Category Archives: Democracy

Why Turkey Matters


It’s pretty easy for most Americans to pay little attention to Turkey. It seems to be a faraway exotic place that has little effect on their lives. But the truth is otherwise. Turkey has been a partner to the United States and Israel and informed a set of relationships with these two countries that help stabilize that area of the world. But more important than that, Turkey has been a model for Islamic democracy.

Ataturk established modern Turkey as a secular, European, Westernized state. He used the government to establish educational and political policies to shape the nation into a political culture that was close to gaining entry into the European Union. Ataturk literally outlawed many symbols of Islam and tried to relegate it more to the private sphere.

But there was a referendum last week on constitutional changes and Erdogan and his political supporters won a narrow victory. Now the country is about to be shaped in Erdogan’s image rather than Ataturk’s. Erdogan will move Turkey more toward centralized power supported by Islamic parties. None of this bodes well for Turkey. Moreover, and even more dangerously, Turkey is divided. Erdogan won a narrow victory. Just about half the population voted for him and the other half dislikes him intensely. These are the conditions for future contentious political behavior.

It appears that Erdogan knows how to distribute rewards making important constituents happy; a fairly large number of people have benefited from Erdogan’s largess. But these benefits are not merit-based or the result of significant contributions to economic, commercial, or political policies in Turkey. They are the result of payoffs to those who are more supportive of Erdogan and constitutional changes. And now the AKP (Erdogan’s political party) can continue its program of returning to Islamizing the state. Yet, there are some hopeful signs.

Turkey it is now quite diverse demographically, and too big economically to be easily redefined on the basis of one person. And despite Erdogan’s cronies, who always rear their ugly heads from the system of political payoffs, the real economic power in the country is dependent on secular, democratic, pro-Western liberal values. So if Turkey stays Democratic much of its progress will be maintained. But the worisome part is that Erdogan may realize full well that democracy is his primary enemy and therefore become more autocratic.

So why should the average American care about any of this? Well a couple of reasons. First of all the only way we are going to make some stable peace with Islamic nations is through elements, minimum as they need to be, of shared Democratic processes. If Erdogan becomes less democratic then the state becomes more Islamic and increases its distance and alienation from Western states and Israel. Turkey could have been a model for future Islamic democracy. Secondly, the Kurds have been a very supportive culture for the United States and we owe them our best efforts to establish a Kurdish state. This is of course very complex and an intractable issue but moves no closer to some sort of resolution if Turkey retreats into conservatism and religiosity. Third, Turkey demonstrated to the Arab world that some decent relationship with Israel was possible. Given the combustible relationship with our ally Israel, any indicator of stability is welcome.

Trump is the Result of Our Weakening Democracy-An Early Warning


Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.

And it gets worse! Foa and  Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”

This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.

And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.

A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.

What Explains All This?

For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.

It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.


The Death of the Worthy Adversary


Good dialogical discourse conflates the distinctions between enemies and adversaries; that is, as a combination or fusion of the distinctions such that the two are not so different from one another. Certainly, our polarized culture makes a sharp distinction between an “enemy” and an “adversary.” Part of the discourse of dialogue and deliberation involves maintaining the distinction between the two and treating the other as the “worthy opponent.” Again, this is an important principle of deliberative democracy and deliberative communication. In other words, the two sides of a conflict must work to treat the other as adversaries and a “worthy” one such that your adversary holds a defensible position that is deserving of consideration.

Michael Ignatieff made this point cogently when he explained the distinctions between adversaries and enemies in the New York Times and called for respect between the two. Ignatieff explained that an adversary was someone you want to defeat but an enemy is someone you want to destroy. The current environment which has Republicans wanting to “destroy” Democrats is a good example. Once you define your enemy as the opposition between your own social category and the category of the other, then “enemy” takes on a variety of obstructions and distortions. Trust, for example, is possible for adversaries and does not need to lead to issues related to capitulation, appeasement, or giving in. But trust is not possible between enemies. When you define the other as an enemy trust is an early casualty that can never rise again.

