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Spreading democracy

February 23, 2011

It is with great interest that I have been watching the events in North Africa over the past month plus. I find it so amazing that people decided to join together and challenge an autocrat, even under threat of violence. These are people, many of whom have only known autocratic rule, who decided enough is enough, and have managed, in two of the countries, to successfully topple the regime.

I wonder, though – what is next for them? Democracy is wonderful, but it is not easy. If you don’t know how to do it, it is very difficult to implement, as we have seen in past and current efforts. The United States, the oldest democracy in the world, is big on encouraging others to make the change and bring in democratic rule. This is wonderful – I fully believe that all people should be living in a place where they have the freedom to express themselves, freedom to vote, a say in their government, and all of the other benefits democracy brings.

However, with the benefits come responsibilities – this is the more difficult concept for people. It is nice to say “I live in a democracy and I can do whatever I want (nice to say, but not true)”. Unfortunately, too many people in young democracies fail to recognize the many responsibilities that come with it. What happens when people want to take, and do not want to do the work that comes with living in a democracy?

It may seem easy to people when they see an example such as the United States. However, not only do we have more than 250 years of practice at democracy, but we started with a very young country with a rather small population. We learned the hard way, had many growing pains as we went along, and let’s be honest – we are not perfect.

In the Freedom House Freedom in the World 2011 report, which ranks democracies around the world, where do you think the U.S. falls? First? Third? The answer to that question, unsurprisingly, is “it depends”. There are a number of organizations that assess different kinds of freedom in the world. Freedom house focuses on political rights and civil liberties. The United States is listed as “free” in this ranking. Reporters Without Borders is not quite as kind – perhaps because it is not based in the United States? In their 2010 report of press freedom, the U.S. is number 20. We are below all of the Scandinavian countries, much of Western Europe, Australia, Japan and Estonia.

I  have to wonder, though, how free we really are in a country that claims separation of church and state, yet in practice such a thing does not exist. The conservative religious minority have so much money and such a loud voice, that they are able to attack our freedoms – some of the most basic to us – and get away with it. I have friends from other countries and they tell me the people in their countries are amazed at this “phenomenon” that is unique to the United States – the fact that strangers feel like they have a right to stick their noses in our personal business. They are amazed that it is allowed to happen.

I also have to wonder at how free we are when women are trafficked and sold in our country, children are imprisoned by strangers, or worse, their parents, and people live in fear of those who are supposed to protect them. When we prevent life-saving scientific research because of religious beliefs.

Is this freedom?

To be sure, most of us have much autonomy in our daily lives, though that is now under constant attack. For others, it does not exist (the topic of gay marriage). We have, overall, a free press (though much of it is biased, because corporations are focused on the bottom line instead of the right to information). We elect our officials…if they can afford to run. We have a classless society – wait, we do, right?

But again, as imperfect as the United States is, we are still the best-known and oldest democracy in the world. We have never had a king since we formed our country (the king was when we were a bunch of colonies under British rule). We provide the same educational opportunities to everyone. Women have greater equality (though not true equality) than other countries. These are things that we as U.S. citizens are allowed to take for granted, and these are only a few of the challenges and questions that face these new governments, or countries who are currently without governments.

So as they move forward, these countries that are declaring themselves independent of autocrats, and indicating their desire for democratic rule, I wonder how they will make that happen – how they will make the switch, and what the future holds. Will they get frustrated and give up because their first go at change is difficult, and may not result in exactly what they want as fast as they want it? What approach will they take and who will they bring in as their leaders? Whose example of a democracy will they follow?

Twenty years ago, similar events were happening in the area of the world where I am currently living. History, it is said, repeats itself – the question is, what have we learned from it, if anything? This is something I, as a democracy geek, will watch with interest, and I must say that I hope to someday be part of those helping to shape new democracies. Because as imperfect as it is, in a democracy, everyone has a voice.

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