Democracy is not everything

Following in the wake of Iraq’s historic election this Sunday, you will hear and read glowing appraisals of Iraq’s conversion, or return, to a democratic society. Or, if the Saddam loyalists and religious fanatics shed enough blood, you will hear how democracy is the Holy Grail, worth any price and Iraq must push on. Neither version tells the whole story.

The word ‘democracy’ is tossed around so much that it has taken on a magical power. If citizens vote all will be right. Democracy can fix any society. Democracy brings wealth, opportunity and freedom. Give them ballots and they will turn their AK47s into plowshares. Right?

Wrong. Democracy is a great form of government, certainly a step or two up from dictatorships. The shadow of elections can keep leaders in check. Voting gives people a stake in society. But, despite all of this, democracy is not everything. A lot more than one-person-one-vote is needed to make a country functional and decent. After all, Adolph Hitler took part in democratic elections and Saddam Hussein was ‘elected’ by a landslide in Iraq.

Nobody talks much about it, but laws are every bit as important as voting. The least popular citizens need rights and protections. Voting doesn’t guarantee that. Those who think ‘majority rules’ is the answer to everything need to consider that problems of slavery, the legal oppression of women and religious tolerance were corrected or improved in many places around the world by progressive laws, not referendums.

The sad fact is that the majority of voters in any given society tend to be idiots on many issues. High numbers of people, even in developed societies, still believe in astrology and psychics, for example. Want them to vote on science policy? The intensity of prejudice in most societies today remains horrific. Want the fate of the despised to rest in the hands of the haters? Better to have good laws to protect everyone and keep the ship on course than leave things entirely to the mercy of whatever falls out of a ballot box. For all voting’s positive power, it means little or nothing without a fortress of just and progressive laws to provide sanctuary for the weak. Iraq will demonstrate this in the coming years, one way or the other.

World News editor Guy P. Harrison is at [email protected]