Latin America: Democratic Totalitarianism or Liberal Democracy?
by Eugenio D´Medina Lora
Fifth Essay Contest Caminos de la Libertad
“I therefore propose that we replace the Platonic question ‘Who should rule?’ with a completely different one: ‘Are there forms of government which are morally reprehensible? And its opposite: ‘Are there forms of government which allow us to free ourselves of an evil, or even just incompetent and damaging, government?”
A “Branded” Democracy
In Latin America a model of democracy that is increasingly gaining hold is one in which the majority not only determines the law but “the good law”. This kind of democracy is not about freedom or about openly considering various viewpoints. A democracy in which rule of law establishes a level playing field for all it is not, neither does it guarantee alternation of power, new mentalities and styles, and new cadres, nor does it promote unity, dialog and consensus. No, the model of democracy we see breaking ground today has nothing to do with all of the above.
It is entirely different. And its most recent exploits were seen in Central America where it attempted to gain ground, but was rebuffed even though it had come enveloped in the guise of sacrosanct democracy, albeit of an undetermined kind. The crisis in Honduras, caused by former president Manuel Zelaya, not only put the alleged “holiness” of democratic regimes to the test, but also the actual power of international bodies to step in and intervene in the internal affairs of their member countries. The crisis also shed light on the double standards prevailing in many Latin American democracies, or rather among certain “democrats” who present themselves as such just to stand under the limelight however briefly. The staunchest self-proclaimed champions of democracy never explain the brand of democracy they uphold and are easily recognized. But returning to the Honduran case, these same champions paraded through the press, radio and television shows —including CNN and other international broadcasters—all over Latin America for several months, hastily describing the enforcement of a safeguard contained in the constitution of Honduras as a “democratic rupture”, a “military coup d’état”, “traditional dictatorship”, and an “effrontery to rule of law”. They were also quick to add that Zelaya himself had triggered the situation in his failed attempt to follow in the footsteps of Chávez, Correa, Morales, and his next-door neighbor, Daniel Ortega to remain perpetually in power. In other words, the whole affair was a rupture in democracy but with a parliament in place and immediate elections; a military coup, without a single member of the military in the transitional government (which was a traditional dictatorship), but Roberto Micheletti, the head of state at the time, announced that he would leave office as soon as a new president was elected, which in fact occurred when President Porfirio Lobo Sosa took over. Thus the effrontery to rule of law had apparently had nothing to do with former president Manuel Zelaya, who brought about the crisis in the first place when he breached the rules of the game of democracy.
Indeed, such poor rhetoric affords all kinds of interpretations that can be adapted to suit every need. Zelaya’s defenders, who quickly attacked the government in office, thereby endorsing Hugo Chavez’s arrogant threat of a military assault against Honduras, were the same who lent a blind eye to the evils in Venezuelan democracy that indeed, is also a democracy. Therefore, democracies definitely need a label or brand to clarify the type of democracy defended by each of them. After all, there are democrats and “democrats”.
This brings us to reflect upon what democracy means on this continent today. Presumably it responds to an ideal that should be pursued unless we want to end up living in a ghetto. The democratic ideal has become common currency in politically correct messages. However, through frequent repetition we have lost sight of what it actually means. What ideal are we talking about? Now that military dictatorships are behind us, recent experience has demonstrated that one cannot talk about democracy in Latin America without broaching the matter of freedom. The question is whether Latin Americans in the twenty first century just want more democracy or if what they are actually looking for is greater freedom with a democracy to support it. Because although freer democratic societies might appear to be a worthy endeavor, for the vast majority of Latin Americans it is still unclear what exactly will underpin such progress, expanded capabilities and possibilities for the future.
Today the discussion is no longer whether democracy is a good idea for Latin America despite (as some contend) its cultural inclination towards totalitarianism. The challenge today is to “brand” that democracy. At a time when new forms of democracy arise in the region —all of them supported by different hues of renewed socialism— the real topic for discussion is: what kind of democracy is best for Latin America to pursue its goals for sustained development and continuous improvement for its inhabitants? So, when we talk about building a more democratic society it remains to be seen if this simply means a freer society, a social order that provides for more people, or if both might be pursued.
The fallacy of Democracy and the “general interest”
In a broad sense, democracy can be conceived as the guide for what is known as the “general interest”. Thus its role is not constrained to government renewal or citizen participation in the election of that government. A full-fledged democracy is a system of government that guides political decisions toward a certain “general interest” or “common good” that satisfies a known and given “general will”. The problem is, however, that “general interest” means different things to different individuals and groups. In very general terms, it may be defined as a group of living standards in a given society that allow every one of its individual members and organizations to develop to full potential in accordance with their own anthropological and cultural patterns. For it to exist there also has to be a well-defined good that is discernable to all, in addition to a corporate, social preference function that is not merely an aggregate of individual tastes, but an abstract of all of them, and known by the recipients of democratic mandates.
Actually it is impossible to establish groups of this kind without discovering interests juxtaposed with others. For example, the members of a union may support policies against dismissals in the industry they work for, and some of them might wish for lower meat prices, and therefore ask for subsidies for livestock producers, whereas other union members could be vegetarian and not want their health benefits reduced to finance such a subsidy. By the same token some groups could support policies to increase budgets or provide higher subsidies to social programs, while others might seek tax reductions to liven the economy or promote macroeconomic stability. Determining what the general interest is will necessarily require a set of previously determined values; i.e. an ideology that will favor certain public policies over others according to a scale of preference. A politician’s art should be measured en terms of his ability to interpret and discover that general interest without infringing the values of individuals.
