Blogs > Liberty and Power > Victor Davis Hanson and Democracy

Jan 27, 2006 5:32 pm

Victor Davis Hanson and Democracy

Readers have asked for more on Victor Davis Hanson's views on democracy. His most cited article on the subject was "Why Democracy?" which was published nearly a year ago in National Review.

Please note that Hanson generally uses"democracy" without qualifiers although he seems to assume it will lead to good results such as free markets. A brief mention of the danger of"one vote, one time" quickly gives way to typical Hansonian optimism. The article reveals little, or no, concern about the danger of a tyranny of the (Islamic or other) majority via elections.

Since Hanson wrote the article, the Muslim Brotherhood made substantial gains in Egyptian elections, Shi'ite fundamentalists won in Iraq, and Hamas triumphed in Palestine. For this reason, the following comments merit particular attention:

It is not a neocon pipedream, but historically plausible that a democratic Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq can create momentum that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and eventually even a Syria or Iran would find hard to resist. Saudi Arabia's ballyhooed liberalization, Mubarak's unease about his successor, Libya's strange antics, Pakistan's revelation about nuclear commerce, and the Gulf States' talk of parliaments did not happen in a vacuum, but are rumblings that follow from fears of voters in Afghanistan and Iraq — and a Mullah Omar dethroned and Saddam's clan either dead or in chains.

5. In the case of the Muslim world, there is nothing inherently incompatible between Islam and democracy. Witness millions in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Turkey who vote. Such liberal venting may well explain why those who blow up Americans are rarely Indian or Turkish Muslims, but more likely Saudis or Egyptians. The trick is now to show that Arab Muslims can establish democracy, and thus the Palestine and Iraq experiments are critical to the entire region.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

He only needs to explain how democracy "leads to" the protection of minority rights if he is equating democracy with elections. But I don't see any evidence that he is equating them. And you haven't offered any besides appealing to your original assertion that neo-cons like Hanson equate them. I so far haven't seen any evidence of an equation. It wouldn't bother me much if the evidence existed somewhere, but this isn't it.

Anyway, if he doesn't explicitly make the equation of democracy and elections, and his writing is "muddy," how are you entitled to make the equation on his behalf? Where is evidence of the equation coming from apart from the fact that it would help your thesis to assert an equation? And if all of this is so unclear, how can it be clear that Hanson can be saddled with the Hamas election results?

The claim I made about Hanson's view flows directly from what he explicitly says in that paragraph: I deliberately offered about as literal an interpretation of what he said as can be produced. He says that democracy itself "offers" protection to minority rights: he doesn't say "leads to," but "offers." It offers such protection in his view because the democracy itself includes such protection: protection of minority rights is part of what "democracy" is on his understanding.

So you're just wrong that the paragraph "says nothing of the sort". It says exactly what I've ascribed to it, no more and no less. Perhaps he should have said more, but to criticize him as you've done is to ignore what he actually did say.

What I find odd about discussion at Liberty & Power is that you're all so eager to go after Hanson to pin the election results on him when it's hardly clear from the evidence that one can do so. Click around a bit, and you'll find someone closer to home applauding the election results in advance: Mark LeVine. For all of the criticism of Hanson, I haven't seen a word of criticism for that. I don't understand the omission.

Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

I don't really know or care all that much about Hanson's views, so I'm going by this one article by itself. Much of it has the expository clarity of mud, and that justifies some of what you say in criticism of him. Hanson constantly conflates "democracy," "liberalism," "rights," "liberty," and "constitutionalism" so that it's unclear what he means.

But it is one thing to say that he is unclear. It is another thing to attribute the view to him that you do. You say he shows little or no concern for minority rights, but that contradicts the last passage of his article:

Democracy in some sense is the last chance. It alone offers constitutional guarantees of free speech, minority rights, and an independent judiciary — a framework, a system, a paradigm in which naturally savage humans, prone to all sorts of awful things, as the 20th century attests, can somehow get along. Given the savagery of the modern Middle East that would say quite a lot.

This passage clearly implies that in the sense he has in mind, "democracy" presupposes rights of some kinds--free speech rights and minority rights against majority rule. Maybe he should show more concern for rights, but this passage is not consistent with your claim that "he shows little or no concern" for minority rights.

Incidentally, Hanson aside, it's worth noting that Aeon is right in the previous post to say that many of the defenders of the thesis in question really do mean "liberal democracy," not "democracy" per se. The most obvious example is Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, author of "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy" (Foreign Affairs, Nov 1997) and "Elections Are Not Democracy" and "Invade Iraq, but Bring Friends" and "How to Save the Arab World," the last three being columns in Newsweek. His archive:

David T. Beito - 1/28/2006

I think you were on the right track when you started. This is muddy thinking. The paragraph you quote does not say anything of the sort. It simply assumes that "democracy" (which seems to mean simply voting) will produce this desired result. He does not offer an explanation as to how and why. BTW, by all accounts, the debate during this campaign included a relatively free press and open debate.....yet produced this non-Hansonian result.