Democracy or War?

Attitude toward democracy and war seem critical factors in the evolution of the U.S., judging from four core trends currently evident: rising corporate control, rising corruption, rising elite preference for war over negotiation, and the strengthening of class divisions. (Part I of this series on the future prospects of the U.S. discussed the four trends.)


The four core trends in the socio-economic and political evolution of U.S.society suggest a pair of explanatory dimensions for evaluating the future course of society: attitude toward democracy and attitude toward war. “Democracy” refers not to sterile institutional forms (e.g., elections) but to a whole complex process of popular insistence on guiding and judging the behavior of those permittedto be national leaders. Democracy stands or falls on the dedication of the population to defend it, as illustrated by the Occupy Movement, Bolivia’s Cochabama campaign for drinking water free from corporate control, and Peru’s Cajamarca campaign to control the behavior of international mining corporations. “War” refers to the use of force—including economic sanctions, political coups, state terrorism, as well as outright military attack—to influence the rest of the world, as opposed to negotiating positive-sum solutions.
Defined more formally, the result is a “governance” dimension, going from “democratic” (bottom-up) to “centralized” (top-down) and a “foreign affairs” dimension, going from “negotiation” to “war.” Curiously, these two dimensions both can be viewed as trading off the degree of confusion in the initial decision-making process (with democracy and negotiations being the extremes of confusion) for what may be the hope of stability over the long-term. War, for example, is easy to start but a famously ineffective method of achieving the desired long-term solution (WWI provoking WWII, WWII provoking the Cold War, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon provoking the rise of Hezbollah, the U.S. invasion of Iraq pushing Iraq into Iran’s orbit, etc.). Perhaps the real underlying dimension of significance should thus be society’s attitude toward long-term solutions (i.e., how much effort a society is willing to make to achieve a solution acceptable to all sides over the long-term as opposed to a quick fix for the winner).
Sticking, for now, with the original dimensions, they generate an analytical landscape of four alternative scenarios. The green and red regions represent analytically clear alternatives: the green for a democracy that, while obviously negotiating domestic political solutions (by definition) logically does the same internationally and red a centralized regime that gives orders domestically to the repressed population and internationally seeks to do the same. The blue and grey regions represent intuitively illogical, albeit perhaps historically common (at least briefly), possibilities that seem likely to be unstable. The blue region would encompass dictatorships that work internationally for positive-sum solutions. The grey region would encompass aggressive democracies. To say that the green and red regions are analytically logical does not mean that they are in practice logical forms of governance. That is a more complicated issue–a function of leadership and circumstance. In general, however, one may hypothesize that the regimes in the green region will tend to generate policy slowly but reach relatively stable solutions: slow because they must be negotiated and stable precisely for the same reason, that the various parties freely agreed and therefore presumably saw some advantage in the agreement. Conversely, regimes in the red region see likely to make decisions efficiently but make policy that is relatively counter-productive over the long-term, provoking instability.

In addition to using this model to evaluate regimes, it can be applied to specific policies. It is obvious that democracies tend to become less democratic as a function of stress: with barbarians at the gate or cities leveled by earthquakes, decisions need to be made. More interesting are situations in which democratic regimes loudly proclaim their desire to do as the population wants even while carefully concealing what they are actually doing in order to implement micro-managed and highly dictatorial policy decisions. Graphically depicting a “green” state that happens to reach a “red” decision or implement a decision in a “red” manner  is likely to facilitate communication and comprehension by getting past trivialities such as, “Oh, but we live in a democracy!” Living in a democracy and behaving democratically at every step are two very different things.

American citizens have very little influence over Washington’s traditional tendency to support right-wing, militarist factions in Israel that talk peace while implementing anti-Palestinian repression. No referendum in the U.S. has ever asked which policy Americans would prefer, nor do decision-makers typically explain what they are actually doing; rather, they publicly proclaim an interest in resolving the situation while quietly blocking any effective steps to reach a positive-sum compromise, which would require historic transfers of land, water, and political power to Palestinians. Regardless of one’s opinion of the policy, the strategy pursued on this policy is relatively opaque to the U.S. public. The policy is implemented in a highly centralized manner and presented as even-handed while in fact relying on force rather than serious negotiations (either with the U.S. public to formulate the policy or with Palestinians to work out the terms of the solution). Using the model encourages stepping back from the substance of a policy to ask probing questions about the nature of the policy, the likely impact of making or implementing policy of a particular nature, whether or not a policy of a particular nature is appropriate, and how often a state can design or implement top-down policies and still legitimately call itself “democratic.”