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Monday, April 21, 2003
It's a good day at Salon, as they also feature this interview with Fareed Zakaria, which is essential reading. (Also, with luck I will learn how to spell his name without referring to Newsweek one day soon.)

I generally like Zakaria's stuff, and while I agreed with a lot of what he has to say here, there were certainly things to quibble with. For instance, his insistance on having outside forces moderate the transition to a liberal democracy is smart in theory, but he seems to be taking it to the point where it would be OK for the US, say, to install heads of state in order for them to bring about democratic reforms. His insistance that this transition be mediated ignores the prime example of America itself, which became a republic purely through internal debate. While I agree that once an unjust form of government is deposed it is important to keep those that still weild its power (through social rather than political forms of oppression) from authority, it is easy for this to go too far, and he does a poor job here, at least, of contrasting the popular will of democracy with the guiding light of republicanism. I think liberal democracy is pretty great, but I'm not entirely convinced that the model we have in the US, which seems to be the one Zakaria is proposing, is the best for the whole world, and strange though it may seem, there are probably enough people (including, even, woman and minorities) who want to live under a fundamentalist state to justify at least one somewhere in the world. While I think it would be nice if the oppressive force of religion was wiped out, I recognize that's not going to happen, and for a mass phenomenon that relies on martyrdom and underdog-ism for much of its power, to depose all clerics of governmental influence will end up helping their cause in the end, yes?

The aha moment for me, however, came here:

American democracy has always been safeguarded by strong institutions that protect liberty and it's also been enriched and ennobled by a whole set of informal institutions that Tocqueville called intermediate institutions -- everything from political parties to rotary clubs to choral societies to bowling leagues. If those intermediate associations wither away, if the sense of the civic culture of America decays and is replaced by a kind of polarized populism in which each side is simply trying to use the political system as an arena where you simply have to capture the government however you can, then American democracy is impoverished and loses some of its vibrancy. It doesn't mean American democracy will become Nigerian democracy. It means it won't live up to its promise.

"Bowling leagues" = Bowling Alone = Michael Sandel = communitarianism / republicanism. Bing! This, for students of political theory, probably provides a much more useful avenue into Zakaria's ideas. So, for instance, the interviewer asks (in reference to Zakaria's theory of domestic politics as well as international ones) what this new paradigm should mean for the strategies of leftist activists. Zakaria says something about shifting the focus to human rights, but of course this is just canoodling because this is sort of the wrong question. His book is saying that activists either have or should have far less influence than they currently do, and certainly less than they want to. So what they should do isn't shift their protesting strategies, because Zakaria seems to be basically saying that you have to give the leaders a little more credit and, on occasion, the benefit of the doubt. So what activists should do, this would imply, is either (a) quit with the self-aggrandizing, self-centered politicking and go do something that actually helps people, like become a social worker or a teacher; or (b) get involved with electoral politics. What I think people could easily miss in Zakaria's argument is that while it is an endorsement and an encouragement of the power of elites, the thing about democracies is that, theoretically at least, anybody can become an elite. He seems to be clear-eyed about the fact that this is not, in fact, the current situation in America, but it seems to be an angle that the article didn't pick up on.

Still, I haven't actually read Zakaria's book yet, so maybe he addresses these things more directly, and maybe he doesn't share the many weaknesses that Sandel's arguments do. And I do very much agree with this bit:

Q: I think many liberals would ask how they can trust this government to export liberty abroad when it seems to undermine liberty at home.

A: Again, this is part of the problem of liberalism today. The United States has problems, no question, but they are in no way and on no scale comparable to the problems of Nigeria. It's necessary to get some perspective. There is simply no question that getting some form of constitutionalism and some form of democratic governance would be better for the vast majority of non-democracies. To be hobbled by fears and self-doubt seems silly. What one should do with those concerns is channel them into domestic reform programs rather than losing faith in American democracy. It's entirely possible to be a reformer at home and a universalist abroad. Look at Harry Truman.

Damn straight.