The table below displays some distinctions between treating the other as an enemy or an adversary. An enemy is unwavering in his defensible position where an adversary might be amenable to adjustments. Treating the other as an adversary necessitates a respect for the other position and its grounded nature. Without such respect the two sides talk to each other out of rank disrespect. The use of the language of war and violence exacerbates problems, and makes cooperation impossible.

Obama was seen by the Republican Congress as an enemy rather than an adversary to be confronted. For that reason Obama employed more presidential decrees in order to circumvent a Congress that viewed him as the enemy and was interested only in his failure. Heated rhetoric, such as claims that Obamacare was “an assault on freedom,” were all contributions to the increasing perception of the other as the “enemy.” And although he was reflecting differences in society Obama was also exaggerating these differences.

There is any number of reasons for a gravitational pull toward defining the other as an enemy. But this is just one more example of the corrosive nature of our public discourse that does not even recognize the damage. The ultimate goal is to turn enemies into friends but that is an entirely different interactional category

Enemies versus Adversaries

To be destroyed. To be defeated.
Strong negative emotions such as hate and disgust. The possibility for positive emotions such as respect.
No trust. Trust is possible.
Zero-sum game. Non-zero-sum game.
Warfare metaphors. Possibilities for cooperation.
Differences between the two sides are maximized. Differences can be constructive and are to be integrated.
Unwavering commitment to a perspective. Opportunity for change and altering perspectives
The goal it is to refute the other position. Destroy it. Goal is to understand the other position and argue it.
Statements are predictable and offer little new information. New information surfaces and can be addressed.
Success requires simple impassioned statements. Success requires exploration of the complexities of the issue being discussed.


I Don’t Want to Debate. I Want to Talk about My Pain. How the Democrats Got It Wrong


It is quite interesting how just a few short months ago we were burying the Republican Party. They were in a state of disarray with a crowd of presidential contenders each of which seem to be more flawed than the next. And Trump was the worst of the bunch. As his momentum grew there were more and more articles and analyses decrying the state of the Republican Party explaining how Trump was going to destroy it. The reliable sensible old guard (Romney, McCain, Bush) were not only abandoning candidates but actively working against them. Romney’s pointed and vitriolic attacks on Trump were shocking coming from the cool businessmen Republican. So what happened? How did one of the worst candidates who is the least prepared and lacks the basic manners for the job get elected?

It turns out that the Republicans can’t take credit for getting Trump elected, but the Democrats can take some blame. And it wasn’t Hillary’s fault either. Her campaign made mistakes but it was not the technical and strategic components of the campaign that made the difference; it was the smug identity politics of the left; it was that sense that if you disagree with me (a good liberal) you must be some simplistic uneducated fool who is racist and sexist. And I am equally guilty.

Liberalism is a political ideology fundamentally concerned with inclusion, rights, and individual freedom. In recent years it has become associated with sharp group identities demanding recognition and a tension between “celebrating differences” and seeking the commonalities that bind us together as a nation. Our history of privatizing ethnicity and religion, and using the overarching American national ideals (democracy, individual rights, etc.) as common factors has served us well. It has meant over the years that our personal identities are not wrapped up in religion and ethnicity but in political philosophy designed to treat each other equally. But as those “rights” became increasingly group identification rights such that groups were clamoring for distinction and difference rather than commonality the differences and cleavages amongst us became the focal point. Consequently, as the title of this essay indicates, public argument and deliberation to solve problems receded into the background as individuals foregrounded their personal identities and private pain.

Liberal activism in the service of identity politics – to the exclusion of other issues – has been making progress along with a smoldering grassroots reaction and intensifying disdain for the other side. Finally, we ran into Trump who was equally as skilled at a self-righteous and aggressive style of discourse and thereby became the voice of the disenchanted. It’s important to underscore that the liberal group agenda is responsible for improving group political rights and battling the racism and discrimination it is so recognized for. The “group rights” agenda is responsible for reshaping civic life and addressing inequities burdening minorities as well as other segments of society. But the evolution of those rights into an arrogant identity politics rather than a unifying political agenda has left us with the contentious group distinctions we are experiencing and its accompanying polarization.

