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American Democracy, competing with itself?

In the February 1-2 edition of The Wall Street Journal, we find an Opinion page that makes us wonder whether we are living in one country or…many.  On the one hand, Walter Russell Mead (@wrmead) advocates (“A Strategy to Counter Democracy’s Global Deficit”– http://on.wsj.com/1bjLycJ) the export of American and liberal democracy through a more aggressive policy of spreading U.S. Education abroad and either through that initiative or in tandem with it, spreading the wisdom of the great western thinkers (Edmund Burke, Benjamin Franklin, Adam Smith, etc.) to the rest of the world by translating their works into other languages.

There is no question that the best defense is a good offense.  Mead’s suggestion is an eloquent call for the spread of American ideals and liberal democracy through, perhaps, the best aspect of soft power: the university and the marketplace of ideas.

Nonetheless, if we turn to look above the fold on that same page, we find Peggy Noonan (@peggynoonannyc) describing an America that would seem to have little to offer to the rest of the world (“Meanwhile, Back in America…”– http://on.wsj.com/1fomJNF).  There is something wrong when adherence to particular interpretations of liberal democratic principles may actually bring about an illogical if no undemocratic or illiberal result.  Just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor as they struggle to abide by the mandates of ObamaCare or parents in Louisiana as they fight to retain access to school vouchers for their children.

Certainly, there are imperfections and inconsistencies in any nation or ideology.  Nevertheless, if we wonder why the world seems to be resisting the spread of American or western-style democracy, we might simply pause to look first at our own house and get it in order.  It’s hard to sell democratic principles to the rest of the world when they seem ideally suited to driving the U.S. Congress to continued brinkmanship with the nation’s budget and debt ceiling.  The rest of the world scratched its head in wonder as the USA struggled simply to refine the filibuster.  Turning to Europe, we see the wages of European democracy as country after country struggles to maintain an unsustainable economic vision.

From the perspective of the Middle East or Asia, while soft authoritarianism or illiberal democracy may not be ideal, it is not necessarily regarded as a bad option in comparison to the west.  Across much of the Middle East, western style democracy—with free elections and freedom to organize politically—means trading stability, restricted freedom and perhaps peace for the freedom to spend every last waking minute battling the Muslim Brotherhood or other political forces who, because of their organizational skill and power, would easily take control through normal electoral means.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “Democracy would therefore take up too many evenings” in battles essentially to protect ways of life that many folks already have.

Most certainly, one can look around the world and join Mead in lamenting that democracy and liberalism are not spreading their benefits.  Political conditions in many parts of the world are appalling.  But, it is sobering to realize that, as currently practiced, western democracy and liberalism do not present particularly attractive options.


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