The Mechanics of Democracy

Every time there’s a messy election somewhere, pundits drag Winston Churchill out of his grave to tell us, “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But is that any excuse for the disappointments and debacles we’ve seen so far this 21st century? The list is long and depressing, starting with the electoral farce in the United States that first brought George W. Bush to power by way of a Supreme Court decision in 2000. And the cause of freedom is hardly helped by the way the Bush administration now passes judgment on the democratic experience and experiments of everyone else in the world.

In the Middle East last year, Washington waxed ecstatic about electoral exercises in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt and the Palestinian Territories—until the results came in. It’s still trying to dictate the shape of the new government in Baghdad. It’s upset with the popular support for Hizbullah in Lebanon. It was appalled at the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and simply stunned by the victory of Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. (Oh, and let’s not forget that Iran’s incendiary President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won his office through universal suffrage.) Meanwhile, Latin Americans keep voting for presidents whose main message is, or seems to be, “Yanqui go home.”

This week, it’s Italy’s turn. After a tawdry campaign pitting the center-left’s soporifically serious challenger, Romano Prodi, against the calculated buffoonery of the incumbent prime minister, billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the result was a dead heat likely to bring paralyzing uncertainty and instability for months if not years to come. Prodi says he’s won, and the official count backs him up. But his majority in both houses of Parliament is thinner then a sliver of prosciutto. Berlusconi is refusing to concede defeat and is demanding a recount. Reminded of the mess in the United States in 2000, the respected Italian daily Corriere della Sera declared, “Ohmygod! It’s Florida!”

Indeed. European governments have accepted the official results in Italy as … official. They’ve congratulated Prodi. But the Bush administration is withholding its blessing until Berlusconi finishes dragging the process through the courts. “We are not going to give any comment on the results until everything is official,” says White House spokesman Scott McClellan [my emphasis]. Maybe in Washington that sounds prudent and balanced, but in Rome it sounds like partisan American politicking. Berlusconi is Bush’s buddy and this appears to be yet another effort by Washington to deny frustrating facts about the way elections pan out in other peoples’ countries.

I get e-mails all the time telling me “those Arabs” or “those Muslims” or just “those people” are somehow incapable of having democratic governments. Probably I’ll get a few saying the same thing about Italians. I don’t believe that for a second. But I do believe, as a practical matter, that we Americans need to have a better understanding of how democracy works anywhere before we go prescribing it as a panacea everywhere.

Voters in most places are motivated by questions of jobs, security, pride; promises made and promises kept (or not); perhaps the personalities of the candidates. But the fundamental truth about all more-or-less free elections is that it’s not the best man (or woman) who wins, it’s the best machine. It raises the money, manages the issues and images, exploits patronage, turns out its voters in large numbers at the right times and in the right places to be most effective and imposes discipline. Effective party machinery is all about discipline. And, hey, nobody knows that better than George Bush and his mentor Karl Rove when it comes to American politics. You’d think they’d understand the rule applies elsewhere.

In the Middle East, the best-organized political machines, by far, belong to the Islamists. Under the long reign of dictators, monarchs and occupiers, the only effective political machines that developed did so covertly, often as part of guerrilla movements hardened by years in hiding, in exile or in the region’s savage prisons. When the political process is opened even a crack, these groups quickly emerge as the dictatorships’ main challengers in the electoral process: the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. In Baghdad, the only force that might have stood against the Shiite Islamist machines in an election was the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. But, of course, it was banned, forced underground, and its machine is now a driving force in the insurgency.

In Europe, by contrast, there are many political machines at work, but they’re so old they’ve been breaking down. In France, the leading contender on the right in next year’s presidential election, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, understood this lesson very well. He has focused his efforts on taking over the leading Gaullist party and making it work as a well-oiled machine. On the left, the Socialist Party is still having trouble getting cranked up four years after its stunning defeat in the first round of the last presidential elections. Whether it can build on the success of the massive marches that defeated the government’s attempt at labor reform this month is an open question.

Italy, despite its reputation for fast-changing governments from the 1940s to the 1990s, used to have very well-balanced political machines: the Christian Democrats on the center-right and the Socialists on the center-left. At the height of the cold war—and with considerable backing from the American Central Intelligence Agency—they blocked any and all Communist efforts to take power at the polls. But when the cold war ended, left-wing prosecutors used the courts to expose the corruption of the old machines, and destroyed them.

Berlusconi, with his billions and his TV networks, stepped into the vacuum to create his own machine, and it worked. He’s run the country for the last five years, and came very close to winning a second term this week. If his machine finally failed him by an infinitesimal margin, the fault lies with the man: he never created a party that was not all about him, and Italian voters were just fed up with this guy. Prodi not only has no machine, he has no party of his own. He represents a very loose-knit, undisciplined left-wing coalition. As a result, Italian democracy may look a lot like political chaos in the months to come. But unlike the old days when the CIA held sway, it will be up to the Italians to sort this out for themselves, and that’s as it should be.

Unhappy democracies, like Leo Tolstoy’s unhappy families, are all unhappy in their own way. Washington can’t make them better by trying to dictate the results of elections after the fact, and it makes a mistake thinking it can export freedom by force of arms or impose it by force of will. Given all the problems we Americans have at home—including a president who’s a very unpopular lame duck more than two and a half years before the end of his term—we’d be wiser to remember that democracy is best spread by example, not by empire.