The recent presidential campaign was a despicable display of politics that was almost free of discussion of issues, uncivil, tacky, shallow, and polarizing. It failed its responsibility to our foremost political requirement, which is to use democratic means to shape a society into a fair and governable unit. This of course includes respect for individual group identities but in the future might require more emphasis on those things we need to do together rather than separately.



Is this the Muslim Martin Luther?

Fethullah Gulen

The below was first posted in March of 2014. Thought it would have new interest given events in Turkey.

The photograph above is of Fethullah Gulen who Victor Gaetan writing in Foreign Affairs compared to the Muslim Martin Luther. Interestingly, I have been writing a little bit about Gulen recently in a book that I’m finishing up and during my research I had become a little intrigued with Gulen. You can find the article in Foreign Affairs here.

A typical descriptive statement about Islam over the last decade is that it never experienced a Reformation. It is true enough that Sufi-ism and scholars such as Said Nursi inspired new more humane schools of thought but they remain marginalized. Much of Islam, not all, is harsh and rooted in the political and military conditions of the ancient world and there has never been a moderation of these tenets by a Muslim Martin Luther. There has never been a Muslim Reformation. Martin Luther was an influential and controversial figure in the Christian Reformation movement. He was responsible for entire new lines of thinking in Christianity and set in motion a sort of enlightenment. Luther had a desire for people to feel closer to God and this led him to translate the Bible into the language of the people, radically changing the relationship between church leaders and their followers. Martin Luther is generally associated with rooting out corruption, preventing religion from being used as a tool for political power, and humanizing the church his anti-Semitism notwithstanding.

Even at the risk of exaggeration, many feel the contemporary version of the Muslim Martin Luther is Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Turk who has been in the United States since 1999. He has worked to promote a modern school of Islam and is an Islamic intellectual committed to secular education, economic development, democracy, and acceptance of scientific knowledge.

Gulen has taught that Islam should devote more energy to public service and be separated from politics as much as possible. His emphasis on helping others and doing good deeds in the community is consistent with much Koranic teaching and directs attention away from political organization. This is in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood whose ascendancy in the last half-century has argued that the state should be Islamic and armed struggle is a moral and spiritual obligation. Moreover, Gulen is committed to education, including science and math, and has over 1000 schools around the world with video and instructional material made easily available to students.

As you might imagine, Gulen is not popular with modern-day Islamists. He has been exiled in the United States for many years and clashed with Erdogan over foreign-policy and authoritarian politics. Gulen is a strong supporter of democratic dialogue and he has chastised Turkey and other Islamic countries for poor treatment of journalists and a failure to engage sufficient constituencies over issues such as the Gezi Park protests.

The Gulen movement upholds numerous liberal conditions such as the belief in the intellect and the fact that individuals are characterized by free will and responsibility to others. Not all of Islam divides the world up into categories such as dar al-harb (the house of war) and dar al-Islam (the house of peace) but understands humans as more coherent and integrated. A verse in the Koran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” which emphasizes the individual intellect and freedom of choice.

Gulen is both careful and brave. He will not be intimidated and continues to speak up even in the face of the easy violence that could confront him. While Erdogan continues to clamp down on Turkey with Internet censorship and control of the judiciary, Gulen continues to infuse Islam with the teachings of tolerance and democratic sensibility.

I Don’t Think God is a Multiculturalist


Multiculturalism is the recognition of different ethnic, gender, and religious groups but also refers to political decisions. We begin with the assumption that natural resources, status, power, cultural qualities, and individual abilities are not equally distributed in society. People organize themselves into groups on the basis of particular categories (gender, ethnicity, common practices) and these groups develop what we term cultural differences with respect to language, dress, values, behaviors, etc. Sometimes these differences are small and easy enough to accommodate and other times these differences are deep and in opposition to other groups. Politics is the management of these differences.

