‘Is Democracy Broken?’ or ‘Saddam vs. George’


To keep with my non-theme, I have added yet another category to my blog with this post: “Politics”. Actually, I think this post is more about political systems.

I have noticed lately, that my firm belief in ‘democracy’, that was developed in my youth, is now challenged significantly in my adulthood. Questions pop up like:

  • Is the general public just too apathetic or just plain dumb to pick politicians that will do any good?
  • In some countries, is a dictatorship not a much better way to keep the majority of people happy and safe (if not ‘free’)?
  • Isn’t it unlikely that you can elect a government that can both manage within the borders of the country AND be effective at developing foreign policy?
  • Isn’t the excuse that ‘well, democracy is the best game in town, so lets do that’ just that, an excuse?

While I have a lot of respect for many of the citizens of the U.S.A. (and I count several as good friends that I have a lot of respect for), if you were to use their heads of state as representative of the whole lot, you would have a pretty low opinion of their ethics, intelligence and even their strength of character.

Democracy is supposed to be all about choices, and in some ways the US system has it right: Compared to we in Canada, they vote for everything! They vote for their police chiefs, district attourneys, local government, state government, federal… But when it comes to political parties, you have a choice of two: the asses that are slightly left of right (the Democrats), and the elephant in the room with no apologies of how ‘right’ they are (the Republicans AKA the ‘GOP’). Those choices, I think, don’t lead to a very strong democracy, and perhaps is part of the reason why their current government is poo.

Lets look at a country that was, until the recent intervention of a democratic country, a dictatorship: Iraq. Now, no question that Saddam was one bad dude! During is ~25 year tenure as the leader of this middle eastern country >600,000 civilians died by non-natural causes. 500,000 of this was in the Iran-Iraq war alone, a war intended to protect Saddam’s regime from the more religious fundamentalist dictatorship in Iran (backed by the USA, need I remind). Was he a puppet of the USA? That gets a strong yes, in earlier years, and perhaps a maybe ca. 2000.

Now, with Iraq a democracy, should things not get better for the people of Iraq? Surely we should open a McDonalds and everything should be fine! Seeing the death toll in Saddam’s regime got me thinking about how things compare. As you can see on my sidebar, I keep track of the ‘body count’ in Iraq.

Iraq Body Count is an ongoing human security project which maintains and updates the world’s largest public database of violent civilian deaths during and since the 2003 invasion. The count encompasses non-combatants killed by military or paramilitary action and the breakdown in civil security following the invasion.


For ‘shits and giggles’ I put together the following chart (hey, it is what I do for a living…) which is intended to both be humorous and sobering at the same time; tell me what you think.

Saddam vs. George
So, would Iraq have been better off as a dictatorship in the long run? Or is forced democracy the right approach? I am not smart enough to say, but for now I think it is a bit of a draw. Some countries should be left alone to make their own way to democracy. Once a country creates a democracy, it shouldn’t stop there either! There has to be a better system in the long run, and I don’t think we are doing ourselves any favours by not even discussing it.

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3 Responses

  1. Political systems are only as good as the people in charge, as far as I can see. And the more chances that a small group has to gain absolute control, the more horrible things are when a bad group gets in there.

    I think there are positives and negatives to all political systems, but a system of balances must be maintained. Hopefully what we’re seeing in the USA right now is just an insane swing into the executive branch, based entirely on the power of cynically-manipulated fear and sheer audacity. The USA has swing that way in the past, and hopefully the forces on the other side will be strong enough to push back.

    Keep in mind that the situation in Iraq under Saddam was not really comparable to the situation in North America, with a civil war simmering just under the surface. Maybe you DO need a cruel dictatorship to keep civil war under control, but maybe a more BENEVOLENT dictatorship could slowly resolve those tensions and work towards something more “free.” But dictatorships are rarely benevolent, and in some political situations I suppose they can’t be.

    Also keep in mind that North America is not (of course) the only place under a democratic system. There are lots of democracies, and their effectiveness seems to wax and wane depending on their leaders. But the nice thing (supposedly) about democracies is exactly that: they wax and wane in a more natural fashion, as opposed to depending on civil war or revolution (which seem to be required to break out of regimes based on unchecked control being held by a tiny group).

    You should read William T. Vollmann’s book “Rising Up and Rising Down,” his rigorous analysis of when force (and revolution) is justified. He doesn’t have all the answers, but he certainly gives food for thought!

  2. Thanks for the book suggestion, I will see if the book is on iPod (increases my chance of reading something).

    Agree with your points above, perhaps with the comments around ‘benevolence’. While it is unlikely to find a benevolent dictator, my worry is that it seems that the concept of benevolent democracies are also becoming rare. It seems that a government of the people for the people is becoming neither.

    The only thing that seems clear to me, is that a people, to be truly free must have a free press. Also, the ability of the government to keep state secrets has to be severely limited. Finally, if a government believes in its own laws, they should apply on its own agents abroad. The ability to take a ‘dissident’ or ‘terrorist’ abroad to apply treatment beyond the scope of a country’s laws (e.g. torture), severely undermines the democratic process.

    Hopefully the internet will allow more freedom of the press, even in places like Russia where being a journalist is really dangerous!

    Thanks for your comment, it really contributes to the value of the blog!!

  3. I’m no political science major — and it’s only the last five years or so that I’ve really boned up on world affairs — but has the state of democracy really changed since the concept first arose? I don’t think so.

    Dirty tricks, government power-grabs, cronyism, and shady deals have been a part of democracy (and all other political systems) since…well, recorded history at least. Some of our most lauded Canadian leaders were pretty nasty characters, steeped in corruption. In fact, dealings that we now consider “corrupt” were thought to be “the norm” in 19th century politics.

    So my devil’s advocate approach here is that things are not much different now than they ever were. Freedom of the press has always fluctuated with the ability of the government to control the media — the concept of “yellow journalism” goes back to the 1920s, and try running a communist press during the ’50s. If anything, the blogosphere brings a new dimension of free press to the world (with its own problems).

    As for state secrets, the idea that the government has to tell us ANYTHING is unique to this century, as far as I know. Yes, government secrecy is much-abused as a way of hiding corruption from the people, but there was a time when ratting out the local politician was likely to get you beaten up by the police.

    And “extraordinary rendition” might be viewed as a way of circumventing laws that are likewise new to this century…they do it elsewhere because (apparently) they can no longer do it here. Horribly crappy, yes, but is it any different? Probably not.

    That’s not to say there AREN’T differences now — weapons are more powerful, and the media is faster and more sophisticated — but mabe this is balanced out by people-powered advances as well.

    In any case, I see the Bush disaster as being due to something that isn’t new at all, in democracy or elsewhere: some people are stupid and are easily scared into falling into lockstep behind the guy who says the right words. Sigh!

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