Even if it were possible to define a group of preferences that represent the general interest, the means to attain such a fundamental goal could differ extensively. There could be just as many means as interests found that, in fact, could even harm other “common” interests. What can be used validly as a means to attain a group of benefits considered a common good (even when the latter can be defined unequivocally) is always subject to debate from an ethical perspective because such means could affect certain material, spiritual or social interests.
“General interest” should be translated into a “general will”, understood as the will of a social group to exercise corporate actions in pursuit of its general interest. But, is it possible to apply this notion of “will” to a corporation or an individual? For those that consider that societies respond to the wills of a sum of individuals who process them in various ways, is it only the rule of the majority that determines the sense and nature of the so-called general will, which strictly speaking would be a “majority” rather than a “general” will? Now, assuming that there were a procedure to determine the general will (even if it were possible to define general interest), it would not guarantee the existence and expression of that general will in concrete actions. Therefore the question arises, is it feasible to “connect” the general will to the general interest in each and every case? And even if this will indeed existed, would it necessarily address this presumed interest? What if the general interest wants greater freedom but lacks the general will to defend it? Or, what if the general interest is for the country to conquer a given territory but no one has the will to go to war for it? In any event, who determines this? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk about currents in the general will instead of attempting to identify it with a single trend reflective of a single group of interests? In the face of such ample margins of action (and obligation) it is not difficult to imagine that a democracy with so much content could take on a totalitarian nature. According to this definition, on behalf of the “general interest” democracy can sacralize practically any policy as long as it is supported by a majority endorsement. If those elected by majority can represent and carry out the “general will” (which cannot be identified with anything other than the will of a majority) the largest sum of wills would suffice to legitimize its actions. In the words of Friedrich Hayek, this would mean, that “the fact that the majority wants something is sufficient ground for regarding it as good”, because according to this focus “the majority determines not only what is law but what is good law” In other words, this means a self-contained democracy with no other restraints that the ones it imposes upon itself, or even maybe the ones mandated by the caudillo at its helm.
This conception of democracy demands dealing with “who governs”. When a minority governs it is a morally evil system because it will not respond to the general interest, which under these terms will necessarily be identified with the interest of the majority. If the majority governs, automatically everything derived from that majority rule becomes morally acceptable. Therefore, moral democracy stems from an unusual kind of mathematics in which fifty plus one equals one hundred, because the whole —general interest— is simply determined by the largest number. Under these terms, the issue is confined to a Platonic question regarding who should govern in order to provide moral support to the system of government.
The Road to Democratic Totalitarianism
Such a broad definition of democracy upon the foundation of a general interest that endows it with an undefined and accurately indefinable moral support leaves a dangerous void to be interpreted by whoever holds the reins of the government. These subjective indeterminations are fertile ground for majority dictatorships, which means they can open dangerous doors for a democracy to become a “democratic totalitarianism”. The absence of specific constraints within the system lets the leader of the system self-determine its own limitations (if in fact there are any). Sooner or later this will inevitably lead to a totalitarian manner of exercising government whether it is presented as a democracy or not.
As we will see in this context, democratic totalitarianism refers to any mode of totalitarian style government sheathed in democratic formalities. We will refrain here from an exegetical in-depth analysis of democracy, so under the term democratic totalitarianism we will include any “democratic facade” or “electoral authoritarianism”, in addition to what Andrés Roemer has termed “demonocracy”, what William O´Donell named “delegative democracy,” and what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way called “competitive authoritarianism.” The divisions between these variations of democratic totalitarianisms are not always clear, but they all agree in that they represent the denial of liberal democracy, always within the circumstances of democracy without breaching its formalities, and therefore qualify as dictatorships.
This danger was already envisioned by the great thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century who closely witnessed what perhaps has been the most famous experience in democratic totalitarianism: German Nazism. One of them, Karl Popper, said that determining who rules constitutes a “false problem which leads to sham and ultimately ridiculous solutions corresponding to moral imperatives”. For him it was more important to stop focusing on considering one system morally superior to another merely because of the individuals in power, since this implied the moral discredit of other individuals when the systems they were related to were disqualified. This is precisely what has to be avoided when conceptualizing the nature of democracy. Making the fundamental problem personal “leads to hatred, which is always bad, and to an attitude which emphasizes power instead of contributing to its limitation”, which by the way is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved before addressing “who rules”. Instead, Popper proposes “let us replace the Platonic question […] with another completely different one: Are there forms of government that are morally reprehensible? And the opposite: Are there modes of government that may allow us to free ourselves from evil, or even an incompetent and harmful government?” As a corollary, Popper disqualifies dictatorships as morally intolerable because they are not responsible (nor can they make citizens responsible) for their acts; and because they are de facto (the citizens cannot change them). He therefore understands that since the situation is not morally tolerable, “it is our moral obligation to do everything possible to keep them from happening”, which is exactly “what we are trying to do with democratic forms of government, and that is their only moral justification.” This leads to the conclusion that democracies “are not popular sovereignties, but above all, institutions equipped to defend us from dictatorship.”
Nevertheless, democracies can shelter totalitarian regimes. “Democracy” does not exclude “totalitarianism”, although this may appear as a contradiction. In fact, conceiving democracy as a “government of the people and by the people” poses the problem of being interpreted in the merely mathematical sense, which leads to the simple notion that democracy equals the government of the majority. James Buchanan warns about this interpretation because “little or no sophisticated analysis is required to suggest that for the governed, majority rule is no different from the rule of any other group,” no matter how numerous. He also adds that “majority is not ‘the people’, and there is nothing sacrosanct in the simple rule of the majority whether occurring in terms of a direct process or through representatives,” which once again points to the issue that proportion does not necessarily generate legitimacy or “good law”.
