Democracy Wrap

Monday night’s Junta was well-attended despite coming off a holiday weekend, and produced great conversation.

Our out-of-town guest was Jarrett Wrisley, an American living in Bangkok and a longtime friend of mine. He spent the opening part of the discussion bringing us all up to speed on the situation in Thailand, including the story of how he arrived in the country with his wife and dog the day protesters shut down the airport. His was probably the last plane to land before the weeks-long standoff.

The basic outline of the arguments in Thailand is the serious divide between educated urban elites and simple rural folk. The country dwellers feel they are looked down upon and marginalized by city know-it-alls, and those living in the concrete jungle see their farmer cousins as being manipulated by crooked politicians.

The politician in question is Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Prime Minister accused of all sorts of corrupt practices, but beloved by the poor and dispossessed for delivering them basic health care and cracking down on Thailand’s drug problem to some degree. Wealthy Bangkokers see him as threatening the status quo – not only because he “spreads the wealth around” but because he is a blatant nepotist who has enriched himself and others by milking the state. They see his largess in the countryside as vote-buying. Some claim he would put an end to the monarchy in Thailand – though I personally question whether that would be popular, since Thais famously love their king – but certainly the throne quietly assented to his removal from power or it would never have happened. The army doesn’t move without the king’s approval.

That last point became an important one for us. According to Jarrett (and most agreed), this one thing is central for democracy to work: the military must be controlled in a nonpolitical manner, otherwise it can be used as a fig leaf for authoritarianism. The American system, which places a civilian as the ultimate Commander-in-Chief and (at one time, anyway) places war-making authority within the representative body, is a prime example of this working well. (Except for all the times the president has gone to war without bothering to get approval, of course…)

Mark, who was an officer in the Army and attended West Point, discussed his experience there with regard to the military’s respect for the executive branch. Most of the officers he knew at the time were not enamored of President Bill Clinton, but they did have a very healthy respect for his office, and understood that their duty was to carry out its orders. Without that discipline, the institution would quickly break down. But that begged the question: would democracy be protected by a military which blindly followed an executive’s order to act against the people? Is the essence of democracy actually marshal law?

The situation in Honduras was broached, but there were no real experts present, and that thread quickly dissolved into speculation. No one had an informed opinion as to whether the president or the military was on the side of democracy; however, that segued into a point much agreed upon when it came to the official US stance on such matters: America supports democracy when it furthers our interests (such as in Iraq), but not when it doesn’t (such as in Gaza).

Soon we got back into the question of the vote itself. The urbanites in Thailand are starting to think the rural people shouldn’t have a vote at all, on account of their lack of education and perceived susceptibility to simple bribes. The question was raised: should there be minimum standards for voting? How would it go over in America if, say, you had to have a high school degree or equivalent to vote? We concluded that that would be arbitrary: there are plenty of MBAs and PhDs out there who don’t bother voting, as there are likely many people who never finished high school and yet are politically astute and involved. There is no simple way to separate those who “should” be able to vote from those who “shouldn’t,” and it would be a form of discrimination anyway. The ignorant have just as much a right to their opinion as the wise.

In fact, the Founding Fathers saw this as a problem to be overcome. The first thing they did was limit the vote to white, land-owning men – so already the right to vote was very restricted and included only those they considered worthy of deciding matters of state. But even with those severe restrictions, they still thought that unfettered democracy could be a very bad thing – James Madison had some choice words about the need to temper the emotions of the people:

An increase in population will necessarily increase the proportion of those who will labor under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings. These may outnumber those who are placed above … indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, power will slide into the hands of the former.

(Sounds like my dad complaining about the welfare state today, minus the F-bombs).

It was sentiments like this which led to the bicameral legislature, in which it was hoped that the hot-tempered representatives, closer to the emotions of the people as a result of their having to be elected every 2 years, would be cooled by the more rational (and establishmentarian) senators, who were not directly elected in the original Constitution. In fact, a review of almost any recently passed law will find this pattern again and again: the House passes some wildly radical motion, only to see it watered down by the Senate if not outright rejected.

The situation in Xinjiang, China, was touched upon briefly, but as we have another thread going about that, I’ll exclude it here. Jeremy also tried to bring up the “benevolent authoritarian” models of Singapore and Malaysia, but seemed to be the only one who wanted to discuss those countries.

At a certain point, we got sidetracked talking about interesting ideas for future meetings. These included:

  • The nature and history of the judicial branch, and specifically the US Supreme Court
  • The history and future of the American health care system
  • The case for legalizing drugs and prostitution

Finally, we tried to sum up our thoughts. We considered how even in advanced democracies like the US and Western Europe, the will of the people is not often carried out. Many studies, for instance, have shown popular support for national health care in the US, something that has yet to come about. The European and American protests against the Iraq war failed to prevent that conflict. And I think we can lament the fact that our leaders can go to war without our consent. But perhaps in most cases, pure democracy doesn’t actually work. Government by referendum is probably not the greatest method – look at California, for example. As Jarrod Y put it, people tend to react with their emotions – we elect our leaders to put more thought into their actions on our behalf.

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