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Seeing Ourselves From the Outside

One of the things that a discussion can sometimes do is to help us to see ourselves from the outside. This happened at a recent citizen panel meeting that I facilitated on ‘What are some of the different dimensions of democracy?’ My panelists had mentioned most of the good things that people usually mention–free and fair elections, free speech, human rights, tolerance and respect for others, due process, and the rule of law–when someone asked ‘Are we describing democracy or an ideal government?’ He was a young Chinese man who was here studying government in Washington. And he went on to point out that ‘democracy’ literally means rule by the people, and that rule by the people and the rule of law are two very different things.

Most of us had seen and heard the words ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ written and spoken in tandem so many times that we had become oblivious to the fact that they may be–and, upon reflection, obviously often are–at odds with each other. Some of us tried to explain that it is ‘the people’ who make the law in a democracy, and that this is what makes rule by the people and the rule of law one and the same. It was a democratic effort. But we soon had to admit that it is not so much ‘the people’ as their representatives who make the law, that democratic representation is a dicey proposition when there is only one representative for every 690,000 citizens, and that the law is too comprehensive for any one of us to comprehend.

I am not yet sure where this particular discussion will go, or whether it will give rise to any distinctive policy possibilities pertaining to democratic nation building. But it clearly gave everyone in the room an opportunity to rethink what most of us thought we knew for certain about democracy. And the fact that this opportunity came from the words of a foreigner whose own country is suspect when it comes to democracy and human rights made it all the more poignant.

Our young Socrates went on to give us several examples of how local democracy in China pays more attention to rule by the people than it does to the rule of law. He also pointed out ‘the basic contradiction in the very idea of democratic nation building’. He said that democracy is supposed to be all about self-governance–and that democratic nation building is all about the United States and the European Union telling others how they should govern themselves.

Our discussion, from that moment on, seemed to vacillate between high idealism and out-and-out cynicism (which our Chinese friend called ‘realism’). The panelists seemed to all like the ideals that we associate with democracy and the rhetoric we use to describe it. But they simultaneously deplored many of the things that we have done under the name of democracy and nation building.

The same dynamic emerged a few weeks later in my professional panel meeting when one of the expert panelists said that the United States is not a true democracy because democracy means rule by the majority and the United States has the rule of law. He was a somewhat older man from Iran who was here promoting our nation building efforts in Iran.

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