Nobody knows what will result from the ongoing political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and several other nations in the Middle East. Many people in those nations and in the West hope that the result will be “democracy.”
I share that aspiration, but ending a totalitarian, authoritarian, aristocratic or other nondemocratic regime is one thing; beginning a democracy is another thing. As the old adage goes, two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for supper is not democracy in action. Rather, majority rule, whether in presidential, semipresidential or parliamentary systems, and whether effected through proportional representation or other electoral processes, is only where democracy begins.
Democracy requires not only regular “one person, one vote” plebiscites but also both constitutional and customary limits on government power and those who wield it.
As James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 51, in instituting a democratic republic that is “to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”
In a democracy would-be leaders must not seek to gain through bullets what they lose through ballots, and elected leaders must be both inclined and obliged to respect human rights and protect civil liberties. Win or lose, in government or out, all who compete for political power in a democracy must accept as legitimate the idea of one or more loyal (and loud) opposition parties.
Historically, empires, dynasties, dictatorships and other nondemocratic regimes are the rule to which democracy is the exception. In 1991, two years before his controversial 1993 book concerning a possible coming “clash of civilizations,” the late Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published a less speculative, less provocative and less widely read book, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century.
In this book, Hunting-ton observed that among nations with a population of a million people or more, the number of political systems widely categorized as democratic had grown in three “waves.”
The first “long wave of democratization” occurred in the period between 1828 and 1926. A second, “short wave of democratization” occurred in the period between 1942 and 1962. A “third wave of democratization” began in 1974 and by 1990 included 58 of the 129 nations that were home to a million people or more; today many analysts put that number in the 50s or 60s.
Each global democratic wave has been followed by reversals in some newly democratic nations. The roster of democratic nations in Africa, for instance, changed greatly between 1990 and 2010. And there are only a few dozen nations that have been steadfastly democratic for a half-century or more. Still, with each wave, global democracy reached a higher plateau.
As I stated during a lecture in 1998 before the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, for most of its history our church was no friend of democracy. But—as non-Catholic scholars, including Huntington and the eminent political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset had emphasized—as a force behind democracy’s worldwide post-1974 march, Catholicism was second only to economic development.
In 1987 Pope John Paul II taught in “Sollicitudo Rei So-cialis” that “developing nations should favor the self-affirmation of each citizen, through access to a wider culture and a free flow of information.”
It was time to “replace corrupt, dictatorial, and authoritarian forms of government with democratic and participatory ones.” And in 1991, in “Centesimus Annus,” Pope John Paul II taught that “authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.”
Catholics in the United States are special heirs of that sacred civic vision, for we are both Catholic and citizens of what Lipset famously termed “the first new nation.” Pray that a new wave of authentic democracy has begun and that American Catholics will lead, not follow, in supporting and sustaining it.