Spreading Democracy

I recently wrote a note to Prof. Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration, who makes a strong argument for spreading democracy around the world. In 2010, he wrote a book on the topic and invited me to review it. I have since completed my review and responded to him. Below is my response.

Be forewarned, it’s rather long, but so was his book.

Prof. McFaul,

Here is my response to your arguments presented in “Advancing Democracy Abroad”. Before proceeding, I want to point out that true democracy is an ideal that exists in concept only. It is an ideal to which we should aspire and encourage others to do so, but it is an ideal from which our federal government is so distant that Americans cannot legitimately claim to possess it. (I will justify this claim fully below, but I wish to address my issues first.)

My first issue with our “spreading democracy” policy is that it is obvious to anyone who pays attention, that our efforts to “spread democracy” historically tended to be limited to those nations with exploitable resources (bananas, oil, etc.) that are governed by rulers not friendly to U.S. national interests (i.e., corporations). Countries governed by rulers friendly to U.S. national interests have been left alone regardless how democratic or oppressive they might have been (e.g., Iran under the Shah).

Second, our efforts to “spread democracy” have historically been through the use of fire and sword, i.e., either covertly supported coups or direct military intervention. As you, yourself, pointed out, “spreading democracy” by force is usually counter-productive. But given that’s our history, others perceive our efforts as simply more of the same.

Third, our efforts to “spread democracy” have not been limited to oppressive regimes, but have included several governments with democratically elected presidents. It is extremely difficult to convince others that we are “spreading democracy” when we topple democratically elected governments.

Fourth, let’s consider the benefits of the “democracy” we are trying to spread. Granted, America is the wealthiest country on earth, but that wealth is largely concentrated in the hands of a small minority.1 Nationally, we have the highest poverty rate of all the developed countries. We pay more for healthcare than any other country and have the lowest life expectancy, the worst infant mortality and maternal mortality of all the developed countries. Our workers have the shortest vacation time of all the developed countries and our people suffer from greater stress, leading to heart attacks and other diseases, than those in other developed countries, Our infrastructure is eroding faster than it can be repaired, our education system has deteriorated from what it was, and the cost of a college education, which is almost imperative for success, is enough to burden the average student with 20 years of debt. How can you call those benefits? Yes, if you are rich, there are benefits. But that’s true in autocracies as well.

Finally, America is very visible and is watched closely by the peoples of other nations. Many are aware that our government is not truly a democracy, and view our efforts to spread what we don’t have as pure hypocrisy, especially in view of the above. As a result, there is a very large perception problem that must be dealt with before any “spreading democracy” policy can ever succeed.

Given these issues, I cannot condone continued efforts to spread what we ourselves don’t possess, especially in the manner we have historically chosen to do so. If we want other nations to become more democratic, we need to become more democratic ourselves. We need to focus inwardly and clean up our own act; and then, by setting a good example, perhaps others will believe our claims to the benefits of democratic government. We might even obtain those benefits for all Americans.

Now, why do I say our federal government2 is so distant from the ideal of democracy? As you point out, there is no really good definition of democracy. Alternatively, there are so many definitions, and it means so many things to so many people, that it becomes impossible to define. But let me put it this way. Democracy is about the distribution of political power. Pure democracy lies at one extreme in which political power is vested equally in all citizens. At the opposite extreme is pure autocracy where all political power is vested in a single person. Neither pure democracy nor pure autocracy exist in reality, but all governments lie somewhere in between with some being governed by small groups of people with a single leader at the top and others being governed by larger bodies of citizens.

In our federal government, the people have no direct voice in legislation. NONE. All legislation is accomplished by elected representatives. While we hold elections for the representatives who legislate, the people have little voice in the selection of the candidates. Political party leaders select candidates from which a larger body of partisans make the final selection and the general population gets to make the final choice between the candidates of the parties. That the general population gets to choose among two (or a few at most) candidates, at the exclusion of everyone else, is hardly democratic; and that the selection of candidates is made by a small group of people is more autocratic.

Next, consider our President. The people have no control over the executive orders or actions of the President. NONE!3 Additionally, the people do not get to choose the candidates and do not even get to vote for the President. Like our representatives, candidates for President are selected by party leaders from which a larger body of partisans makes the final selection.4. Then, party leaders in each state select a group of partisans (electors) to represent them in what we call the Electoral College5. The people then vote for the slate of electors of the party of their choice (not for the President). Because of the “winner take all” rule adopted by nearly all the states, the electors are not apportioned according to the popular vote. The votes of the electors are then counted in the Senate and the winner is appointed President. As a consequence of this convoluted voting scheme, the will of the people has been usurped by electoral college five times in the history of our elections (twice in the past twenty years alone). This is hardly democratic.

