August 24, 2004
by John Fonte
In September France will begin implementing secular education policies banning head scarves and overt religious symbols in schools. My country, the United States, has complained to France that this policy is discriminatory. The French government's secular education policy may not be consistent with American notions of religious pluralism, but it is consistent with French democratic and national traditions and is being carried out through the democratic process. The principle of democratic sovereignty means that democracies should not interfere in the domestic affairs of other democracies. Thus, the American government should not be condemning French education policy. Likewise, the French government should not be condemning US legal policy concerning the death penalty.
What is at stake in this argument is the issue of democratic sovereignty. Indeed, the great ideological conflict of the 21st century will be between democratic sovereignty and global governance. Democratic sovereignty means that power resides with liberal democratic nation-states composed of individual citizens who elect representatives accountable to the people of that nation. Citizens in democratic nation-states possess equality of citizenship and the rights of free speech and assembly.
Global governance means that power resides with un-elected transnational institutions and courts outside the control of elected national governments. Equality of individual citizenship is replaced with membership in a subnational and/or transnational racial, ethnic, language, or religious group, in which so-called "victim" groups (racial, ethnic, linguistic, and sexual minorities, women, immigrants, etc.) are given special privileges that mock the principle of equality of citizenship. At the same time, under transnational pressure "anti-racist hate speech" laws weaken the democratic right of free speech.
Unfortunately, the 21st century could well turnout to be "post-democratic" century, the century in which liberal democracy is slowly, almost imperceptibly, replaced by a new form of global governance. The ideology and institutions of global governance already exist and are developing rapidly. The philosophical basis for global governance begins with the premise that all individuals on the planet possess human rights. International law is the paramount authority that determines those rights, while international agreements establish and expand new rights and norms.
International institutions (for example, the UN, the World Bank) monitor, negotiate, cajole and administer the international agreements and laws in varying degrees. International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) claim to represent "global civil society," or the "peoples" of the planet. The global governance regime is promoted and run by interlocking networks of transnational elites including international lawyers, international judges, NGO activists, UN and other international organization officials, global corporate leaders, and some sympathetic officials from nation-states. These elites include "transnational progressives" ("Sixty-Eighters") from the left and multinational corporations from the right.
Unlike democratic sovereignty, global governance can provide no straightforward answers to the most important questions of political science (Who governs? Where does authority reside? How is legislation enacted?) NGOs participate in the writing of global treaties alongside democratic governments, but they are essentially pressure groups, elected by no one and responsible only to themselves. A good part of the strength of post-democracy lies in its incoherence. By disguising what and how political decisions are made, it renders them unstoppable. For example, global governance provides no serious democratic means for the "governed" to repeal decisions that they hate, but that their new "governors" have, nevertheless, imposed on them without their consent. And how can these "governors" by replaced? Global governance provides no democratic answers to these questions.
Global governance is implicitly a grand ideological project (and a utopian and coercive one, with universal aspirations). It is post-democratic in the sense that it originates from but transcends democracy just as the "postmodern" originates from but transcends modernity.
In some respects the European Union is the model of post-democratic governance. If there is one thing that both friends and foes of the European Union agree upon, it is that the EU has a "democracy deficit." Many admit, that within the Union a great deal of power is exercised by un-elected transnational bureaucrats, often against the preferences of national majorities.
Nevertheless, democracy can defeat post-democracy. The first step is the recognition of the post-democratic threat. The United States, France, and other democratic nation-states should be prepared to champion the principle of democratic sovereignty within the institution of the liberal democratic nation-state.
Democratic sovereignty is consistent with the morality of the Enlightenment and the 18th century revolutions in America and France. It is consistent with the idea of "government by consent of the governed" in which that government is limited by a national constitution, which is the ultimate source of democratic legitimacy. Surrendering, or "ceding," or "pooling" democratic sovereignty beyond the authority of a constitution and a self-governing people, without the consent of that people is not consistent with real democracy. At the end of the day, democratic sovereignty should become the core value, for anyone seriously interested in democracy and human rights, internationally.
This article appeared in the August 9, 2004 Le Figaro (Paris) and is taken from a longer essay, "Democracy's Trojan Horse," published in The National Interest, Summer 2004. Translated by Dan Gorlin.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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