August 30, 2011

Democracy by any other name

A senior colleague once visited a group of Soviet Jewish trans-migrants in Italy, in the final months of the Soviet Union. They had many complaints, but they all started shouting, "We want democracy!" So he asked them, what did they think democracy means? "It means we can do whatever we want!" was their response. It's all a matter of perspective...

As Central and Eastern European countries continue their post-Cold War democratic evolution, and African, Asian and Arab countries begin their own paths, it's worth noting that "democracy" and "representation" can mean very different things in different societies. This does not have to mean that certain countries are not ready for independence or popular rule. It should mean that different cultures may dictate different forms of government, and in ways that affect the discourse -- what people are thinking when they say and hear different terms.

"Parliament" derives from the Latin and French words for "speaking", and the British Parliament is a model of deliberation and debate, as are many other English- or French-speaking bodies. In the United States, our House of "Representatives" can also get argumentative because its members really do represent specific constituencies. The French National Assembly is probably closer to a chamber of deputies, but the title evokes the aspirations espoused by the Revolution.

In the Arab world, the lower assembly is usually called Bayt an-Nawaab, which translates as House of "Deputies". A deputy is usually assigned by the political party or even by the government, and in fact many of the Arab parliaments are effectively reflections of the party leadership on either side -- more so than in the United States, but probably on a par with many other national assemblies around the world. Israel's Knesset derives its name from the ancient assembly of elders, and though it's a noisy and rambunctious showcase of participatory democracy, the votes usually reflect party lines; they have to, since as a parliamentary system, the government can fall any time it loses an important vote.

In most countries with an upper chamber, the name reflects the august nature of its members, who are traditionally appointed by the monarch or some consensus process. Even in the United States, where Senators used to be appointed by their home-state legislatures, their electorates are not of equal size, since there are two members from each state, whether the population is a 500,000 or 30 million. There is a sense that these are leaders befitting the name "Senate", which in classical Rome varied from Caesar's lapdog to a safeguard of the republic. The Arab institution Majlis ash-Shiyukh similarly translates as the Council of "Princes" or "Chiefs", which again connotes leaders representing their tribes or districts rather than standing for popular election. The Vatican's College of Cardinals ("princes" of the Church) also meets some of these criteria.

Back to the USSR for a moment: In the 1970s, my father happened to be in the Soviet embassy in an Eastern European capital, and he picked up a copy of a speech by Leonid Brezhnev. After each paragraph, the text included the same phrase: "spontaneous applause". This, in a society where the parade rehearsals included not only the marchers, but also the spectators, all practicing their roles for the big day. So maybe, democracy DOES mean you can do whatever you want, or maybe it just means many things.

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