Following this chain of ideas it is best to reduce the scope of the concept of democracy and opt for a more accurate, albeit minimalist definition. Joseph Schumpeter understands democracy as “an institutional system to arrive at political decisions, under which individuals acquire the power of decision through a struggle in which they compete for the vote of the people.” Meanwhile, Hayek defines it as “a method of government, namely, the rule of the majority […] a method or procedure to determine governmental decisions,” which in turn permits a renewal of those responsible for exercising government without incurring in violent actions.
These alternative and more objective definitions make it possible to establish comparisons among more democratic, less democratic and antidemocratic governments. They assign to democracy the role of processing government actions, reflecting the idea of a procedure for political decision-making in a society, and granting vote-based legitimacy. This is the minimum standard required of a regime to qualify as democratic, without mentioning its presumed general interest. Democracy, however, requires greater definition and additions if it is to guide a system to other purposes considered desirable, such as for example: freely and openly elected authorities in the executive and legislative, and even the judicial branches at least, with true authority to rule and who are not accountable to institutionalized military or religious powers; a system where every individual of legal age has the right to vote and whose civil rights are firmly protected.
Based upon the preceding statements pertaining to the minimalist concept of democracy, within the context of this paper, democratic totalitarianisms will also be considered democracies because they meet this minimum standard, although not others like the ones briefly summarized. For this reason, even the Inter-American Charter of the Organization of American States consideres regimes such as Chavez’s in Venezuela are democracies. This explains why the Chavista regime has not been challenged despite its unquestionable totalitarian nature.
Liberal Democracy and its Enemies
Based upon the positions of men like Popper, Schumpeter, Buchanan and Hayek, not all democracies offer the same conditions for a social order in which individual freedoms, or even rule of law, prevail. Minimalist redefinitions of democracy even encompass regimes that directly coerce freedom. Only the specific kind of democracy known as “liberal democracy” affords consistency between freedom and democracy. Its fundamental features are perfectly synthesized by what Ralf Dahrendorf considered should be allowed by a democracy: (1) the individuals in charge of government are replaced through pacific and objective procedures, free of conflict or violence; (2) a system of checks and balances serves to permanently control those in power, in addition to parliaments and other institutions that represent the people and review standards; and (3) demands, interests and preferences are introduced directly through elections into the political lives of citizens, and indirectly through deliberations and negotiations among the their representatives. According to Dahrendorf, democracy can only fulfill these purposes when it is sustained by the liberal order.
Indeed, liberal democracy is a particular form of democracy, and although the term “democracy” strictly refers to a system of government in which sovereignty lies in the hands of the people, “liberal democracy” presupposes a system with the following characteristics: (1) universal suffrage, embodied in the right to vote and be elected by secret and free elections by a broad majority of the population that supports the mandate of a given power focused on satisfying the priority needs of that majority; (2) division of the powers of the state, in which at least the executive and legislative arms are elected by free and open vote, and a constitution limits those powers and controls government operations; 3) overall protection of property rights; 4) political party diversity; 5) freedom of speech and freedom of press, including access to sources of information other than the government; 6) freedom of association; 7) the right to modus vivendi under the law; 8) educated citizens informed about their rights, and responsibilities executed with the support of an effective judicial and coercive system; 9) an institutional framework to protect minorities that recognizes indivisible and unalienable enforcement of human rights, and; 10) elected authorities with real power and authority to govern independently from the control of armed forces or religious leaders.
What defines liberal democracy is its foundation upon the rule of the majority observing the rights of the minorities. Every liberal democracy must be subject to the law; which means it is limited. Limited by the law that also limits the power of the government to rule. The more a government advances within its confines, the less important and necessary democratic bodies become, because even though democracy can be the best way to reach an agreement on general matters of a collective nature, the detailed plans required to implement government actions are always a task for experts and cannot be settled appealing to democracy. Democratic instances may decide over minutely detailed plans for action, yet as soon as such decisions are made their execution should be left to the experts in the public apparatus, because the nature of these actions requires a coherent conception that does not allow for prolonged deliberation.
This kind of democracy met with first line opposition from the staunch defenders of pragmatism who believed that the solutions needed in Latin American countries could not wait for democratic deliberations, but required quick responding, effective regimes that bypassed formal considerations and the approval of the people. The reasons touted for this were to vindicate the poorest or the urgency to reestablish social order, and obviously entailed opting for dictatorial totalitarianisms, which in Latin America for decades assumed the shape of military governments that in some cases lasted until the nineteen eighties.
Today, when old military dictatorships no longer have a place in politics, democracies of this kind face a second line of opposition, much stronger than the previous one. This opposition is built upon the hypothesis that liberal democracy is elitist, which in fact is its main flank under attack. Undoubtedly one of the most conspicuous representatives of this current is Noam Chomsky, who quite possibly embodies the attack against liberal democracy of our times. So elaborate is this attack, that Chomsky does not strictly limit it to the realm of decisions subject to democratic deliberation. He transmutes it into criticism of the geopolitics of the United States and its partners. Chomsky considers that liberal democracy not only discriminates against the uneducated masses by not allowing them completely active participation in every government action, but he also conceives it as an instrument for domination. Indeed, Chomsky’s idea is that in the United States’ conception of modern post WW2 world order, the Third World should act as a supplier of raw materials and a market for the products manufactured by the First World. However, since the greatest obstacle for such a “division of labor” (totally unfair in Chomsky’s framework) were the nationalist regimes established in third-world countries, deemed potentially even more dangerous than the former Soviet Union or international communism, these regimes necessarily had to be deactivated, bound and controlled. How could this be accomplished without incurring in open international repression? By means of liberal democracies where flexible but democratic methods could be applied with very little participation from the masses in the most important decisions affecting the management of countries. If these modes of “democratic façade” (because Chomsky does not consider them democracies) failed, there was always the last resort of military or paramilitary intervention that activated the role of the United States as the great policeman of the world.
