Redefining democracy

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(HOST)Commentator Olin Robison has been doing some thinking about the meanings of Democracy. He joins us today to share some thoughts.

(ROBISON) Winston Churchill famously said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.

President Bush appears to believe, quite simply, that if there are elections, then the result is democracy.

Yet it is quite clear that there is no democratic system that is more legitimate than numerous others. The United States presidential system, for instance, exists no where else that I know of. Far more common is a parliamentary system practiced in various forms all over Europe, much of Asia, and in numerous countries in Latin America and Africa. In a few instances (such as France) there is both a president popularly elected, and a prime minister who is a product of parliamentary elections and majority party control. There are, of course, many coalition governments where no one party gets enough votes to control the parliament outright.

It is nonetheless true that “democracy” is all too frequently a word in search of a definition. It is both a word and a concept often badly abused by dictatorial types who use the word to give themselves legitimacy in the international community despite their maintaining their power by non-democratic means.

All of this has led me to a rather unusual conclusion which is that it isn’t the process that matters nearly as much as the result. It is obviously fairly easy to fake the process; much less easy to fake the result.

History has shown us repeatedly that governments have enormous capacity both for good and for evil. But it is also true that there are a range of services that only governments can provide.

If the goal is an enlightened government which cares seriously for the welfare of its citizens then the result can be measured or at least assessed by whether that citizenry is served in ways only a government can provide.

Democracy is far more than elections. It is an entire set of principles and practices which define the relationship between governments and the governed, or, more precisely, between state and citizens.

One can only reach this conclusion if one believes as I do that government matters. I disagree strongly with those who advocate “starving the beast” by which they really do mean less government is better and that limiting the resources of government is the only way to go. I have long argued with my arch-conservative friends that theirs is a hypocritical view. They profess to want less government but nonetheless want the FAA on the job when they are on an airplane and they of course want the FDA to continue to ensure the safety of our food supply.

What a democratic government can and should provide for its citizenry varies greatly from one country to another. Even a casual look at the United States, Canada and Mexico can serve to illuminate the point – hardly to mention any of America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia.

All democracies of which I am aware, for instance, long ago reached the conclusion that roads are public and that elementary education should be provided to everyone regardless of their means.

There is not, however, similar agreement regarding higher education, health care, and governmentally subsidized transportation. And it is foolishness of the first order to pronounce one of these systems more valid than the other.

And so, dear friends, I invite you to join me in celebrating democracies that serve well the people who elect them. I also invite you to join me in being slow to sit in judgment on other forms of democracy than the one functioning here.

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