A common assumption – especially in the United States – is that political decision-making should be neutral with respect to race, class, or creed. This is a natural extension of liberal democracy. From this perspective multiculturalism is steeped in human rights and central to the development of democratic citizenship. But there are problems with this conceptualization of multiculturalism that renders it unnatural (that’s why God has problems with it) and contradictory. Other arguments promote some special treatment for groups in order to compensate for historical injustices.

First, Gadi Taub has pointed out how an entire discourse of progressivism has developed around multiculturalism that glorifies diversity, encourages contact with others as growth promoting, and perpetuates a belief that we all share basic liberal values. This is underscored by contemporary academic theory (postmodernism, gender studies, cultural studies, critical theories, postcolonial studies) that relegates the most important cultural differences to the outcomes of power struggles between a dominant group (e.g. European white males) and the minority group. The dominant group of course sets the conditions of the discourse and defines the identity of the “other” group. As a consequence, about any minority groups can be or has been defined as oppressed.

Multiculturalism assumes a uniformity of values and liberal identity among different groups such that all humans are assumed to be equal as are their cultures. There is also the assumption of cultural contact or articulation being expansive of democracy. But as Taub asks, what about cultures that oppress citizens, use force indiscriminately, enslave women, or promote female circumcision? These are not democratic or worthy of cultural sensitivity.

There’s also a contradiction in multiculturalism, which has not been satisfactorily resolved, between pressures toward uniformity and respect for the maintenance of differences. Do we want cultures to converge or encourage differences? The United States is relatively successful at avoiding cultural conflict and encouraging multiculturalism because of the overarching “American” identity and allegiance to values (freedom, democracy, individuality, voting rights etc.) rather than being organized only on the basis of skin color, religion, or nationalism.

Furthermore, the multicultural debate spends little time making the distinction between a genuinely diverse society and the prescriptions for dealing with diversity. Diversity and cultural differences are inevitable and even biologically advantageous. Even those seeking the most pressure toward equality, assimilation, and democratization don’t argue for the obliteration of cultural differences. Given, then, the inevitability of differences and a more nuanced understanding of multiculturalism that is not knee-jerk political correctness the necessary forms of communication between groups must reflect bonding and bridging discourse more than simple assimilation.

A multicultural sense of democratic citizenship is admirable when cultures share deep consensus on certain values. But things fall apart with greater cultural distinctiveness. The Muslim immigrant in the outskirts of Paris is not a partner of African-Americans; the sealed world of Orthodox Jews has little to do with immigrants from Syria; Turks in Germany are viewed with increasing antagonism by Germans.

We must work more on the distinction between people and values. The “values” of freedom, democracy, participation, and equal treatment under the law are crucial to the maintenance of peace and cohesion. But such values cannot be encouraged by accepting all aspects of culture as equally worthy.






Authoritarian States Are Not so Stable

Der libysche Revolutionsführer Muammar el Gaddafi, salutierend in Uniform, am 04.12.1985 während seines Besuches im Senegal/Afrika. In Libyen steht am 1. September zum 30. Mal der Nationalfeiertag vor der Tür. dpa (zu dpa-Korr "30 Jahre Revolution in Libyen" vom 25.08.1999)

I tend to be an unapologetic democracy advocate who is confident in the premise that elevates the essence of democracy (consent of the governed) to the most moral and ultimately stable form of government. Holding such a position can certainly get you in trouble if you convert it into neoconservative foreign policy and start meddling in the affairs of others under the justification of “democracy promotion.” Moreover, there are more than a few people who make the counterargument that democracy is destabilizing for cultures unprepared for it (many in the Middle East and Arab world), and authoritarian regimes may be on the wrong side of human rights but they are stabilizing. Beyond all the opinion on these matters, there is the problem of sufficient cases and empirical demonstration, namely, what are the instances where democracy promotion and advocacy actually work to undermine authoritarianism and can be credited with “democratic regime change.”