Chomsky’s criticism of liberal democracy is thus framed in a worldview of central-peripheral relations that makes his criticism just as vulnerable as his model explaining world geopolitical relations. In his simplistic explanation it does not seem clear that Latin American nationalistic regimes are rejected by a significant part of the societies among which they have installed themselves. It would seem there were no internal drivers in these nations to oppose such totalitarianisms whether dictatorial or democratic. In fact, experience shows us that even in the most emblematic case of democratic totalitarianism of our day, epitomized by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, there exist extremely important forces of opposition originating in diverse segments of society in Venezuela itself as well as in other nations of the continent, where Chavez’s regime attempts to expand its power. One cannot state that these opposing forces, or at least not all of them, follow orders from Washington or First World financing, which would be the case if Chomsky’s hypothesis were proven.
Nevertheless beyond Chomsky’s considerations on the “geopolitics of democracy” (which at times appear to be taken from one of those so called “conspiracy theory’’ best-sellers), it is a fact that some find liberal democracy elitist, due to the need for a distinction between what is wholly political (elections held in the context of democratic practice), and what is public administration (decisions made within the context of bureaucratic practice) because this separation establishes inacceptable limits on democracy for those who assign it minimal responsibility, and neglects the interests of the majorities. The contention is that liberal democracy leaves decisions that involve the majorities in the hands of certain elites, and that citizens are only free when they vote, because later they cannot control their elected officials.
It is needless to delve further into arguments that counter the accusation of liberal democratic elitism, because this is a pragmatic matter that has already been discussed here. It was pointed out that there are technical aspects that explain why a system of government cannot be managed efficiently through permanent citizen participation. Only very small, almost tribal, societies or ancient societies could make direct participation in public affairs somewhat feasible without losing governability. This does not occur in the complex societies of the twenty-first century. Not even the smallest Latin American city, no to mention country, can be managed through local government via permanent direct participation. Decisions would deadlock, the government would be unable to respond to problems quickly, but even worse, government response would be ineffective because public administration requires specialization and expertise. So, it is misleading to propose that the ultimate justification behind a definition of democracy involving direct participation in the exercise of government lies in that “the fundamental purpose of political life is participation not representation”, since representation “is only an instrument of substitution when direct participation is not possible” because, in fact, representation is the only way to match participation with the possibility to exercise government.
Defining a final and more significant matter is necessary to close this idea. In addition to technical considerations, other arguments contradict Chomsky’s hypothesis regarding control over elected authorities. They relate to ethics when exercising public office. Empirical evidence clearly indicates that it is precisely in liberal democracies where transparency sheds light on acts of public corruption and abuse against citizens. “The people” have no power over those in government in democratic totalitarianisms, much less in openly dictatorial totalitarianisms. It is not by chance that squandering public monies, major ecological disasters caused by state incompetence and the consolidation of thick layers of bureaucracy sheltered by custom-made laws occur in countries where liberal democracies do not prevail. The notion, just short of fascism, of “I am the state” shared by the leaders of democratic totalitarian regimes, is incompatible with true accountability, which is unavoidable and unalienable in any free democracy.
Strengthening Liberal Democracy
Every democracy is not only accountable for respecting its own boundaries, but also must be held accountable to operate and produce results. Many will say that this does not pertain to the formal meaning of democracy, which is completely true. Nevertheless real politics demand that democracy yield results, otherwise it simply cannot support itself and this reality has many times been proven out in Latin America.
In practice any liberal democracy follows a narrow path of options in precarious balance. On one hand it should preserve liberties, yet on the other it must politically sustain itself in time so as to continue preserving said liberties. Therefore, a government that wishes to maintain itself under such a regime must carefully manage the tasks it is willing to assume, because providing conditions for a “level playing ground” requires specific public policies (at least partially) and bureaucracy to implement them. At the same time liberal democracy requires a limited government to subsist; an unrestrained government will always lead this form of democracy to destruction.
Consequently, the practical way to preserve liberal democracies consists in convincing voters that maintaining a government of this kind requires limiting its power to the areas in which it can use it effectively. If a democracy expands its powers to the point to which it ceases to be effective, a minority will inevitably take over. The problem is that these efforts to convince clash with unsatisfied demands felt deeply by many (which cannot be settled quickly) as well as with populist discourses that offer convincing, but unreal totalitarian alternatives.
“Old school” politicians might have believed that a more open world would encourage people to commit to an ideal polis of sorts (ruled under moral precepts, civic and completely unyielding and unalienable patriotic commitments), but reality shows that voters’ concerns tread paths completely removed from such an ideal world. What prevails is how voters see themselves today and how they will shift their political support when they are convinced that tomorrow they will be better in their microenvironment. Hence preferences for regimes like the Kirchners’ in Argentina, Correa’s in Ecuador, Chávez’s in Venezuela, and even the very powerful Lula in Brazil. Common voters know these people do not represent higher civil or moral values, that they very evidently want to stay in power forever, that they confront unquestionable signs of bad practices and even corruption. Voters may criticize and even repudiate them, but come election time they will continue to vote for these figures as long as they feel they are getting something in return.
