Democracy is Like A.....

Democracy is Like An Orchid? A Tree?

A months ago, in an interview with Charlie Rose, George Will said he opposed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, because the bill essentially "empowers the government" to "limit [aspects of] political speech", making it he said, "probably the most dangerous [legislation] since the fugitive slave act". To which we ask in jest: Why didn't we ratify the George Will version of the First Amendment long ago? Freedom isn't freedom, see, and liberty isn't liberty; money is freedom, and money is liberty; therefore more money equals more freer speech. That's what he says.

Anyone can see the twisted logic of the argument, but Will had talking points to deliver, and he hit them with authority, bullishly marketing a Bill of Goods in place of the Bill of Rights.

However he was much more reticent discussing his prior policy recommendations. When Rose asked Will about his lack of discussion of Iraq in his new book, he stared him down as if -- "Iraq is dead to me". He now considers "nation-building as oxymoronic a phrase as orchid-building".

This is a change, since Will had long agitated for the war, writing syndicated columns for decades that turned up in hundreds of newspapers. He was relentless. In 1991 he wrote "a sensible war aim is a new regime in Iraq"1. He often taunted Clinton's hesitancy for military engagement, for instance, saying: "Getting a democracy to do what does not come naturally it requires leadership. To get that for the defense of this democracy, a different commander in chief is required. 2 When Bush got into office his drumbeat continued in columns penned under headlines like this one from August, 2002: "Iraq Attack Would Nudge Mideast Toward Democracy"3.

He now explains his changed opinion on Iraq as his "quickened sense" of the "brute inertias in the world rooted in religion and ethnicity".

Like orchids, Will noted, democracies are "not built, they're a product of a long complicated organic evolution". After writing scores of columns under titles like "The Politics of Manliness"; after relentlessly chastising Democrats for their "feminization of politics", characterized, and he quoted Carnes Lord of the Naval War College, by "'competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command'", his startling summons to visualize democracy as "orchids" is more than a bowtie's worth of change. As commanded, I dutifully visualized orchids and recalled their cultivation history, but I quite honestly struggled with the analogy to democracy.

We can test his analogy, though. Democracy is to Orchid, as Marriage is to....Old Man of the Mountain? No. Hmmm...Democracy is to Orchid, as Raising Children is to...Poodles? I was still pondering these comparisons when I happened to be listening to another Charlie Rose interview. Talking about his new book, "Democracy's Good Name", John Hopkins professor Michael Mandelbaum declared to my surprise that "democracy is not like a pizza" (it cannot simply be delivered), it's "more like a tree". Now I was really confused.

Democracy is Like Rising Rafts, and Tides, and Botany

Wrapping my mind around pizzas and orchids and trees, then comparing and contrasting them to democracy proved taxing, so I searched back in history to acquire more perspective. Jimmy Carter once said:

"The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself -- always changing, infinite in its variety, sometimes turbulent and all the more valuable for having been tested by adversity."

This seems like a more apt analogy, if more nuanced and difficult to grasp then simple nouns like trees and flowers.

Democracy was described differently in the past. We know that Lincoln stuck close to the Greek roots of the word democracy, demos kratia, for his oft quoted description of democracy as "of the people, by the people, and for the people".

But it seems now that people want something more tangible from their democracy. As democracy spreads more people feel more free to conceptualize it in their own terms. There are the water analogies:

  • "Democracy is like a rising tide; it only ebbs to flood back with greater force, and soon one sees that for all its fluctuation it is always gaining ground." (Alexis de Tocqueville)
  • "Democracy is like a raft. You never sink, but, damn it, your feet are always in the water." (Fisher Ames)

There are many botany analogies. Some have said democracy is "like a reed", "like a flower in the desert", "like a seed", "like a delicate flower", or like a tree and/or its components. Ralph Nader said: "Democracy is like a tree; the people are the roots and the trunk, the politicians are like the branches and the twigs."

Also in the plant theme, Dr. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, said in comments to the Carnegie Council, about the publication of her book: "Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope":

"For me, democracy is like a flower. This is a flower that can flourish and bloom only in favorable circumstances, where you have calm, you have peace, where you can give plenty of water and nourishment and sunlight to this flower. Obviously, if you have torrents pouring down on the flower from the sky, that flower cannot bloom. This is precisely the reason why we are opposed to any kind of military attack."