Gregory Gause has initiated excellent steps in this direction in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. You can find it here. Gause takes up the task of explaining the “myth of authoritarian stability.” The “Arab world” as he terms it sports a long list of authoritarian leaders – Qaddafi in Libya, the Assad family in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt, the al Saud family in Saudi Arabia, Ben Ali in Tunisia and others. And even though there are complex differences amongst these cases there seems to be, according to Gause, two issues that align themselves in such a way as to predict either the likelihood of authoritarian stability or democratic liberalization.

First, you’ll rarely find, if ever, an explanation that accounts for Arab regime stability in terms of culture. Most attribute stability to the relationship between the state and the military. Still, the assumption that there is no daylight between the military and rulers is not necessarily correct. There are cases where the military was protective of protesters and this was true of Egypt in particular. When societies are homogeneous and the military is not subduing an ethnoreligious minority they are more sympathetic to types of resistance. When the military is professionalized and mature they tend to be less implicated in automatic obedience to the regime.

Gause offers a second assumption about authoritarian stability which is the state control of the economy. Oil wealth, for example, built systems of patronage and provided social services that appeased the population. Salaries, subsidies, state created jobs, and various other social welfare programs are assumed to maintain authoritarian positions. But it turns out that attempts to modernize the economy have been more successful at enriching a few and creating opportunities and privileges for the upper classes composed mostly of the super wealthy and ruling families. Some authoritarian regimes are then quick to provide salary increases and other benefits for citizens, but have often been surprised at the extent to which groups are politicized and willing to foment rebellion.

Turns out, as Gause concludes, that authoritarian regimes are not so stable after all and many have underestimated the pressures for change lurking beneath the surface. These conditions make it tempting to interfere and try to manipulate the dynamics of change in authoritarian societies. But it’s important to remember that most basic dynamics are indigenous and outside states should tread cautiously.






The Republicans Are Wimps: How to Have a Deliberative Presidential Candidate Debate


10-commandments-of-LogicRemember, quality adversarial debate does not arise spontaneously. It is a public good that must be nurtured.

Is it really too much to ask that the political parties (but essentially the Republicans this year) work harder to turn even the primary debates into something a little more deliberative? These debates are structurally flawed and result in confusion and a cacophony of voices that are incoherent and fail to provide a line of reasoning for citizens to observe and learn from. Any debate structure put in place will have its strengths and weaknesses, but any structure will also be better than what we’ve been witnessing.

Running for president is not for sissies. You have to be able to stand up and respond to criticism and make your case to the public. And when attacked the candidate should, ideally anyway, respond with argumentative detail that demonstrates a full command of the issues. The Republican candidates who complained about “gotcha” questions and thought questions about one’s personal behavior and finances were out of line were more interested in manipulating the debate format into kid-glove treatment rather than vigorous engagement. If it seems like a candidate is going to bend under the pressure of a journalist asking him or her a “mean” question, then the candidate might have problems shouldering the burdens of the world.

The structure of the debates is consistent with the structure of the television medium. These 30 second time limits and response times are responsive to the commercial nature of television and the belief in the audience member’s limited processing capabilities. The debate format is not conducive to the engagement of complex issues such as Iraq, healthcare, gun control, race relations, and the like. Consequently, we get sound bite debates with simplistic images of “good guys” and “bad guys” who stand on the stage waiting for the right moment to insert a pre-prepared statement that is semi-related to the issue at hand and typically doesn’t advance an issue.

The 14 Republican candidates have the nerve to pose problematic and sometimes wild ideas such as deporting 10 million people, building walls to seal off immigrants, cutting a 70,000 page tax code to three pages, and then whimpering when they were challenged on these ideas. If these fringe Republican candidates get their way it will only be Fox News who gets to ask them softball questions.

Outline of a Deliberative Format

The following issues must be addressed in order to increase the communicative value of these debates and come closer to the commission’s goals for informing the public and fostering a truly deliberative environment. Read more about related issues in an article by Collier.