Unfortunately that is the direction Latin America is following. Even though freedom and democracy can and should be compatible —provided democracy is dealt with carefully and constrained— the fact remains that liberal democracy has lost its appeal. This has been encouraged, among other things, by the discredit of liberalism successfully promoted by its ideological rivals, especially socialists, although a few alleged liberal champions have also helped dig its grave. Other factors besides this discredit have come into play, however. Liberal democracies lost themselves in procedures at the cost of results. Poverty rose as state bureaucracies, together with mercantile relations derived from larger corporate and union interests, became increasingly stronger. Additionally the notion of representation grew less and less intelligible largely due to lack of information and the predisposition to become informed during electoral processes. Elections have turned into fairs that showcase posters with frivolous smiles and empty promises. They resemble beauty pageants but lacking any esthetic value and good taste. Scandals involving political figures commonly appear on television news while the concept and knowledge of the scope of democracy itself are simply unknown to the majorities who, by the way, determine the results of elections with the sheer volume of their votes.
How to bolster Latin American democracies to make them more consistent with effectiveness and efficiency at solving problems through governmental policies? What elements do they need to incorporate? How can we make democracies, together with their ideals of freedom, function better and improve their outreach to citizens? Notwithstanding other elements, there are four areas to work on especially to configure a scenario that would make it possible to develop democracy to its full potential and sustain it upon a foundation of freedom. First: build plural societies and states, in which pluralism is understood in its integrating sense and not the other way around. Second: strengthen representation and broaden mechanisms for representation to spread democracy as a key element to support liberal democracy versus direct democracy that leads to vertical political practices. Third: expand democratic forums where deliberation may support a given number of decisions (not indiscriminately, of course) but in keeping with proper realms of competencies. Fourth, liberalize the vote, which is the fundamental aspect affecting the nature of free elections that are the cornerstone of any democratic system.
Let us now analyze each one of these proposals.
Pluralism, Tolerance, and Inclusion
Without pluralism there is no democracy. Pluralism is an attitude towards the world that affirms the value that diversity and discrepancy enrich individuals and the political community. It necessarily presumes and requires tolerance. Tolerance compels respect for the values of others, but its role is not to accept or promote them. Thus, tolerance is not symbiosis but the acceptance of peaceful coexistence with things we do not agree with. If we agree with other values that does not mean tolerance, but rather identification.
Pluralism requires that tolerance be reciprocal. Accepting peaceful coexistence with divergent perspectives and different political, economical, religious, artistic views of the world or modus vivendi necessarily implies that the nurturers of diversity should also extend the same kind of tolerance to those who do not share their particular perspectives and assertions. Tolerance is a two-way street and an absolutely necessary condition for pluralism to exist. It would be anti-pluralist to extend tolerance to any human expression (social, cultural, political, religious and others) that did not reciprocate tolerance to those that allow it to develop. Intolerant pluralism negates itself: it cannot be pluralism.
To illustrate this point, let’s consider religions. Tolerance for all religious creeds does not compel a person to convert to any one of them. Pluralism means accepting them without being committed to promote them when they are not professed. Pluralism also requires letting others think as they deem appropriate. However, experience tells us that the militants of many a religious creed are intolerant towards those who do not share their cultural visions. From a sociological perspective religions constitute cultural expressions, especially when they never miss a chance to attempt indoctrinate others through preaching. An individual who does not share the creed of another and imposes his preaching upon others while discrediting any belief other than his own is anti-pluralist and, of course, intolerant.
Viable pluralism requires the establishment of accurate boundaries just as any other political concept otherwise it is subject to smuggled intellectual categories that end up denaturalizing it. As stated by Giovanni Sartori, it is important to understand that pluralism is integrating by nature and consequently should only accept what does not attempt against pluralism itself, against the pillars of an open society; namely, freedom, diversity, and tolerance. In everything else, a pluralist attitude is mandated to reject all things anti-pluralistic. Sartori illustrates this point with multiculturalism as an example. In his view, when multiculturalism is understood as a priority value in itself, it promotes differentiated citizenships, rejection and intolerance to cultural expressions already established in a given territory, and breeds the disintegration of nations, very likely with the help of destructive, divisionary and, therefore, intolerant anti-pluralism. Dahrendorf expresses a similar concern regarding regionalisms; in other words, territorial vindications (such as Scotland and Catalonia). Dahrendorf considers that these regionalisms and their multicultural vindication contents are, by definition, anti-democratic and generally violent.
Sartori and Dahrendorf’s emphasis on the issue is understandable considering the current immigration phenomenon borne by Western Europe, or the vindications of the Euskadi nation and Ireland, or the conflict between Russia and Georgia that also involves elements of cultural clash. It should be pointed out that the multiculturalism Sartori refers to, sooner or later acquires the shape of national vindications. However, from this point onwards one treads on delicate ground. On one hand, multiculturalism can end up consolidating authentic projects of nations that for historical reasons are currently part of other nations. Building national states does not constitute a static process or a once-and-for-all effort, thus the possibility remains that this kind of multiculturalism could actually be the real consolidation of a new nation; although the methods of terror resorted to by some promoters of nationalist projects are by no means acceptable. Note, by the way, the emphasis in Sartori and Dahrendorf’s European vision, because in Latin America this vindication of nations does not exist, since the closest case here would be the struggle for greater autonomy in several Bolivian departments, which is neither a separatist project or the construction of a new nation, despite what its fiery discourses would seem to indicate.
