How democracies perish

Posted by lex, on February 17, 2007

In 1983, Jean-Francois Revel wrote, “How Democracies Perish,” an important, if under-appreciated text discussing the debilitating effects of liberalism when applied to the self-preservation of self-governing states. Revel begins his text with the collapse of France’s pre-Vichy government in the face of Nazi Germany’s onslaught. Drawing lessons from that day and applying them to the ideological challenge of the Soviet Union, Revel pessimistically evaluated the odds of survival for a free West, and in particular denounced the post-Vietnam War tendency of democracies to blame themselves for the threats imposed upon them:

Democracy tends to ignore, even deny, threats to its existence because it loathes doing what is necessary to counter them… What we end up with in what is conventionally called Western society is a topsy-turvy situation in which those seeking to destroy democracy appear to be fighting for legitimate aims, while its defenders are pictured as repressive reactionaries. Identification of democracy’s internal and external adversaries with the forces of progress, legitimacy, even peace, discredits and paralyzes the efforts of people who are only trying to preserve their institutions…

Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt, Soviet leaders’ consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.

History ended up refuting Revel’s central thesis, that democracies could not withstand the determined assault of statist tyrannies. The West won the Cold War less perhaps because of any central advantage accruing to democracy itself than because of the fact that free minds were combined in the US and Western Europe with free markets: There is tremendous economic energy and vigor that adheres to the combination, and what we lacked in determination and inveterate philosophical malice we more than made up for with economic energy, productivity and enterprise. It’s worth remembering that communism was first of all an economic theory of government. That theory was beset – to use a favorite conjuction from Marx himself – with inherent contradictions, but the most fatal flaw of all was that in practice, it simply wasn’t possible for a state-driven economy to compete with the market’s invisible hand.

Faced now with a different kind of threat – if anything, an even more implacable, inhumane and existentially embittered enemy – I am reminded of another quote from Revel’s book: “Civilizations losing confidence in themselves: an old story in history… civilization must choose between suicide and servitude.” Or dhimmitude, perhaps – but not until it’s time.

I’m growingly concerned that we underestimate the threat arrayed against us: While we at home are not faced with the kind of demographic time-bomb that ticks in Western Europe – and about which Mark Steyn has written so eloquently – a hasty retreat from the battlefields of Babylon will have unpredictable consequences in the here and now in a region of critical economic interest: Resources are growingly constrained even as new markets emerge to compete for them – this meta-trend has consequences.

And worse even than having our economic choices dictated to us in the bloody aftermath which fills the void we leave behind is the growing sense that all of this is our own fault, that none of it is worth fighting for – we lose confidence in ourselves. We lost confidence in the previous congressional majority because of their members’ public venality, private corruption and their dilatory stewardship of the public trust. And now, having voted into power the only plausible alternative, we are faced with a new congressional leadership that seeks to masquerade its manifest intentions with parliamentary maneuver, afraid and unwilling to accept the consequences or accountability for the actions they would, through walling off alternatives, seek to impose:

Mr. Murtha has a different idea. He would stop the surge by crudely hamstringing the ability of military commanders to deploy troops. In an interview carried Thursday by the Web site, Mr. Murtha said he would attach language to a war funding bill that would prohibit the redeployment of units that have been at home for less than a year, stop the extension of tours beyond 12 months, and prohibit units from shipping out if they do not train with all of their equipment. His aim, he made clear, is not to improve readiness but to “stop the surge.” So why not straightforwardly strip the money out of the appropriations bill — an action Congress is clearly empowered to take — rather than try to micromanage the Army in a way that may be unconstitutional? Because, Mr. Murtha said, it will deflect accusations that he is trying to do what he is trying to do. “What we are saying will be very hard to find fault with,” he said.

Thus, leadership – hence, courage.

Mr. Murtha would clearly like for us to believe that he is merely attempting to do the “right thing,” both for the country and the troops. Why then this charade? Why this attempted perversion of the constitution to effect in a slow series of ever-more restrictive bonds what he must believe his party was elected to effect and which is well within their constitutional grasp using the power of the purse? Why not just act in consonance with the dictates of his conscience, and with what he no doubt understands to be the will of the people?

It can only be because he fears to be associated with the consequences of the course of action he clearly means to impose. It can only be because he cares less about his convictions – what’s good for the country and the troops – than for his own political reputation and future. No other conclusion is possible. The lesson we take away from this is that for many powerful members of the political class, power is the only thing that really matters. Not power to do good, but power in its own right.

And who will fight for that?

The West won through to victory in the Cold War because while both ideologies aggressively competed to provide the best standard of living for the most number of people, only one could actually do so. In our current ideological struggle we are fighting in a differing domain than our adversary: The violent, radical Islamist doesn’t promise us a better standard of living, nor the freedom of choice that market economies leverage to reward the energies of market winners. Instead, he offers us a blanket and uniformly enforced poverty of worldly experience to go with his promise of a better life hereafter. We cannot win this struggle through military power alone – we cannot kill our way to “winning hearts and minds” – but neither should we abandon those who counted upon us, and our own self-interest, in the name of transient political advantage.

This is President’s Day weekend, dedicated in part to one Abraham Lincoln, who famously said:

We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That, by the way, is the motto of the USS Abraham Lincoln: Shall not perish.

Think of it as a prayer.

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Filed under Carroll "Lex" LeFon, GWOT

2 responses to “How democracies perish

  1. Pingback: Index – The Rest of Neptunus Lex | The Lexicans

  2. Pingback: Murtha: The Great Communicator | The Lexicans

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