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A democracy is not just the vague and dangerously malleable promise of popular rule. It is instead an institutional regime or "republic" that defines and protects the rights of the people, and of individuals.
BUENOS AIRES — In a column in this newspaper (Clarín) earlier this year, Professor Loris Zanatta drew our attention to declarations made in July by Brazil's President Lula da Silva rejecting criticisms against Venezuela's socialist regime. Lula said "democracy is a relative concept, for you and for me," when asked if Venezuela is a democracy.
Zanatta observed that the Brazilian leader was being cynical, and with that position would have failed any "political science, history of ideas or philosophy" assignment.
Days later, writing in the Diario Perfil, sociologist Eduardo Fidanza accused the Italian academic of judging Lula from a political scientist's perspective, without regard for the realities of Latin Americans. These, he wrote, had to do with persistent inequalities, unemployment, economic stagnation, criminal gangs and insecurity, and in such conditions, says Fidanza, the republic becomes a "luxury few can afford."
Firstly, political science isn't an entirely theoretical or speculative discipline. For some time now it has specialized in subfields most of which rely considerably on empirical and statistical approaches. Political science does of course use theories, to understand and analyze reality. Only, empirical evidence is required to validate those theories.
Political theory aside, the problem appears not to be in democracy but in the notion of a republic. The two concepts have had different trajectories.
The Greek city states practiced democracy in the 5th and 6th centuries BC, and as is known, citizens regularly gathered in the Agora, the city's place of gatherings,to debate public affairs. When that civilization ended, democracy effectively lay dormant until the 17th and 18th centuries, when rationalists, thinkers of the Enlightenment and revolutionaries extracted it from old books to make words like liberty and equality a reality.
A pro-democracy protest in London, UK.
Ending the capitalist order
As the late political scientist Giovanni Sartori once said, the greater a democracy's scope and sway, the more it must curtail its moral and ethical pretensions. A problem arises in fact when democracy becomes confused with 'the people.'
For the 18th and 19th century revolutionaries, 'the people' or 'nation' was the single repository or representative of national sovereignty. That fueled a formidable political movement that inspired both the Jacobins of the French Revolution and latter-day, Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries. Seeking to end the old monarchy for good, the first lot sent thousands of Frenchmen to the guillotine, accusing them of being "enemies of the people."
The greater a democracy's scope and sway, the more it must curtail its moral and ethical pretensions.
The Leninists or Bolsheviks later understood better than anyone that ending the capitalist order — the monarchy of money — needed a party with a leading role, which in time, inevitably perhaps, became the interpreter of the 'people's will". Not unlike the Jacobins of the French Terror, the party wouldn't make do with fighting the bourgeoisie and turned on all those it labeled enemies of the people.
They came to number in the millions, first in the Soviet Union, and now in China, Cuba and North Korea. The leaders of those countries state, unflinchingly, that single-party rule is an expression of popular democracy.
Liberty and popular will
Back in the 18th century, it was in fact the conservative revolutionaries on this side of the Atlantic who could reconcile democracy with the popular will. This they did by resorting to the republican ideal of limiting it through the separation of powers or system of checks and balances.
They turned democracy into the republic: a political regime compatible with individual liberties.
So no, it would not be right to call the republic a luxury.
*Federico Saettone is a political science professor and researcher at Argentina's CONICET agency.
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