A variation of this intolerance can be seen in Latin America with the emergence of certain nationalisms during the course of this century, obviously as a result of processes whose roots range from anthropological-historical, to political-economical , and even trade. “Nationalism” is a concept that should be separated from “patriotism”. Whereas the latter carries a positive definition, an expression in favor of one’s own homeland, its symbols and cultural patterns, nationalism takes on a negative definition since it is formed by being against something: border countries, ethnic groups that share a territory, or the threat of foreign imperialism, whether assumed or actual.
Nevertheless, it should be recognized that while in some cases these regional and excluding nationalisms derive from collectivist ideologies, they are bred by the fact that Latin America has not settled its own multiculturalism issues, so exclusion feeds these ideologies. Undoubtedly race has secularly been the most important multicultural factor for social fractures in Latin America, particularly in countries with a strong presence of original peoples like Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, and Guatemala among others, where racism is a cruel, unfair, and backward expression of highly structured, excluding societies. Today’s intense migration has spread racism to other countries like Argentina or Chile that receive large marginal populations of indigenous peoples from neighboring countries. Yet there are other new elements accumulating in every Latin American country that express a new multiculturalism; for example, emerging religious affiliations, the irruption of women in high-level political and business scenes, new social groups committed to environmental defense, the emergence of movements struggling for equal civil rights for homosexuals, and the social mobility springing from small pockets of market economy that have produced a new emerging upper middle-class that imposes its own cultural patterns upon the social establishment.
According to Sartori, as long as multiculturalism is understood as a testimony to multiple cultures coexisting in a given territory, pluralism and multiculturalism will not contradict each other. Therefore multiculturalism of this kind cannot be of an excluding nature. Actually, in this case precisely the contrary is excluding and intolerant; i.e. not recognizing the multicultural nature of our nations and their multiple, varied cultural and ethnic composition that has existed for at least more than a century in the case of the most recent migrations, if not for more than half a millennium. Incorporating more settlers as citizens with equal rights and access to opportunities that will allow them to compete and join markets is not only congruent with liberal credo and the sense of democracy, but an unequivocal task behooving any liberal vision of politics in Latin America.
But the problem runs even deeper if one considers miscegenation (mestizaje). Although most inhabitants of Latin America do not belong to an ethnic group, a very high percentage of them are mestizos. However in many cases a culture of differentiation —if not exclusion— prevails towards mestizo individuals owning to differences in skin color. This hinders full inclusion perhaps not in terms of acquired rights, but certainly when it comes to demanding fulfillment of those rights. This is especially true among recent or first-generation migrants from rural areas that establish themselves in large cities. International migration of these highly mestizo groups has intensified since the late nineties and brought about similar situations in more than a few cases. This phenomenon can also be observed in social relations within each country as well as between countries that share borders. In view of the high proportion of mestizo peoples in Latin America, exclusion due to that variable becomes much more relevant than ethnical issues since indigenous populations are much smaller. It should be pointed out that this attitude so closely tied to racism, is absolutely and unequivocally anti-liberal.
New national socialisms (national socialist or social nationalism) movements have taken political advantage of these unresolved situations as part of a political strategy to introduce models of totalitarian democracies into Latin America. In a continent and at a time in which subversive revolutions are no longer alive and military dictatorships have become an old memory, such a strategy becomes an important tool to camouflage totalitarian regimes in the guise of democracies. It is not by chance that regimes that have exacerbated nationalism have done so through clearly anti-liberal dictatorial governments and styles, regardless of the left or right ideologies their political executors adhere to. In the particular case of Latin America, in recent years antidemocratic nationalism has caught fire under new oil imperialism and the financing it brings with it. This has introduced an unprecedented threat into the political equation of the region.
In general, if one follows Norberto Bobbio representation can occur in one of two ways: through a delegate or fiduciary. A delegate representative is a spokesperson with an extremely limited mandate that can be immediately revoked by orders of his superior. A fiduciary representative has the power to act freely on behalf of his represented and may interpret their interests at his discretion. Because representation can be obtained for general interests (of the citizens) or for the particular interests of certain segments of society (groups of interest) delegate representation is usually associated with particular interests, while fiduciaries tend to represent general interests.
Parliamentary representation is fiduciary in nature and there is no question that the parliaments are the targets with the greatest exposure, even to the media. Parliaments usually top the lists of the most discredited institutions in any country. A result of these attacks is postulating that democracy does not work, or in any event if there is to be democracy, it should be direct or participative, of the kind we have previously analyzed. In fact, a common cliché is to question to what extent citizens feel represented by their spokespeople, who are usually identified with parliamentarians. Curiously enough, parliamentarians occupy their seats on behalf of political parties. When one asks individuals to what degree they are represented by political parties in Latin America, they usually answer they do not feel represented by any of them.
Liberal democracy presupposes politically active societies. This entails the existence of political parties capable of representing doctrinal political currents, committed to abiding the rules of the democratic game, but also the existence of organized, citizen, sovereign and free groups of interest all of whom without exception abide the rule of law. In a democratic society, those who are interested in politics for the purpose of gaining power, understood as a democratic instrument for decision-making and action, must necessarily participate in politics via parties, and in this manner strengthen the citizens’ party structure. Therefore, parties constitute an unavoidable link between the members of society and their representatives.
