Ira Smolensky

 

                             Our democracy and theirs

 

       One of the common responses heard among American presidential candidates and others to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and resulting chaos in Pakistan was that it made one appreciate American democracy with all its warts.

       At first glance, it would seem that this is a sober reminder for Americans to be thankful for what we have.

       Sure, many Americans have become disgusted, cynical, or bored with American politics, more specifically, with election campaigns in which our candidates spend obscene amounts of money essentially making fools of themselves while trying to make even bigger fools of their opponents. 

       Never mind all that.  We, at least, do not assassinate each other and riot in the streets.

       Before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, however, it would behoove us to take a closer look at this self-congratulatory hubris.

       First of all, it was not that long ago that history changing assassinations and riots rocked the U.S.  As late as the 1960’s, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King Jr. all were extracted from the American political scene not by “the people” but by assassins’ bullets.  The late sixties also saw the occasionally violent protest and a whole spate of urban riots.

       So, it can and has happened here.

       Still, I would not deny that Pakistan and the U.S. are at dramatically different stages of democratic development. 

       But this brings up a second point.  It is fully reasonable to argue that the depressing state of democracy in many parts of the world is a direct result of U.S. choices in foreign policy which have consistently supported dictatorship (including the current Musharraf regime in Pakistan) over democracy in the name, supposedly, of fighting communism and/or the war on terror.   In short, U.S. policy, contrary to the claims of our rhetoric, has helped to create a harsh environment for the genesis and maintenance of democracies around the globe.

       Last but not least there is the rather distinct possibility that the brand of democracy Americans practice is actually a pathological role model for newer democracies to follow. 

       Think of it this way.  American politics is full of rancor, deception, and demagoguery.  But, for us, there is a safety net in terms of the sheer weight of habit.  Thus it is that the disputed presidential election in 2000 led to vehement court battles rather than riots or revolution. 

       The simple fact is that most Americans are far too prosperous (and comfortable) to risk engaging in guerilla warfare.  In essence, a thick ring of apathy surrounds our collective midsection, one which insulates us from the likelihood of extreme political activism, whether it is constructive or destructive in nature.

       Countries like Pakistan do not have this luxury.  There, the “civilized” rancor of democracy as we practice it is not based on well-rooted habit, and social decorum is not as well anchored by over-fed apathy.  Large segments of the population are lean, hungry, and primed for action.

       In short, the form of democracy which seems to work so well for us (unless you want to consider such apparent irrelevancies as poverty, dysfunctional schools, irresponsible deficit spending, and spurious wars) is little more than a ticking time bomb when exported to highly volatile developing nations.

       If this last point is true, and I think it is, then the best thing we can do for the Pakistani people (and for ourselves) is to work hard at improving our democratic institutions rather than smugly noting their superiority.

 

1/3/08