Recent polls have reported that roughly half of young Australians do not think democracy is the best form of government. There have been other expressions of concern in the media about the state of democracy in Australia and indeed the world. This reflects a widespread dissatisfaction with Australian politics and politicians. Democracy is a faith like any other and is not the end process of some kind of Darwinian inevitability. If we want to convert others to our views on democracy and human rights we need to do a better job of it and perhaps show more respect for the rights of minorities who don’t agree with the prevailing majority view.
Belief in democracy and human rights is as much a matter of faith as belief in any religion or ideology. Like religions which are enjoined to spread the faith, we preach democracy to the heathen with equal fervour. Francis Fukuyama saw democracy as the end process of social evolution in a Marxist approach that substituted Western democracy for the dictatorship of the proletariat. While his view has been discredited, what we loosely call Western countries tend to see democracy sometimes in Darwinian terms and sometimes as a universal and eternal truth. But is there something inevitable about the spread of democracy? Is it something humans have yearned for through the ages? Or is it just one faith among others?
The first thing to note is that democracy is relatively new and that for most of human existence we have done without it. There is also no clear and universally accepted definition of the term. Are small communities where decisions are taken by all members of the group democracies or is it confined to large and complex societies? The criteria usually cited are free elections under universal suffrage and the rule of law. Respect for the rights of minorities may be included but democracies have a history of persecuting minorities. Some believe that we should talk of democratic features in a society rather than an either yes or no division. The Greece and the USA claim to be founded as democracies but both excluded women, slaves, foreigners and poor males; they might more accurately be seen as oligarchies at least until recently. Democracy in Europe has a chequered history with failed democracies being replaced by dictatorships and sometimes back to democracy. Aborigines might well ask when Australia became a democracy? But the point is that there is no collection of scientific studies to show that there is something special about democracy. It is a matter of faith. Evolutionary biologists who study primate behaviour see close parallels between human behaviour and that of our cousins where the strong leader rules and is respected by weaker apes. How else do we explain the strong support for Hitler amongst Germans after the fall of the democratic Weimar Republic?
Much the same applies to human rights unless you accept the philosophy of natural rights which in itself depends on faith. This was brought home to me when I was the Australian representative on the Third Committee at the UN which deals with human rights. A European delegate was criticising Iran for breaches of some of the rights set out in the relevant documents. The Iranian delegate simply replied: “When the law of man clashes with the law of God, the law of God must prevail”. We may compare this with Sir Thomas More’s famous statement: I am the King’s good servant but God’s first. Here we have a clash of beliefs both based on faith. If you believe in one of the three Middle Eastern monotheisms surely God must come first? Of course there are international conventions on human rights which can be cited but they are subject to interpretation and are not accepted by all. The 1947 Declaration on Human Rights which is the basis for subsequent ones was drafted and signed by countries that were in breach of it as they voted for it. France and the Netherlands, for example, were fighting colonial wars to deny those rights to the people they ruled while the British jailed people in their colonies who demanded those rights. Who can blame states today for taking a similar approach especially when they were not involved in the original document? Australia which was a strong supporter of the Convention in 1947 had the White Australia policy and denied most of the rights to our aboriginal population. Segregation was still widespread in the USA. An argument that may be put is that these are noble ideals which although often breached provide a standard or a goal to be strived for. If you have faith in these ideals then this is a potent argument and we can see it at work in the US civil rights movement and the fight for indigenous rights in Australia. However, the basic premises on which the international legal structure is built depend on faith and are not accepted by all.
The ideal of popular participation seems to clash with the desire for strong leaders which we see often in democracies. In Australia at present there are calls for strong leadership instead of the chaos which is giving democracy a bad name. China has a strong leader who has made it clear that China is not interested in Western ideas on government and human rights. A brief look at Western aggression towards and humiliation of China from the Opium Wars to interference in the Chinese Civil War may explain why they see current Western lectures as hypocritical.
Those of us who have faith in democracy as the least bad system yet invented cannot take take it for granted that everyone who disagrees with us is evil or misguided. The behaviour of some major democracies in the world today is not much of an advertisement for our faith. Nor can we assume that people who do not share our views on human rights are inherently evil. Many people see the right to eat as more important than the right to vote and there is no evidence to suggest that democracies necessarily improve the standard of living of ordinary people – nor does any other system for that matter. To raise these thoughts in contemporary Australia runs the risk of being burnt at the media stake and we are seeing vociferous public condemnation of people who don’t agree with currently fashionable views. Minorities get abused as immoral recalcitrants. Abuse of heretics does not win hearts and minds so if we want to spread our faith we need to do a better job of it. This will require a basic change in the behaviour of our politicians which regrettably they show no sign of understanding.
Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat and academic.