Democracy Is Hard

Totalitarianism and democracy are conflicting habits, like gobbling sweets and eating nutritiously, with the lazy indulgence in totalitarian thinking (“our way is right, so we are justified in obliterating opposition”) just as insidiously easy to follow as making room for a few more desserts. Nutritious eating and democracy are hard, requiring constant self-policing. To put it differently, only birds seem naturally predisposed to be democratic: fish can relax and float, animals can relax and stand, but birds that relax will fall out of the sky. Birds must maintain the habit of beating their wings, so perhaps they would find it easier to maintain the equally difficult habit of practicing genuine democratic thinking.

Analyzing the mental and legal contortions Czechs have gone through with their post-1989 lustrace policy to purify their body politic of communists, Tina Rosenberg identifies three core concepts in their thinking that betray old totalitarian habits:

First, that a group of the enlightened know that what the masses think they want is often not in their best interest. Second, that the formalities of democracy are often abused by the unscrupulous old guard to maintain their control. Third, that to do battle, the enlightened must discard these formalities as well when the national interest demands. This thinking has gone by another name in this part of the world: Leninism.

Lustrace, designed in the East Bloc’s most Western nation with the admirable purpose of allowing free men to build free societies, does so by abridging freedom: it passes judgment without due process of law on people who have committed no crime, simply because of their membership in groups considered politically unacceptable today.

Like counting every calorie and assessing each ingredient for its nutritional quality, building democracy requires excruciating attention to detail: what did the accused do, what was his intent, what were his constraints, what did he avoid doing? If you ban opponents from politics, will they gain power through financial corruption? Must their incomes then be controlled? Which individuals? What income level? The irresistible force of psychological gravity always tugs us down the slippery slope of doing things the easy way.

In 1989–despite its democratic traditions, Western support, the complete (formal) collapse of the Soviet system, and all the generations of struggle for good governance that constitute the history of modern Europe—Czechoslovakia experienced a new version of “the law as a child:” returning almost to zero and trying yet again to invent the legal framework of a legal system based not on the ruler but the rule of law.

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