Disregard for the usefulness of political parties is a dangerously provocative attitude; it is excessively pragmatic, civically irresponsible, and even morally hypocritical. Destroying or discrediting the party system opens the door to totalitarian alternatives. In fact, experience teaches us that totalitarian projects whether or not enveloped in democratic formalities, such as the Chávez government in Venezuela, Fujimori’s in Peru, Morales’ in Bolivia or Pinochet’s in Chile, without exception charged against the existing party systems of their countries discrediting them as “traditional parties”. This became a pre-requisite, the breeding ground for their moral justification to implement totalitarian regimes. Many revile party systems thinking that they fail to produce tangible results or consider them corrupt, closed organizations. Others, however revile party systems simply because they fail to successfully insert themselves in the upper spheres of partisan hierarchies, and consequently switch to others they can climb more readily. Additionally many accusations against parties have more to do with the quality of their leaders than with the nature and functionality of the organization, or the absence of internal mechanisms to enable their adherents to access higher positions in the party.
Despite these pitfalls, parties continue to channel the different currents of what may be conceived as the “general interest” in a democracy. Their goal is to perform government duties or participate in the different levels of the political power of a society with the highest proportion possible. This is why political parties strive so hard during elections to gain and keep seats in local and national parliaments. When they win elections for government positions, they bring in their partisans so as to guarantee execution of the government program they pledged to society in their doctrinal preaching. Interest groups in civil society limit their activities to trying to influence over public figures, whereas parties must execute programs and policies and need people to do so.
Parties also need to defend their positions whether in government or in the opposition. In the event of conflict between public opinion and the position held by political decision makers (either in the executive, if the party rules, or in parliament if the party rules or is in the opposition), party representatives must convince the people that their position is correct. This is accomplished with party support provided through a proper communication strategy. Parties act as instruments of the political leadership of the country to gain and preserve support. They are called upon to speak for the various currents expressing the general will of the people, and at the same time generate public opinion by identifying and collecting citizen demands, which they transform into proposals and political solutions within the context of a doctrine. Without political parties voters cannot put their aspirations into practice nor channel them through the various currents of what is called the general interest. Political parties act as instruments that provide individuals the means they require to decide the competition over positions of political leadership and the political program to be followed for a given period.
Democracy can only be made stronger by a system that allows parties to share its fundamental values and alternate in government. This does not mean that parties need to sacrifice their specific political concepts that reflect their doctrines and the interpretation of their realities. Neither does it mean that social circumstances are such that they only admit one answer to the many issues that politics and society must face. Ideology has and should have a place. Nevertheless, the trend is similar political programs from every party. The differences between parties have been limited to how much they support one policy or another. Elections, therefore, increasingly focus more on individuals and less on political affairs. Politics become anthropomorphic, which enhances the conditions for caudillaje.
Therefore, the growing primordial practical interest among parties consists in securing their presence in power often neglecting political programs and ideologies. In the absence of programs and ideologies politicians find incentives to focus solely on gaining power. Consequently, they lose contact with their constituencies, who feel that parties are distancing themselves from what the common citizen cares about, thus facilitating political switching. Both situations reinforce rejection of political parties and discredit politics as an activity, while a growing number of citizens become disenchanted with them. An additional byproduct is that this disenchantment with parties quickly transforms into disappointment with democracy as such, which opens the possibility for voters to turn radical and build extremist options, both democratic (in the liberal democratic sense), and otherwise. It is not surprising therefore, that political parties and parliaments in Latin America score the lowest levels of credibility in public opinion.
However, even though it may be true that there is a certain degree of incompetence, and perhaps even corruption in Latin American parliaments, people react this way mainly because of the extremely high public exposure of the members of the congress and their activities. In many cases this exposure includes direct TV broadcasting of their work sessions; something that the officials in the executive branch of government do not deal with.
Two words of caution are in order, however. First, to what degree is disenchantment with representative democracy actually disappointment with the way every level of the state apparatus is operating? Without question one of the fundamental —if not the most important— reasons why citizens tend to manifest their disenchantment lies in public services, which are highly reflective of the size and quality of the State. Public services not only include transportation, energy, communications and sewerage, but also safety, health, justice, education, municipal embellishment and so on. Therefore, securing democracy requires the State to do its share effectively and efficiently achieving objectives that translate into specific improvements for the population. In other words, the State must prove how it serves its citizens. Public services are the first screen of the state apparatus, including the executive, parliament and judicial system. The other word of caution has to do with representative democracy.
Bobbio notes that challenging parliaments does not imply crisis in a representative democracy. In practically every democracy of the world parliaments are subject to criticism. There are several reasons to explain this, but we will look at only three. First of all, because of the nature of parliaments, members must not be screened by any criteria other than ethics or jurisprudence. Secondly, because of the institutional characteristics that define them, parliaments work openly in sight of society, and of course the media. Members are permanently exposed to the public and so is their record of mistakes during decision-making deliberations. In the executive, for example, decisions also involve errors on the part of the participants, but these are not released to the public. Thirdly, election systems help some elected officials to access seats after buying preferential places in candidate lists, and so political parties are encouraged to use their lists as a means of financing their campaigns.
Parliaments can be easily criticized. In fact even those that do not know what parliamentarians do criticize them. The real challenge lies in finding solutions because any of them could attempt against the spirit of parliaments. The very essence of parliaments would be denaturalized by the establishment of mandatory intellectual accreditations or carrying out congressional business behind closed doors. Perhaps there might be an electoral solution if parties could implement in-house voting systems to define their lists, but this calls for a substantial critical mass in membership, and militants are becoming a virtual species in extinction.
Yet beyond real or fictional reasons to challenge parliaments they are not where representative democracy ends. For that reason, Bobbio notes that the critics of parliaments are not necessarily disqualifying representative democracy, nor does their criticism imply that this kind of democracy needs to be substituted by direct democracy. His proposal is that “the expression ‘representative democracy’ means that collective deliberations; i.e. the ones that commit an entire community are not carried out directly by its members but by the persons elected for that purpose.”
