John Agresto writes Was Promoting Democracy a Mistake in the 12/12 issue of Commentary.


Democracy, we need to understand, is rule by the people. Democracy more than any other government takes on the character of its people. But if the people are intolerant or rabidly sectarian, if they are accustomed to being told how to live instead of making their own futures, if they see all human exchanges as zero-sum games, with every neighbor’s success a subtraction from their own—or if there’s no patriotism, no real love of neighbor, no willingness to compromise—then it is close to impossible for liberal democracy to take root among that people.

Beside institutions, the most important political ingredient in democratic freedom, as James Madison so carefully argued, is pluralism. If the nation is a divided rather than a pluralistic nation, liberal democracy will fail. It doesn’t matter if the division is between a few rich and the many poor, or between Catholics and Protestants, or between farmers and ranchers, or between believers and infidels. Wherever there is a majority side with passionate interests and a smaller minority side, the minority will consistently lose.* Sadly, in the various “Arab Spring” nations, divisions are everywhere, and pluralism is all too rare.

But if half the problem is political, the other, and far more bedeviling, half is cultural. We political scientists have something of a professional fiction. We think that the type of government people live under shapes their culture. Indeed, we believe that political life shapes human character. So, we think that aristocracies produce people with aristocratic desires, that tyrannies produce a culture of fear and dependency with slavish or vicious subjects, and that democracies produce people who are peaceful, and understanding of difference. But this might simply be backwards. I was always struck by Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment that Americans were on the way to being a democratic people long before establishing a democratic government. We served on colonial juries where we listened to both sides before we rendered judgment on our fellow citizens. We had professional, civic, and social institutions that taught us how to work together. We fought the Revolutionary War against the British Crown, a war in which perhaps a third of our citizens were on the British side and yet after the war there were no show trials, no recriminations, no mass graves. To do it the other way around—to begin with a democratic government and hope for a people with a democratic outlook and habits to grow as a result—is more often than not a fool’s errand.

Yet it is the character of a culture that shapes the aspirations of its citizens and the nature of its democracy. A culture in which there is little religious or intellectual freedom, where adherence to the commands of imams or religious scholars is sacrosanct, a culture that believes its duty before God is to punish dissent, kill apostates, and exterminate God’s supposed enemies, a culture in which there is no deep acceptance of difference—such cultures will produce illiberal souls who are hardly strong candidates to form a truly liberal and free democracy.