The independent news organization of Duke University

Surface democracy

ow big a farce can an election be without anyone noticing?

Iraq’s Sunday vote was a significant event—but only symbolically. First reports indicate high turnout, relative order and a general sense of enthusiasm within the country. President George W. Bush has already begun the hype campaign, and news agencies are showing photos of excited, ink-stained Iraqis.

But after this honeymoon period, it will become clear that the election was only a symbolic victory. For now, the fact that it has cost so much creates a cognitive dissonance effect: we need to find some way to justify the expense, and happy photos and upbeat talking points will do the trick.

However, I predict that over the next few weeks, we will all learn an important lesson about democracy. You can replicate its mechanics, but you can never fake its spirit. Voting is a necessary condition for democracy—not a sufficient one. We can go through the motions, fill ballot boxes to the brim and tout the resulting national assembly. But creating a true democracy is an entirely different kettle of fish.

Hanna Arendt characterized democracy brilliantly. According to her, it is not simply a system of majority rule. Rather, it is an environment that allows individuals to be participants in government. Voting is a secondary concern. Arendt gives primacy to the process of “seeing and being seen in action.” The role of democracy is to provide a space for discourse—a public square in which to address public concerns.

What we have in Iraq is at a best shell of this idea. Consider the obstacles to “seeing and being seen.” Candidates in the election could not publicize their names or their policies for fear of death. How can the majesty of democracy operate when people have no idea who they are voting for? It seems that, in large part, voters supported religious coalitions—not individual candidates. If this is the case, then an election was probably unnecessary. It might have been safer and fairer simply to appoint members of the various coalitions based on demographic statistics.

But doing this would reveal the elephant in the room. The big secret in this election is that the point was not to gauge the will of the people. Instead, the goal was to legitimate the resulting political order. Ironically, it was in voting that Iraqis gave up their democratic resources and their ability to influence the government. Now that they have been “heard,” they are no longer welcome in the public square. In fact, a public square does not even exist.

An optimist might say that even though the spirit of democracy is not present in Iraq, it can be developed over time. Perhaps the trappings of democracy—the pomp and circumstance, the symbolic elections—will ultimately lead to a culture of true participation. Democracy on the surface may lead to democracy at the heart. If this is the mentality that motivates George Bush, he is a greater optimist than I am. What frightens me is that he might not even realize that a difference exists between the symbols of democracy and what they represent.

The new Iraqi constitution is unlikely to spring from the will of the people. It will be heavily influenced by external (read: American) forces. This is fine for now, but what about the long run? At what point can we release our experiment into the real world? It is unlikely that there will ever be a point where we can confidently say that Iraq has been adequately trained. Until the Iraqi people are given—or take by force—the ability and the will to participate meaningfully, we are merely putting an old order in new clothes.

The worst thing that could happen in Iraq is for democracy’s ideal—participation—to give way to domination. If a ruling party is established, it will have the blessing of the United States and the legitimacy of being “freely elected.” But it may also have the ability and desire to follow in the footsteps of Saddam. If this turns out to be the case, “election” will become a code-word for subjugation. And the world will have our bastardized, superficial notion of democracy to thank.

David Kleban is a Trinity sophomore. His column appears every other Tuesday.



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