I thought I’d do my part by rehearsing some of the questions along with the answers I gave and invite readers to respond with their own answers or with criticisms of mine.
Two of the questions are related to one another: “What is the biggest threat to democracy?” and “Can terrorism destroy democracy?” The answers depend on what you think democracy is. I tend to resist romantic definitions that feature phrases like “noble ideal” and opt instead for something more analytic: democracy is a form of government that is not attached to any pre-given political or ideological ends, but allows ends to be chosen by the majority vote of free citizens.
What this means is that democracy is the only form of government that, at least theoretically, contemplates its own demise with equanimity. Democratic elections do not guarantee that the victors will be democratically inclined, and it is always possible that those who gain control of the legislative process will pass laws that erode or even repeal the rights – of property, free expression and free movement – that distinguish democracies from theocracies and monarchies. (Some would say that this is exactly what has been happening in the past six years.) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes captured the fragility of a form of government that can alter itself beyond the point of recognition when he said that if his fellow citizens want to go to hell in a handbasket, it was his job to help them, even if he deplored the consequences. Democracy, then, can be said to be its own biggest threat.
Terrorism presents a parallel threat from the outside. The danger is not so much that terrorists will defeat democracies by force as it is that, in resisting terrorists, democracies will forgo the procedural safeguards (against warrantless detention, censorship and secret surveillance) that make a democracy what it is. (Again, some would say that is already happening today.) If terrorists can maneuver democracies into employing tactics indistinguishable from theirs, it could be argued that they have won no matter what the outcome on the battlefield.
Two other questions are also related to one another: “Are dictators ever good?” and “Is democracy for everyone?” The question of whether dictators are ever good turns on the prior question of what you want a government to provide. If you are concerned with personal freedoms and don’t want society policing everyone’s behavior, a strong , permanent and intrusive executive will have little if any appeal. But if, like Thomas Hobbes, stability and security matter more to you than anything, you might warm to the idea of an absolute sovereign who is strong enough to protect you from your neighbor and protect both of you from foreign enemies.
The same reasoning applies to the question of whether democracy is good for everyone. It depends on whether you think democracy is the form of government history has been working its way toward (Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in “The End of History”) or is merely one option among others. If you are of the former opinion (as the present administration seems to be), you will believe that the more your adversaries are exposed to democratic ideas, the more attractive they will find them. But if you distrust teleological arguments (as I tend to), you will be skeptical of the possibility of exporting democracy and think of it instead as something others might take or leave, depending on what they hold dear.
Given that democracy privileges some values — personal mobility, individual entrepreneurialism, tolerance, cosmopolitanism — and downplays others — community, ideological conformity, cultural stability — its attraction will vary with the values a particular society embraces. A society for example that rests on a strong religious foundation may find some democratic practices useful, but it will not be inclined to fight and die for them.
This brings me to another of the questions. “Is God democratic?” That one’s easy. God, like Hobbes’ sovereign, requires obedience, and those who worship him must subordinate their personal desires to his will. (Here the Abraham/Isaac story is paradigmatic.) His rule, therefore, is the antithesis of democracy, which elevates individual choice to a position of primacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that God frowns on democratic states or requires a theocratic one or has any political opinions at all. (On the other hand, someone who, like Walt Whitman, believes that God is not a separate being but resides in each of us might conclude that democracy is the deity’s favored form of government.)
One question I was asked seemed to me to involve a category mistake: “Can democracy solve climate change?” Solving the problems of climate change, if it can be done, will be a matter of advances in technology and alterations in personal and corporate behavior in response to state directives and regulations. No political system is either naturally suited to the task or barred by definition from performing it. Politics and technology are independent variables.
Another question offered a trap: “Are women more democratic than men?” That’s like asking, “Are men more decisive than women?” Any answer you give will get you in trouble with half the world. The idea that qualities of character and temperament are gendered is a very old one and every generation has a new account of the differences. In recent years we have been told that women incline toward connection, compromise, empathy and conversation, while men like to stand on their own and establish boundaries that sharply separate them from one another. If this is so , men are more democratic than women because democracy, especially American-style democracy, is more rights-based than it is communitarian. But I am skeptical of these binaries and therefore of the question.
I found one question too general and ambitious: “Who or what rules the world?” Capital? American consumer culture? Religious fervor? My answer would be “contingency.” You never know what’s going to happen or what forces will be unleashed by unforeseen events.
I passed on another question because I’m too old to answer it: “What would make you start a revolution?” At my age, nothing. If things got really bad, I’d look for a place to hole up.
The final question put to me was, “Whom would you vote for as President of the World?” I know whom I’d like to vote for. Someone wise, learned, strong, courageous, compassionate, authoritative, incorruptible, inspiring, capable and good-looking. No one living (or dead) came to mind, so I settled for a fictional character, Atticus Finch, at least as he was played by Gregory Peck. (Morgan Freeman in any number of roles is another possibility.)