Not So Easy Democracy
March 8, 2006
by Max Singer
Many are troubled by the fact that Hamas—a terrorist organization committed to destroying Israel by force—was “democratically elected” by the Palestinians. But that fact is not true. The election that Hamas won was not democratic. The votes may have been fairly counted, but a democratic election requires much more than an honest vote count. As the US tries to spread freedom in the Middle East it needs to remember that elections are only part of democracy, and quite possibly a less important part than freedom of speech and association.
Hamas’ election does not demonstrate that it is a mistake to pursue democracy in the Middle East; it demonstrates that elections are not enough to test the virtues of democracy or its effect on the Middle East.
There is no democracy without freedom of speech and freedom of association. The Hamas election quite probably reflected the current preferences of the Palestinian voters, but those preferences do not reflect Palestinians’ response to an open discussion of the facts and choices the voters face. No such open discussion exists in the Arab world except in Iraq—which is perhaps more than halfway to truly open debates among the citizens.
The judgement that elections without free discussion are not democratic elections is not just some kind of theoretical perfectionism, or an attempt to impose our values and our desires for political “luxuries.” When free discussion comes to a closed society it can radically change the way citizens think about issues. The intensity of effort that dictators devote to controlling discussion shows how important they think public discussion is to their survival.
Democratic discussion does not necessarily change public thinking right away. On fundamental and emotional issues people usually change slowly. But ideas have a way of sneaking up on people. When ideas which had been excluded by force are first aired they may seem foreign and objectionable, but if they keep being put forward by a few people they can gradually come to be taken seriously, and eventually become part of majority thinking.
One of the reasons so many in the West were surprised by the Hamas victory and its demonstration that the majority of ordinary Palestinians do not “just want to take care of their families and live in peace” is that we assume that most people are like us and would make the same kinds of choice about basic human issues that we would make. This is a mistake for two reasons. First the culture of Palestinian Arabs is very different than ours—although it may be changing. Hearing mothers say how eager they are for their children to kill themselves by blowing up some Israeli pizza customers should give us a clue that those people are not just like us. Second, and more important for the question of democracy, public thinking after free discussion—which is what we assume—can be very different from public thinking in a society with a closed discussion.
While the Palestinian Authority claimed to be ready to live side-by-side with Israel—at least when it spoke in English—in the Palestinian public debate no organization could make the argument for living in peace with Israel without danger of being victim of either violent private attack or punitive governmental action. The only things people saw or heard in the papers, on TV, and in the schools, was that Israel was completely illegitimate, had no right to exist, and was systematically raping and killing Palestinians. Palestinians challenged such slanders of Israel at their peril.
Since the kinds of arguments that we assume would convince many or most Palestinians to accept peace have barely been allowed to enter their public debate, it is hardly surprising that the majority hasn’t been convinced by them.
In the current Palestinian environment if someone wants to argue for stopping the fight against Israel in order to create a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, he has to admit that he is proposing to allow Israel to keep stolen Arab property to which it has no moral claim. The official Palestinian position—which Palestinian politicians are not free to dispute -- is that there were no Jewish kingdoms in the land before the birth of Islam, and that the Jews came to the land as colonial invaders in the last century. Proposing to give up one’s national heritage to robbers who have no claim of right is degrading because it is sacrificing justice just to make life easier.
The facts that now cannot enter the public Palestinian discussion, but would become understood if there were a period of genuine democracy, are that the Jews of Israel are in many ways the heirs of ancient Jewish kingdoms that ruled various parts of the land for many centuries before the Arab and Muslim conquest. Therefore Jews and Palestinians are two peoples each of which have truthful but incompatible claims to the same land, a situation in which compromise is clearly a moral possibility, not a shameful yielding to brute force and a denial of justice.
Democracy, like free markets, is not just about choosing among existing alternatives. Free markets create new products and new ways of providing needed services that no one had thought of before. The loss of these unimagined possibilities may be the biggest cost of closed or shackled economies. Similarly the biggest effect of lack of democratic discussion can be the ideas that people never have a chance to consider—the lack of which make any election a non-democratic election—however close the election results are to what the polls show are people’s opinions.
While we watch—and try to help—the world’s fitful progress toward greater democracy we must remember that a “democratic election” can take place only in a democracy. Someone who has been elected in what Natan Sharansky calls a “fear society” can be the real choice of people who have not been influenced by an open discussion, but such a person was not “democratically elected.” He or she must always live with the possibility that if the voters had had a chance to listen to everyone they might have chosen someone else. The only way a leader can fully gain the legitimacy that comes from being the real choice of the people is to give the people the right to talk, to organize, and to listen. “Democratically elected” is a supreme honor, we should not bestow it lightly or carelessly.
Max Singer is a Senior Fellow and Trustee Emeritus at Hudson Institute. He founded Hudson with Herman Kahn in 1961.