21 June 2013

Two kinds of authority: a democratic dilemma

The demonstrations in Istanbul's Taksim Square are widely perceived to resemble the protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square less than they resemble the Occupy protests in the United States. In Turkey, dissidents (perceived as leftists by both domestic and global media) have used the planned destruction of a park as part of an economic development project as a pretext for more expansive protests against prime minister Erdogan. Usually described as a "moderate Islamist," Erdogan has won several elections but is accused of developing an authoritarian streak. Inevitably, he is accused of abusing the country's laws to suppress dissent. He seems to fall into the same category as the late Chavez of Venezuela, the departing Ahmadinejad of Iran (though his is a more complicated case), and the reigning Putin in Russia, as well as the neophyte Morsi in Egypt. All could or can claim democratic legitimacy, and all are accused of abusing it. Unlike the others, he isn't seen as an enemy of the U.S., except insofar as he, like the others, represents an idea of democratic politics at odds with American ideology.

The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman weighs in on Turkish politics by borrowing a distinction drawn by an adviser to CEOs between "formal authority" and "moral authority." For some readers, it may tell all they need to know about Friedman that he learns political science from a CEO adviser, but the distinction made helps clarify widespread American distrust of foreign forms of democracy. In Friedman's opinion, Erdogan has done considerable good for his country, from an economic standpoint, but risks ruining his legacy through perceived authoritarian tendencies. Friedman lets his adviser, Dov Seidman, speak for himself:

There are essentially just two kinds of authority: formal authority and moral authority, and moral authority is now so much more important than formal authority [wherever] power is shifting to individuals who can easily connect and combine their power exponentially for good or ill.... Moral authority is something you have to continue to earn by how you behave, by how you build trust with your people. ... Every time you exercise formal authority — by calling out the police — you deplete it. Every time you exercise moral authority, leading by example, treating people with respect, you strengthen it....In this age, the only way to effectively lead is to generate power through people, in a way that earned their trust and enlisted them in a shared vision.

What Seidman says about moral authority unto itself is unobjectionable. It becomes problematic when he suggests a contradiction if not a zero-sum relationship between moral and formal authority. In Friedman's paraphrase, Seidman argues that "You don't get moral authority from being elected," but this seems to go against a core idea of democracy. Replace "authority" with "legitimacy" and the problem may be more apparent. All the democratically-elected leaders mentioned above would probably argue that elections do confer some degree of "moral" legitimacy upon the leaders. What does this quality consist of? Another synonym for it, if this helps, would be a "mandate." An election is an authorization to act, a grant of authority. What seems to baffle outside observers about democracy in America is that Americans seek to minimize the authority implicitly granted as much as possible. The Bill of Rights is the most obvious expression of the American tendency. Beyond the letter of the Constitution, however, many Americans seem to reject the idea that elections, no matter how impeccably fair, confer upon winners the right to command. As Friedman and Seidman say, "Any leader who wants to lead just 'by commanding power over people should think again,'”

To my knowledge, none of the countries where we accuse leaders of abusing democracy are entirely lacking in constitutional safeguards against abuse of power. In all those countries, however, elected leaders probably have a greater sense of entitlement based upon their democratic mandate, their combined formal and moral authority, than American leaders claim -- in public, that is. If "authoritarian" democrats abroad are elected to do something, they seem to assume a right to do it that overrides the privileges or prerogatives of dissent. There is, on the part of the leaders if not among the people, though the leaders' constituents probably share it, an expectation of deference to the democratic mandate. An election means we want this done, so it should be done. If that goes against a country's constitution, presumably it's up to a court to overrule the government, and not up to opposition parties to obstruct the majority will. Why have elections, people might ask, if elected officials won't be allowed to do what the people want? If what the people want is unconstitutional, one could ask, why let the candidate run on an unconstitutional platform in the first place? Without such restrictions in place, leaders and their constituents most likely feel entitled to have their way once they win an election. Such sentiments inevitably sound authoritarian wherever dissent gets the benefit of the doubt, but which side is more democratic?

For most people in the world, I suspect, the democratic ideal is that candidates win an election and get to do what constituents voted for them to do, without obstruction, after which they submit themselves to another election or yield to fresher faces.  The opposite viewpoint is summarized in the skeptical motto: "One man, one vote, once." Among many democrats suspicion of power persists; it may well be the hallmark of what we call liberal democracy. The great suspicion is that the leader who claims unobstructed power after an election will use that power to rig subsequent elections in order to perpetuate his personal power, or else use his power to declare an "emergency" in order to do without elections thereafter. All the authoritarian democrats are accused, with varying degrees of credibility, of rigging elections in their favor. This suspicion is difficult to address. On one hand, history shows us that people often abuse power. On the other, is it fair to assume that everyone will abuse it? In other words, should suspicion of power be built into a democratic system, and if so, can it be done without compromising electoral democracy to the point, seemingly near in our own country, where people see the system as hopelessly gridlocked and as such, however representative it may still be, ultimately undemocratic and thus illegitimate?  In the true ideal, perhaps, the electorate entrusts leaders to govern as they were elected to while entrusting to themselves the means to deal with leaders who abuse power, whether those means are regular elections or more extreme measures, depending on the degree of abuse. Whether that would work would depend on whether abuse of power, by the time the people perceive it, has already put a preponderance of power in a leader's hands. It might be a good idea, in such a case, not to make the elected leader commander-in-chief of the military, though checks should exist against whoever fills that office as well. Details can be debated indefinitely. It may be more urgent for us nail down the general principle. Can the people -- the electoral majority acting through their representatives in behalf of the people as a whole -- be entrusted with effective power without the polity degenerating into indisputable tyranny? For decades, liberals have scorned the distinction made by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan's UN ambassador, between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" states. There was cause for scorn, since her distinction boiled down to whether a dictator was right, and authoritarian, or left, thus totalitarian. But what if there remains a salvageable distinction between "authoritarianism," the offense of which many democratically elected leaders are accused, and outright tyranny. Might a more effective democracy -- even a more effective republic, for the quibblers out there -- look more "authoritarian" if it tolerates less obstruction on the American model, yet remain a free and even liberal society?  Americans might not be so tolerant as we like to claim if we refuse to ask the question.


Anonymous said...

This country has a dismal record of rigged elections, or at least accusations of rigged elections. So who are we to judge other nations?

Samuel Wilson said...

As long as the U.S. has some minimal habit of rotation of office -- as long as Republicans replace Democrats and vice versa -- Americans will always claim superiority to countries where a ruling party refuses (or appears to refuse) getting rotated out. In some cases the distrust is justified; in others, it may be difficult for Americans to imagine a truly popular mass movement triumphing consistently over a permanently disgruntled minority.