It follows that parliaments constitute a particular instance of this type of representation, albeit clearly the most outstanding one, as they are tutelary institutions and political debate is their reason for being— but not the only one.
As we have already pointed out, intermediate organizations that make up civil society are also places for citizen representation. According to the ideas of Thomas Carothers, civil society can be conceptualized as a group of organizations existing outside the state apparatus and the realm of business, that represent “groups of interest” and therefore do not merely include organizations like NGOs and think tanks intended to support specific causes, or associations that address matters other than supporting identifiable social and political agendas. These groups of interest also include unions, professional associations, chambers of commerce, ethnic associations, religious organizations, student groups, cultural organizations, sports clubs, community groups (either formal or informal), and other like groups.
It is important to highlight the role of NGOs and think tanks in the construction of representation. In various areas of social work there are voids in State presence, particularly related to tasks that unequivocally pertain to it, where NGOs step in to address specific requirements and this confers upon them a power that is frequently used as a balm for ideological work. This fact has been harshly criticized in many Latin American countries because more than once in the course of their work with segments of society lacking representation, voice, basic services and power, NGOs have found fertile ground to indoctrinate the poor in socialist ideologies, very often with radical undertones. Despite this very real fact, it is a mistake to demonize NGOs and disregard the role they play in areas where other official or private groups do not satisfy profoundly human needs. In any event, it is not exactly a matter of eliminating NGOs of certain political persuasions, but jumping into the ideological competition with other similar organizations and wrestle with them over those same venues. In fact, Carothers does not disregard the growing importance of NGOs in the world since they: (1) influence politics by putting pressure on governments and providing decision-makers with specialized knowledge; (1) promote citizen participation and civic education; and (3) train young leaders interested in actively participating in civic life but do not want to work for a political party. To this one might add a few Latin American think tanks that have made similar contributions.
In summary, greater democratization should not be sought in exchanging representative democracy for direct democracy because this would inevitably lead to constraining liberal democracy. It must be pursued by a democracy that expands from the political to the social sphere, to new venues where every member of society can express his demands in a non-violent way, and where such demands can be addressed without disrupting the social systems of those new venues. Bobbio states, it must be sought: “while moving from political democracy in the strict sense to social democracy (…) expanding ascending power, until now almost exclusively within the realm of political society, to the field of civil society (…)” Indeed, this is something that has been largely brought about by globalization and the communications revolution.
Therefore, society will become increasingly represented as more venues exercising this representation arise; i.e. venues building more democracy. And so, the solution consists in encouraging greater representation instead of eliminating it. Which is why, to continue with Bobbio, “today, an indicator of democratic development can no longer be found in the number of voters with the right to vote, but in the number of sites, other than political sites, where the ‘right to vote’ is exercised […] The criterion should no longer be ‘who votes’, but ‘where [one] votes’”. A part of the democratic ideal should include seeing private civil society institutions moving toward democratization within the framework of their own models of organizational development. Public entities can also find room to advance to higher levels of democratization. A case in point is the recent decentralization process in Peru that has expanded the “where to vote”, thereby broadening its democratic spectrum. The presence of regional and local authorities, including regional, local and coordination councils exemplify this attempt. The task ahead is to consolidate them so they can better respond to citizen demands. Yet there are other areas of democratic openness, beyond the realm of political vote, worth exploring.
Opening New Venues
Increasing the number of venues “where one votes” requires a certain dose of political audacity. As we have discussed before, it is not feasible to subject everything to democratic processes, but there are places where it might be healthy to introduce them. An example of this can be found in the area of justice.
It is a fact that citizen safety has collapsed in Latin America, to the point that it is being described as “the most violent region in the world. Mexico is emblematic of this, followed by Colombia and then by Nicaragua, Brazil and Peru. It has become quite clear that the problem will not be solved just by hiring more police: it calls for strong, impeccable justice as well. Safety is also absent when a powerful private or public figure can abuse anyone over property, labor or any other kind of issue. In the past forty years, reforms to the judicial systems have been repeatedly postulated in several Latin American countries. The truth is that the complexity and diversity in today’s societies have rendered their judicial systems absolutely incompetent to face their crises in social coexistence. The question is whether the justice system in Latin America can still be subject to cosmetic changes that two or three decades ago would have proven effective; changes such as administrative simplifications, better salaries for judicial officers, pleas for integrity and electing better trained judges. All of these have been attempted to a larger or smaller extent, but the results indicate that citizens do not trust the judicial system, corruption runs rampant and the law does not hold everyone equal, but can be “commercialized”. People perceive law as being at the service of “the best bidder”.
In the seventeenth century, Adam Smith held that providing internal security and justice were unalienable functions of the State, which together with external security and public works constituted its unquestionable duties par excellence. But the capacity of many Latin American states has been exceeded by the reality of common and organized delinquency. Now for example, part of the judicial system acts in the private sector, through conciliation centers, yet it is not enough. Individuals should be able to participate directly in establishing penalties, which is exactly what happens when state weakness in this regard causes weary citizens to take justice in their own hands.
One way to improve the system could be to partially return to direct participation of the people in the administration of justice by introducing democratic elements into the judicial system. This could be accomplished by establishing juries in criminal processes allowing individuals to participate directly in determining guilt or no guilt. Juries would offer a means to institutionalize and channel this real citizen demand to participate in the administration of justice, which is horribly but blatently manifested in the most abandoned rural and urban areas of poverty in Latin America by lynching.
In the view of John Locke, a political society