Browsing articles from "November, 2009"
Nov 28, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Celebrities, Foreign Aid, and Development

William Easterly has a masterful spoof.

Nov 28, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Who supports democracy in Honduras?

As Hondurans go to the polls tomorrow, the big question is whether the election will help end or deepen the country’s political crisis.  On the surface, the answer seems clear.  The military overthrew President Zelaya in June and the election will restore democracy to Honduras.  If this is so clear-cut, why is every democracy in the hemisphere with the exception of Costa Rica, Panama, and the US against it?

The answer lies in considerable disagreement concerning the nature of the problem.  Some argue that Zelaya’s removal was an illegal coup and hence the only way to restore democracy is to place him back in power.  Others suggest that Zelaya is to blame for his removal because he repeatedly violated the country’s constitution. Since the constitution does not allow for impeachment, it thus lacks a legal mechanism for solving the political crisis he created.  Accordingly, removing Zelaya was the only way to restore the rule of law.  Those who take the first view see the election as legitimizing the coup.  Those who take the second view see the election as a return to democracy.

For someone whose main concern is democracy, neither view seems reasonable.  On the one hand, restoring Zelaya without an enforceable mechanism for sanctioning him if he violates the Constitution again hardly seems prudent.  On the other hand, holding an election under a questionably legal government that is illegally silencing its opponents doesn’t seem sensible either.  To me, the democratic solution has to address the roots of the crisis: the Constitution’s silence on impeachment.  It’s a messy solution to be sure, but neatness is not one of democracy’s virtues.  (Interestingly, most Hondurans support constitutional reform as well.)  The instrumental path the US has chosen, condemning the coup but supporting the election, seems unlikely to solve the crisis.  Stay tuned…

Nov 26, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Democracy in Divided Societies

As I have noted many times on this blog, the United States is heavily engaged in trying to catalyze democracy in some of the world’s most divided countries, such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Iraq. Thanksgiving, the United States’ most unique holiday, is a good time to consider the difficulty of building democracy in divided societies. The reason is not because of the fine example of democracy the US provides, but because of the warning.

The United States emerged from the Revolutionary War as a deeply divided society.  Tyranny of the majority, specifically southerners’ fear that the larger population of the north and its general hostility to slavery threatened their interests, was one of the main cleavages. Like the US advocates in many divided societies today, the US Constitution created a variation of power sharing to ally these fears, most prominently decentralization (federalism) and over-representation of states with small populations in the legislature (the Senate).

Power sharing did not alleviate southerners’ concerns. Subsequent compromises, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, also ultimately failed. In the event, the country descended into civil war, the south was economically and militarily decimated, and the north militarily occupied the south after the war, imposing a new set of institutions, such as voting rights for African-Americans, that most white southerners resisted. Reconstruction also led to the rise of terrorist groups seeking to drive out northern troops and intimidate blacks from exercising their rights.

The cost and difficulties of reconstruction caused the north to lose interest in it and the military occupation ended in 1877.  Following the withdrawal, African-Americans lost almost all the rights granted to them during reconstruction. Thus, while the war eliminated slavery and the threat of succession, reconstruction failed to bring anything close to democracy and equality to African-Americans.

It seems to me that US history can provide three lessons for considering whether the US can help facilitate democracy in divided societies today:

  1. No matter how clever the institutional design, power sharing is fragile if a minority fears domination.
  2. Imposing new institutions is an expensive, long-term, and painful process.
  3. Political support in the US to impose these new institutions must be very strong.
Nov 24, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

War on the war in Afghanistan begins

President Obama said today that he will announce his decision on whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan next Tuesday. While he gave no firm indication on what he is going to request, the expectation is that he will announce somewhere around 30,000 additional troops. Two powerful Democrats in Congress, House Appropriations Chairman David Obey and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, plan to introduce legislation calling for a war tax to finance it.  It’s a clever move for Democrats who do not support the war as they will be able to position themselves not as anti-war, but as fiscally responsible.  The war in Washington over the war in Afghanistan is probably just starting.  Watch out for flying spittle on the cable news.

Nov 24, 2009
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Roger Cohen on Obama

Roger Cohen channels my thoughts on Obama in today’s New York Times:

The great battle of the 21st century is going to be between free-market democracies and free-market authoritarian systems. America’s position in that struggle has to be clear if Obama’s simultaneous grandmaster openings are to produce victories.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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