  1. The model of dialogue and reasoned deliberation has always expected the participants to be mutually joined and engaged in the same issue. In other words, they need to be talking about the same thing at the same time. Inserting canned and pre-prepared comments that are designed for nothing but manipulation and desperate attempts to make mini campaign speeches are an anathema to the dialogic and deliberative process.
  2. The Commission on Presidential Debates should first direct its attention away from what it believes to be its role in structuring debate formats and concentrate more on the constitutional right to receive information. This means structure the questions and the format of the debate so that specific controversial issues (gun-control, healthcare, the war in Iraq, fighting ISIS, taxes) receive required attention and time. The current debate structure deprives listeners of this information.
  3. There must be meaningful opportunities for response. As of now, no bad argument goes unpunished. There should be fact checkers working during the actual debate and candidates would be required to respond to discrepancies at a selected period of time at the end of the debate. These fact checkers could also provide additional context for misleading and manipulative quotes taken out of context.
  4. The opportunity to correct mistakes and challenge misleading comments is not trivial because unchallenged and uncorrected comments find a life of their own circulating in media discussion and among citizens. Lies, exaggerations, and out of context information becomes reified and assumes a truth value.
  5. A common strategy for aggressive campaign operatives is to make a false statement or accusation, uphold it for a couple of new cycles, and then disappear. Even if the statement is later shown to be a complete falsehood the damage has already been done to the opposing candidate. This “name-calling” tactic degrades the process and increases the magnitude of falsehoods circulating in the discourse.

I will have more to say on debates and their deliberative structure in future posts. But it would behoove us to keep in mind that citizens prefer to receive information from like-minded others. This causes distorted processing and polarization of the type we see today. It’s imperative that political candidates be exposed to a diversity of opinions in order to improve their own.



Is Ending History Possible?

Liberal Democracy1Liberal Democracy2

I’ve always been a little bit partial to Francis Fukuyama’s argument that liberal democracies and market economies represent the natural gravitational pull for all political cultures. Fukuyama argued in his provocatively titled book “The End of History” that even the most repressive regimes could not escape sprouts of resistance that led to more democratic processes and freer markets. These were not only ideologically and economically superior but they were natural to humans. Of course, some pundits at the time suggested that this supposedly natural pull toward market economies and liberal democracies was grounds for repressive or oppressive behavior and would lead to a sort of conservative triumphalism that forced political systems on other cultures. The hard-core diversity stance also naturally resisted this argument suggesting that alternatives and variations were certainly possible.

Still, historical analyses and observations of pressures that emerge in political systems, not to mention a sort of inescapable common sense, make it difficult to escape the natural superiority of democratic processes and market economies. Given the advent of science, the Enlightenment, modernity, and the political and economic stability of Western democratic societies, it does seem like the world is evolving in that direction. It’s not that there are not branches and deviations (Pol Pot, Nazi Germany, Marxism) from this supposed march toward openness and democracy for the route is not a straight line. But it does seem to be the case that if we take a step backward we can over time take 1 ½ steps forward and on the average – even according to measurements of democracy around the world – continue to progress.

Then, we encounter ISIS. A nightmare from history that you thought we had awakened from centuries ago. Even after the US won the battle with communism and China turned its head toward capitalist practices the advent of ideologies like ISIS is a bracing reminder that maybe these democratic values are not so universal after all. Sometimes other cultures recognize the benefits of liberal democracies and free markets but they resent the preaching of the West and always feel a little humiliated and pressured by the United States. They sometimes reject liberal values simply because they are espoused by the US. Additionally, conservative sensibilities about the role of women, religion, and communicative rights make for common ground between authoritarian cultures like Russia and religious cultures in places like Africa or the Middle East.

Even the liberal advances of the West, which can be considered part of American exceptionalism, are relatively new and in some cases quite shallow. The US continues to hope that others will copy us, that they will see the errors of their ways. But waiting for others to simply “get it” will make for a pretty long wait. We don’t even know what it is we are asking them to copy. And it is true enough that we could turn this into a political scientist’s playpen with all sorts of theories, foreign policies, and suggestions on how to establish democratic sensibilities. But this doesn’t seem the best agent for change either.