Democracy is Like Riding a Bike, Like Motherhood, Like Blowing Your Nose

Recently, people draft alternative definitions for democracy in context of Iran and Iraq. Rumsfeld once told the French that democracy in Iraq was like teaching a kid how to "ride a bike". Like riding a bike, he said, you might at first need the trainer to hang on to the bike with four fingers, then three fingers. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice described the Middle East as going through "birth pangs". However, H.D.S. Greenway warned in the Boston Globe:

"Democracy is like motherhood: well worth supporting. But democracy, like motherhood, should not arrive in the Middle East as a result of an armed invasion and soldiers breaking down the door in the middle of the night, Fallujah-style."

Back in 2004 the blog Flavog, a satirist blog, had a more satirical take, in an "interview" with the "interim Prime Minister" of Iraq: "'....Fafnir, democracy is like a horse, or a beautiful woman. It is a fine thing to see, and everyone admires it, but in order to get it to behave sometimes you must beat it and torture it and shock its genitals.'"[sic]

Many, like George Will, proselytized the government's democratic intentions for the US invasion, but later became doubtful. However some never trusted the Bush administrations' inclination or their entreaties to "bring democracy to Iraq", even if those reasons had been true. G.K. Chesterton once wrote "Democracy is like blowing your nose. You may not do it well, but it's something you ought to do yourself."

Democracy is Like A Stovkel, A Three Legged Stool, Marketing, A Rolls Royce...Rolls Royce? What!?

While people make easy comparisons of democracy to plants and natural elements, others don't hesitate to compare democracy to inanimate objects -- drugs, a poem, a forum, a gate, or entwine it with capitalism. Many quote theologian Michael Novak, who said: "...liberal democracy is like a three-legged stool. Political freedom is the first leg, economic freedom the second, and moral responsibility the third. Weaken any leg, and the stool topples." Citizens of neoliberal inclination or persuaded by "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" choose stronger commercial comparisons. Democracy is "like a high quality wine", they say, "a house", or a "Rolls-Royce".

Hernando De Soto would superimpose capitalism smack on top democracy, as he put it: "[D]emocracy is like a constant marketing program, it allows you to get the feedback and knowing that you take out a product that is useful to everybody." In his view democracy as more useful for capitalism than for its appeals to freedom and equality.

If democracy confuses people, it's clear that they define it in their own terms. They're no more shy about saying democracy is like a stokvel, then they are saying that bad democracy is like a bad toupe.

But no wonder democracy is tough to adopt when no one can agree whether it looks like a stream or a soft drink, a bank, a TV dinner, a giant Redwood tree or Niagara Falls. Democracy is not obvious, cannot be shrunk down to a convenient tagline, cannot be flashed on the screen, cannot be turned into technology, has no clear visible outline, and is never convenient.

Democracy is Sovereignty of the People, Human Rights, Equality, Due Process, Pluralism Tolerance, Pragmatism, Cooperation, and Compromise

Can George Will et al. convince us that like the air and the sea and the forests, we should monetize freedom, democracy? Likewise in De Soto's definition he asks us to sidle towards an interpretation that libertarians like George Will advocate. They would prefer the government institutions that help preserve our freedom be "drown in the bathtub" as Grover Norquist put it, so we can "free the market" and make it king -- or dictator.

However, unfettered capitalism, freeing the market threatens to supplant the original intentions of democracy -- freeing the people. Lincoln defined democracy as "of the people, by the people, and for the people". Now people straining to make democracy an easy to grasp idea excise the "people" from it. Even those who see democracy threatened, like Mandelbaum, are tempted by simple comparisons: "oil is the enemy of democracy". While his point is easy to assimilate, can a noun either threaten or define democracy? Or is it the follies and sentiments of people that threaten democracy? The US Department of State reminds us in "Pillars of Democracy" that democracy is:

"sovereignty of the people, government based upon consent of the governed, majority rule, minority rights, guarantee of basic human rights, free and fair elections, equality before the law, due process of law, constitutional limits on government, social, economic, and political pluralism and values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation, and compromise."

People chuckled when, Erdogan, then mayor of Instanbul, now Prime Minister of Turkey famously said "Democracy is like a street car; you ride it as far as you need, and then you get off". Democracy often seems tentative at best, sometimes touted before it ever becomes real-- and is always an elusive goal that demands intention and vigilance. Fortunately Erogan's once cynical view doesn't always hold up to history, since Democracies continue to spring up and thrive throughout the world. In the end, perhaps democracy is like a chess game, a fight between ideologies. But in true democracy, constructed with a balance of powers in government and an attentive population, more people can play and win -- economically, politically and personally, even if we can't discern every Pareto efficiency of every freedom.

1St. Petersburg Times, February, 1991
2 Plain Dealer, June, 1996
3 Deseret News, August , 2002

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