Now consider that not everyone gets to vote. Those people serving time in prisons don’t get to vote, and in many states, ex-convicts who have served their time in prison and been released are not allowed to vote. Voter suppression in the U.S. is a serious problem. This is accomplished in many states by removing names from voter registers, placing numerous impediments to voter registration, shortening the periods for absentee voting, reducing the number of polling places and/or placing them in inconvenient locations and shortening hours at the polls. Instead of encouraging people to vote, these practices prevent large numbers of people from voting. Finally, there is the issue of gerrymandering in which politicians in state legislatures select their voters instead of the other way around. These are hardly democratic processes.

Then consider the dominant role of money in our elections (and in our government). There are presently no legal restrictions on the amount of money that can be spent on political campaigns and the only limits are on the contents of the pocketbooks of the spenders. People who can afford to spend vast amounts on political campaigns do so with the intent of obtaining favorable legislation from their candidates upon winning elections. By the same token, candidates know that if they don’t vote for favorable legislation for their donors, they will not get the donations they need for the next election. As a result, truly benevolent legislation is apportioned according to political campaign spending. What this really amounts to is rule by the rich6. Again, hardly democratic.

Finally, let’s consider justice in the U.S. The U.S. not only has the largest per capita prison population in the world, but one observes that the prison population is dominated by people of color, low-income people, drug addicts and people with mental disorders7. We observe that very wealthy people and corporations can afford expensive lawyers and prolonged trials in order to win verdicts favorable to them. We observe that corporations can abuse or break laws almost with impunity, perhaps receiving only small fines for egregious offenses. Witness the near economic meltdown caused by abuses of the financial industry for which the perpetrators suffered virtually no consequences while tens of thousands of people lost their homes. Justice, it would appear, is administered by the dollar in the U.S. (the more you spend, the more justice you get). This is hardly democratic.

In summary, when we think of democracy, we think of equal say in our government, equal opportunity and equal justice. Unfortunately, what we have is anything but that. The reality is that our government is dominated by a few, that opportunity is limited for the vast majority and justice is mostly for the privileged class. Looking inward, what we see is not a pretty picture; and that picture is visible to the outside world. So when we claim we are “spreading democracy”, it is natural for others to ask, do we really want what you are spreading? And if they don’t want it, we have no right in forcing it on them.

What we need to do is to reinvest in America – reform our government and political system, reform our criminal justice system, eliminate the power of money, rebuild our infrastructure, invest in our education system, provide healthcare and a good standard of living for all Americans. Then, after cleaning up our own act and showing the world there really are benefits for all (not just a few), we can proceed with spreading what we have.

It’s good to strive for ideals and it’s good to encourage others to do likewise, but it’s hypocrisy to claim to be spreading an ideal that you are so distant from achieving yourself.



1 The Gini index is the highest of all the developed countries and is comparable to that of several autocracies.

2 I limit this discussion to our federal government, because it is the federal government that establishes foreign policy. State and local governments have virtually no say in foreign policy. But having said that, I will say that virtually all the states and local governments in the U.S. are far more democratic than our federal government (and some are more democratic than others). Take, for example, California or Washington (and others) that have the rights of initiative, referendum and recall that provide for direct citizen involvement in legislation and the “hiring and firing” of those who govern. These are among the most democratic governments in existence.

3 While the elected representatives have some Constitutional control over the orders and actions of the President, the realities are that exercising their control over the President is politically almost impossible and that our Congress has ceded much of its power (e.g., war making authority) to the President.

4 This is actually no different than the Soviet form of government with the singular exception that multiple political parties are allowed (albeit only two parties really matter) while only a single party was allowed in the Soviet government.

5 In theory, electors are free to cast a vote for any of the Presidential candidates, but in reality, electors are bound to party rules and only cast votes for their party’s candidates.

6 Add to that, the byzantine rules of the Senate and House of Representatives that govern how legislation is managed, what bills get voted on, who gets to chair what committees, and so on, and ask yourself, how democratic is all that?

7 A recent study produced by the Russel Sage Foundation reports on Criminal Justice Contact and Inequality.