened with forcible removal by Capitol security (and the Gore camp encouraged this culturally aberrant behavior with all the talk of a "stolen election").

Democracy also requires that campaigns show self-restraint.  Democratic elections are not about annihilating enemies.  This is a murky line but there must be some limits lest conflicts escalate into civil war.  Democratic elections are peaceful, routinized forms of civil conflict, not opportunities to settle scores violently.  Yes, in some American states and cities voters may be enticed by free food and booze, even stuffing a ballot box or two, but bombing and kidnapping are impermissible.  Not even our worst cases of voter intimidation, e.g., what occurred in Philadelphia with the New Black Panther Party, entails actually killing opponents.

Functioning democracies also possess what is called a "loyal opposition."  That is, the defeated faction accepts its loss but still plays by the democratic rules, i.e., try again the next election.  Winners must therefore restrain themselves when dealing with losers, a norm that rests on the supposition that today's winners may be tomorrow's losers.  Even when electoral victories are decisive, majorities don't push too hard and in return expect the losers to behave themselves.  The power of this norm becomes clear when it is violated.  Conceivably, much of the public opposition to ObamaCare reflected the belief that the Democratic congressional majority, though technically within its rights, had over-stepped its power with backroom parliamentary maneuvers to enact hazy bloated legislation by razor thin margins that affected one-sixth of the US economy.

Lastly, democratic elections are not about replacing one kleptocracy with another.  Think Zimbabwe where those elected to power enrich friends at the expense of the defeated.  Again, moderation is essential.  Yes, the winning side in democratic outcomes gains some economic advantages (e.g., Obama's tilt toward labor unions) but democracy and kleptocracies are incompatible.  To proceed as if the winner deserves all the property of the loser almost guarantees elections that will quickly escalate into violence and ultimately, the end of democracy. 

All of these necessary traits (and several others) are cultural, the results of decades of experience and punishing violators, and cannot be created by paper proclamations.  Acculturating these norms runs counter to human nature.  Modern humans have existed for perhaps 180,000 years and during that period, with tiny exceptions, power rested on naked force.  Violent repression in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain are reactions rooted in 9,000 generations of human existence, and are not aberrations.  In evolutionary terms, the penchant for peaceful democratic elections might be likened to an exceedingly rare genetic mutation.

Americans seldom recognize how we have been "trained" toward a culture undergirding electoral democracy.  We take the immense and successful effort for granted.  Most Americans grew up regularly voting in well-scripted school elections and watching them on TV, and "let's vote and abide by majority rule" was the mechanism to settle disputes.  Beauty pageants and award ceremonies (e.g., the Oscars) display a reoccurring pattern -- secret ballot votes, limits on campaign tactics while losers graciously accept the verdict.  Moderation was learned via sports -- "good sportsmanship" included post-game rituals such as shaking hands to cool lingering animosities.  I tell my political science graduate students that the informal pick-up basketball game usually typifies the strength of democratic norms -- players from both teams observe unwritten rules of fairness, quickly forget the game, even if a little rough, and then go off for beer and pizza.  Conflict is restrained, bounded, and transitory, just as it is in the political realm.

I seriously doubt whether Arab nations possess this facilitating culture.  Just observe hair-trigger recourse to violence, the infatuation with guns and militias, a willingness to fight to the death, cruelty toward defeated foes, and how the passion for revenge can trump everything, including peace and prosperity.  The British wisely understood the region -- after the Ottoman Empire's demise following WWI, Britain installed monarchies in the region as the "natural" political arrangement.  Judged by the subsequent peace, monarchy, not democracy, was the correct choice.   

Though "democracy" is a popular slogan among rebellious Arabs, I suspect that they really want is not democracy but a more equitable re-distribution of wealth coupled with less brutal authoritarian rule -- more cars and TVs, fewer secret police.  "Economic populism" is a more accurate description and this hardly requires the institutional bric-a-brac of electoral democracy.  A benign tyrant will suffice.  In the final analysis, then, election-based democracy should not be the gold standard when judging Middle East political progress.  Let us not be blinded by political fantasies.

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.