Elections have been described as the noise of democracies. In the U.S., that noise is generated by a continuous drum beat of candidates at all levels of government, all seeking the support of voters with various amount of enthusiasm and engagement for whatever office is up for grabs. Americans are asked to vote their preferences for a wide variety of things: for Presidents and Sheriffs, Senators and Congress members, Judges and Dog Catchers, Referendums and propositions by fellow citizens in different elective offices. They usually vote in cycles of every two, four and six years, involving over a million different positions people compete for across fifty states, in over three thousand counties, and thousands of cities, towns and municipalities.
While the Presidential and Congressional elections usually draw the most attention, the thousands of local governmental districts demand voters to make continual choices, in addition to the fifty state governments demanding choices for governors, state legislators and dozens of initiatives. There are also special elections, referendums, and recall movements occurring within and outside of the normal election cycles.
Germany is not too different. Germans have state, local and federal elections in continuous cycles, if for fewer offices than Americans vote for.
Both Americans and Germans complain about the constant campaigns that nag at them and their time and, in the U.S., for their money. That is not unrelated to the relatively low level of voter turn out in U.S. elections. Germans are also turning out at declining rates for their continuous election campaigns. That in turn has to do with the decreasing levels of enthusiasm about political parties.
Political philosophers and social scientists have argued continuously about the significance of elections as a benchmark for the health of a democracy, or for those societies wishing to see themselves as democratic. Edmund Burke once commented that: to govern according to the sense and agreement of the interests of the people is a great and glorious object of governance. This object cannot be obtained but through the medium of popular election, and popular election is a mighty evil. Years later, Winston Churchill delivered his cynical take on elections in the following way: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
More recently, the efforts to measure the progress of societies struggling to come out from under years of dictatorship in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya have used elections to detect the strength of the interests of the people. Often the elections result in troubling combinations of continuing corruption or worse, continued conflict, sometimes violent. And yet, we still see people choosing to participate in the process, with ballots or ink stains to prove it.
What we have seen in the last few days in Russia, Iran, and Yemen all represent variations on the theme of electoral politics – used and misused – for the purposes of those in power or seeking power. The results have been presented by some as evidence of victory and by others as evidence of manipulation, by some as proof of democracy at work and by others as illustrations of limits to freedom and choice.
The evolution of democracies has been a long road, as described by Francis Fukuyama in his latest book “ The Origins of Political Order”. Fukuyama argues that there are three requisites for the evolution of a modern political democracy – a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens. Getting to that goal has taken many centuries, and for those currently seeking to combine those three requirements, it is no less formidable.
Effort to Sustain Democracy
In watching these developments from the perspective of either Washington or Berlin, it is perhaps good to recall how difficult the German and the American paths also were in the quest for these three requisites of democracy. In the case of Germany, that path was marked by catastrophic milestones at the cost of millions of lives and was able to finally emerge in the past six decades on course to a flourishing democracy. In the United States, the path set high standards from the beginning, but it was marked by shortcomings in righting the wrongs of slavery and struggling with the inclusion of women. Yet the faults were found and the efforts to strengthen the cornerstones of democracy continued – as they continue to this day.
With these experiences that Germany and the United States have accumulated in their respective democracies, there needs to be a joint effort to testify to the value of the continuous efforts to sustain a democracy. Difficult as it may sometimes be, both nations need to encourage those committed to following a similar path even if differently framed by history and culture.
The debates over the results of the elections in Moscow, Teheran, Cairo or Sanna will be long and unpredictable in their outcomes. The evolution of democracy in Russia, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and even eventually Syria, among others, will not be along one inevitable path. The ability of each country to wrestle with its angels and demons is to be determined on its own.
As successful democracies, Germany and the United States can lend a hand, offer encouragement, and demonstrate the benefits of both example as well as the constant need for improvement and reform. In the end, democracies work best when people claim it for themselves.