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Post details: Democracy Demo

Democracy Demo

Exporting political systems is usually a bad idea. They do not fit easily into cargo containers and their user manuals are notoriously hard to translate from one language to another. Soviets once tried that in Czechoslovakia and besides a couple of crates of free uranium and a heartfelt loathing of several generations of the native population they did not really get much in return for their noble efforts.

This Spring I was cruising around the Arabian peninsula and one of our ports of call was a small emirate of Fujairah. The landscape looked pretty rugged from the ship, so I opted for a bus tour winding through the dry black mountains sporadically dotted with modest villages. Our guide was a talkative Emirati who used long stretches of uneventful terrain to educate us about the local form of governance. To a person who spent half of his life in a communist trap and the other half in a democratic jungle, the sheikhdom seemed deceptively simple. It had no need for the usual trappings of high politics - stifling partisan bickering, media battles, massive campaign coffers or armies of bureaucrats rubbing their elbow patches with one another - yet it was functioning with a smoothness of an old farm machinery. The sheikh was portrayed as a benevolent patriarch who took good care of his large family, making sure that citizens had good health care, access to education and affordable housing. Our guide's excitement seemed genuine and I wondered how many people in the West would be equally exuberant about their elected officials. Which in turn made me think about George Bush's favorite export article - democracy. How good is it really?

Political systems are not immutable embalmed relics. They evolve, they adapt, they mature and - sadly - they get corrupted. Democracy today is not what it used to be at times of Jefferson, Lincoln or even Teddy Roosevelt. It is generally viewed as the best that the Western world has to offer, but like any system designed by man it is vulnerable and open to flaws of human nature. People's ability to govern themselves as well as their ability to determine what is beneficial for the whole society is not limitless. One trip to a comments section of your favorite political blog is enough to get a sample of the political acumen of the masses. Not a pretty sight on a good day.

If we are to export democracy, we better kick its tires with some degree of vigor. Why does running for a public office require so much money that dependence on corporate donations becomes a necessity? Why do most people always vote for whomever promises them larger chunk of the common pie even if it drives the whole society economically into ground? Why do we blindly trust the same slick types who couple of months later vote for measures we so clearly detest? Why do we tolerate the loopholes lobbyists manage to weave into the legal fabric? And these were just some of the questions that were tumbling in my head as we coasted through the bleak and stark countryside in the Emirate of Fujairah.

Ironically, on the evening news that very same day I saw a CNN clip with Senators Dodd and Frank pounding their chests on behalf of the incipient financial reform and I thought - is this duo of duplicitous dupers the best spokesteam for the embattled American taxpayer? Chris Dodd is number one recipient of campaign funds from the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and one of the infamous "Friends of Angelo" - a VIP program at the failed bank Countrywide. Barney Frank got his fair share of Wall Street contributions as well and kept a protective hand over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac even as they operated in an eventually disastrous bubble mode. Have we forgotten how these two Kabuki ballerinas and former champions of "affordable housing" and "financial stability" pushed reckless behavior merely three years ago?

As I watched the press conference, I wondered what would happen if this dynamic duo unleashed their political skills in Fujairah. Would housing be still affordable if we distorted the real estate market with ill conceived institutions like Freddie Mac whose "support" only made the houses more expensive and less affordable? Would the oil revenues from the Gulf be enough to fuel endless graft, kickbacks and customized corporate welfare? I am afraid not.

Transplanting political systems is as tricky as transplanting human organs. You always risk that the organism at the receiving end won't accept the new tissue. We can't simply sew the standard Western institutions into a culture which is as close to ours as Al Khanfaroosh is to vanilla pudding. Look at it from the other side: how would we feel, if legions of scimitar wielding bearded troops invaded our continent and tried to convert our little state into the Enlightened Sultanate of Northern Virginia. We wouldn't like it very much, would we?


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