The Problem of Democracy
by Shadi Hamid
The psychology of American exceptionalism is embraced by both liberals and conservatives in equal parts. While the two sides may differ about what makes America uniquely good or bad, what they share is a rejection of the idea that there are meaningful lessons to be drawn from other countries to understand what is happening in the United States. This is a product of Americans treating their nation itself as some kind of God, and as good post-Christians they agree that God is one and incomparable. This sense of incomparability with America goes doubly for countries that are poorer or culturally foreign. The only lesson from without that Americans ever seem to think is relevant to their country is the epic story of World War II and the Nazis, which has by now attained the unlikely status of foundational myth to American national religion.
Most of my views come from observing the Arab Spring, and I happen to think that there is a lot that Americans can learn from that episode about their own country. As horrifying as the revolutions were, they provided an incredible real-world test case of how human societies are likely to operate given particular environmental conditions. Shadi Hamid is someone who has been a scholar of the Middle East for years and was also an observer of these events. This book, his third, is about American foreign policy in the Middle East and the legacy of propping up dictatorships in the region. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are a few examples of pro-U.S. dictators that are currently in power as a result of the U.S. security structure in the region. The reason that the U.S. has kept its finger on the scale to make sure that every attempt at democracy is shut down is out of a fear that Islamist groups will come to power that are averse to U.S. interests and values. The bogeyman of the Muslim Brotherhood has served as an effective tool to ensure that nominally secular dictators can stay in power with U.S. assistance. It is not hard to imagine that one day, faced with an increasingly illiberal conservative movement, a similar tradeoff between democracy and liberalism may one day be made at home.
If democracy brings people to party that we don’t like – illiberal parties or religious ones – does that mean that democracy itself is bad? That is effectively the position that the U.S. has taken towards the Middle East. In doing so it has doomed these societies to a future of stagnant repression punctuated by violent blowups, more of which are likely on the horizon. Hamid makes a strong argument that democracy should be supported even if it results in Islamists or other people American liberals dislike coming to power. He uses examples of Islamist governance to show that the outcome would be tolerable to Western sensibilities and interests, and could be supported as long as the door to future elections remains open. (For the record it’s generally been secularists in the Middle East with the history of annulling elections that they oppose.) The most important reason for maintaining democracy is that it allows societies to blow off steam and develop their politics in a kind of dialectic that results in the types of pragmatic compromises that inevitably arise in a democratic environment. In other words, democracy in the Middle East would over time lower the stakes from the dangerously zero-sum politics that currently exist there.
Hamid has some ideas for how to encourage democracy and it actually wouldn’t take much effort or be that unthinkable since the U.S. is effectively a part of the ruling coalition in many Arab countries. Imposing conditionality on aid and setting up a fund for democracy promotion that states can draw upon if they meet certain thresholds would help incentivize maintaining free elections and peaceful transfers of power. The important thing is to stop insisting on the poison pill that cultural liberalism be a package deal along with democracy. Liberalism and democracy are not natural pairs and may even be generally opposed to one another. As long as they are treated as the same, culturally liberal but politically fascist dictators can keep ensuring U.S. support by adding a few women to their powerless parliaments or attending interfaith conferences in Dubai every few years. In the meantime, away from the cameras, their tyranny sets the stage for the next disaster likely to drag the U.S. back to the region.
Hamid is an interesting combination of someone who morally condemns U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but also places great hope in its ability to reform and have a positive impact there. He also has some interesting reflections on the nature of power and hypocrisy, basically coming to the conclusion that hypocrisy really is the debt that vice pays to virtue and that Trump’s ostentatious anti-hypocrisy was not an improvement since it foreclosed any hope for a better future. You can say that Hamid is a pessimist but not a nihilist, in that he continues to hope and work for a better future despite the terrible things that we have all borne witness to. I find that stance admirable because it’s easy to just resign oneself to defeatism when you live in comfort far away from the problems themselves. I hope that this book is picked up future U.S. policymakers focused on the region and influences their perspective.
So what does this all have to do with the United States at home? Hamid clearly sees Trump supporters as being something like the Muslim Brotherhood, and the liberal establishment as a rough approximation of the authoritarian liberals of the Middle East. I doubt he’d say that himself, and he doesn’t write it in his book, but that’s my rough appraisal. His commentary reflects the sense that liberals do not really accept conservative political success on both aesthetic and moral grounds and secretly dream of excluding them from the democratic process entirely. Although he identifies as a liberal he is constantly poking at the
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hypocrisies of liberals and encouraging them to self-reflect on their attitude towards the right. For the most part, they don’t seem to take this very well.
This is probably Hamid’s best book though it requires some basic sense of interest in the Middle East to captivate the reader. I look forward to a book he writes in future about American politics as I expect it will be controversial.