The simple essence of democracy, which is popular sovereignty and individual rights, probably cannot be forced or imposed on anyone. There is an obvious logical contradiction here. How can democracy and individual rights be a “natural” evolution if it is being forced on someone? Surely it is best if such values emerge from inside political cultures but the counter forces of power and self-aggrandizement by a few can prevent the flowering of democracy for a long time – maybe forever.

It’s true enough that US preaching and heavy-handed manipulations may be counterproductive but that does not weaken the core value of democratic systems which is the notion of human rights, or that people have a right to legitimate participation in the political process. No society can hold together its multiethnic and multireligious subgroups without some sense of what it means to have human rights that are genuine and culturally authentic. Such authenticity is crucial because values forced by other cultures will always be resisted. Moreover, the attractions of nationalism and religious identity are powerful. They will be overcome only by something more powerful such as a social contract that guarantees the legitimacy of everyone’s participation, and the protected sound of their voice.

How to Reassign Meaning and Damage the Art of Conversation

Even though cynics and those who throw their hands up in the air in desperation at the difficulties and frustrations of conversation think that conversation is naïve, they are wrong. If you are going to avoid force or violence or ethically challenged manipulations, then the only way to morally and fully engage in knowledge acquisition and quality decision-making is through the interaction process. The democratic process does not rely on pre-established ideological positions (e.g., “socialism” “communism” “capitalism”) that requires the carrier of these ideologies to simply rigidly and blindly defend such a position. No, the democratic process relies more on the epistemic value of communication and the conversation that produces it.

And democratic cultures have long histories of dictating the importance of education in order to participate in a citizen-based democracy as well as the availability and quality of information. That’s why the press in the United States has as much freedom as it does. The press is afforded special attention. But the kind of conflict I mostly think about and work on (intractable conflicts) don’t usually have people participating on the basis of democratic ideals and deliberation. In fact, the participants are usually entrenched in their beliefs and are as rigid as any true believer.

In an interesting study, published in the Journal of Public Deliberationcover, the author explains how literacy is not even necessary for deliberation. Being literate and informed is always assumed to be fundamental to a complex democracy. This has led throughout history to institutions and programs devoted to citizen education, school wide programs, and a host of activities concerning the development of citizenship and democratic habits. The relationship between an informed citizenry and the general public has been written about by Plato, Rosseau, John Stuart Mill, Dewey, and any other number of heavyweights. But it turns out that high levels of literacy are not the only requirement for good public deliberation.

I won’t fully engage the concept of “defining literacy” except that I’m thinking about it as the basic inability to read and write. The term “literacy” has flexed its semantic muscles and is now used to refer to “media literacy,” “numeric literacy,” and simple knowledge of issues. But Bhatia, in the article cited above, explains how television can contribute to information acquisition and exposure and brings a person with no or limited knowledge up a rung or two.

A recent essay in Tablet magazine offered up an interesting case of a difficult conversation where the entrenched ideologies are religion and secular politics. Most of my examples in my recent book “Fierce Entanglements” have to do with Jihadis or religious settlers or people with extreme political beliefs. The author of this article, Liel Leibovitz, talks about the uselessness of having a conversation with someone like Noam Chomsky. The article explains what was supposed to be a reasonable attempt to have a conversation between Chomsky and Sam Harris. Chomsky’s beliefs are so fixed and so wrapped up in theories of American conspiracy and violence that the author concludes all conversation between people who disagree should be eliminated.

Chomsky believes that the United States is clearly the most violent and vicious terrorist unit in the world and 9/11 was insignificant by comparison. 9/11 was just America getting a taste of its own. Of course, Chomsky cannot have a discussion without invoking Israel and heaping blame on the Jewish state. What happens during these conversations is that the meanings of words such as “terrorism” begin to drain and become reassigned usually broadened to be more inclusive of things it did not originally include. So there’s a particular definition of terrorism which refers to acts of violence against innocents for the purpose of sowing fear and confusion. Then the meaning gets changed to include anybody who engages in violence whom you don’t like. All context and nuance is lost.

Good vigorous conversation and argument seems to be a fading art. I guess we will have to return to literacy instruction to restore the art of conversation.






%d bloggers like this: