Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 August 2014

Three Global Threats to Democracy

[For comment on Putin’s humanitarian mission to Eastern Ukraine, click here.]

Musical chairs and term limits
Malleable Leadership
Propaganda and media control


Look carefully at the world today, and you will discover two odd but contradictory things. First, the whole world appears to love democracy.

Except for China, every major power claims to have a form of it. Most minor powers do, too. Russia and Iran do. Even North Korea calls itself the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” And when we subject China’s form of government to analysis, it looks a lot like a strange kind of democracy, in which only a self-selected political elite participates.

But probe beneath the surface, and you discover the second odd thing. All is not universally well with “the people’s” self-rule. Subtle—or not so subtle—assaults on real control (even influence) by ordinary people take three forms.

The first is the game of musical chairs with high offices exemplified by Vladimir Putin, which Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan is now trying to duplicate. Putin has been Russia’s supreme leader, in one office or another, for fifteen years. From all appearances he appears bent on holding that position for life, and he may well succeed. Do the Russian people really want their very own Robert Mugabe?

The second assault on democracy is more subtle. In several countries, street demonstrations and/or popular rebellions have produced relatively peaceful “regime change,” tossing duly elected leaders out of office, without further elections, when they lost the people’s trust. Examples include Egypt, Thailand, Tunisia, and, most recently, Ukraine. Even Iran got in the act: although its abortive “Green Revolution” in 2009 failed to overturn the results of an obviously rigged election, it eventually produced a 2013 election that no one has contested as unclean.

The third assault on democracy is both more subtle and much older: control of the media and propaganda. Russia under Putin has proved that you don’t have to control all of the media to manipulate most of the people most of the time. All you have to control is the media that most people use, which in Russia means television.

Lest I appear the paradigmatic Yank pointing fingers at others, I hasten to add that we have similar problems here at home. We Yanks have no constitutional means of getting rid of a sitting president just for doing an abysmal job. He or she has to be a criminal. Thus we suffered Dubya for the full and proverbial “four more years,” although the people were already fed up with him, as his party’s “thumping” in 2006 clearly attested. And as for propaganda, we have some of the most effective, and therefore the worst, in human history, right here at home.

But I get ahead of myself. This essay examines these three modern (or not so modern, in the case of propaganda) assaults on democracy and makes recommendations for corrective international norms. We are now one species on one interconnected globe, and it makes sense for us to develop and (if we can) enforce minimum norms of democracy worldwide.

Musical chairs and term limits

Of the three assaults on democracy analyzed here, a single individual’s manipulation of high offices to stay in power is the most immediately dangerous. We shall not dwell long on the methods used, for they are all variations on a single theme. A popular leader uses a perhaps transient majority to change the law, cow or subvert the legislature, or amend a written constitution. He bends the law and malleable (or fearful) rival pols to hold on to power and make his new office the highest in the land, whether or not it was before.

What’s wrong with this, if the people appear to want it, or at least to acquiesce in it?

Holding on to power like this subverts democracy in three ways. First and most important, it ruins the upcoming political class. It crushes younger rivals, no matter how talented they may be. It clots new blood. How many talented young Russians, for example, are going to opt for a life of politics after seeing what has become of Dmitri Medvedyev?

What future can they have, what dreams? A poor boy from Arkansas named Bill Clinton and an African-American from Hawaii named Barack Obama could dream of becoming president only because each knew that the office is up for grabs, in a real, contested election, every four years.

Second, long tenures in office breed sycophancy. When a single person holds supreme power for years and years, yes-men gain ascendancy. Skeptics and people with their own personal constituencies get weeded out. What happens is the political equivalent of genetic inbreeding, but much faster.

Finally, the supreme office holder inevitably deteriorates mentally and morally. Idealism and new ideas evaporate in a ceaseless battle to retain power, purge rivals and prove oneself right, over and over again. The ultimate goal becomes personal political survival, regardless of the people’s interests.

So with rare exceptions, old pols age like eggs, not wine. Look at Mao. He unified a country torn and bleeding by centuries of colonialism and a decade of world war. If he had stepped down then, as did our George Washington, all our species, and not just the Chinese, would laud him as a great leader.

But Mao became China’s last emperor in all but name, foisting disastrous politics like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution on a great nation striving to enter the twentieth century. Mao’s latter years virtually undid all the good that his unification of his nation had achieved. He was utterly ignorant of economics and other science and covered his ignorance with bon mots and fiction in his Little Red Book.

Robert Mugabe is similar. As a freedom fighter, he liberated his majority race and made his nation independent of colonial power. But then his thirst for revenge, tyranny and utter ignorance of economics turned Zimbabwe into the broken pariah state we see today.

Unfortunately, Putin is on the very same path. The man who once spoke to the Bundestag, in fluent German, about a peaceful trading zone from the Atlantic to the Urals, and who brought Russia into the WTO, is destroying Russia’s economy with needless sanctions and threatening a totally gratuitous war in Eastern Ukraine. He appears to be utterly out of ideas, besides fomenting base nationalism to keep himself in power.

We Yanks have nothing to crow about in this regard. Something similar is happening here at home, albeit on a more local scale.

Our members of Congress are getting more and more extreme, and less and less thoughtful, because some 90% of them are virtually assured of re-election. Our Constitution says House members have to run for office every two years. But gerrymandered districts, party polarization, and low turnout in primary elections gives them nearly as much longevity in office as Putin with his musical chairs. The chief difference today between Russians and us Yanks is that we have a more recently elected supreme leader tied down by 535 Lilli-Putins, 90% of whom are just as assured of “re-election” as Putin.

Like us, China has effective term limits. Its supreme leaders and those on its seven-member (once nine-member) ruling committee change every ten years. You don’t have to be Chinese to feel (or to understand) the surge of energy and optimism that accompanied last year’s peaceful transfer of power to Xi Jinping.

We won’t know for some time whether Xi’s battle against corruption is for real, or just a cover for routine internal power struggles. We also won’t know for years whether China’s greater “assertiveness” comes from Xi or would be worse if he did not try to mute it. (We do know that the most dangerous Chinese nationalist, Bo Xilai, is safely behind bars.) But it’s clear that Xi’s new ideas and new approaches have energized the whole nation and given it new global respect.

That’s what new leaders do. That’s what few if any leaders have the energy, stamina or skill to do more than once in a lifetime. And that’s why real, working term limits—uncircumvented by musical chairs or gerrymandered districts with low-turnout primaries—are the single most important earmark of true democracy. At the moment, both Russians and we Yanks are lagging on that measure.

Malleable Leadership

Every classic parliamentary democracy has a way of getting rid of a bad leader peacefully, besides natural death. It’s called a “vote of no confidence.” If the party in power loses such a vote, the government is said to “fall,” and the prime minister resigns and calls new parliamentary elections.

It’s worth emphasizing that our Yankee democracy has no such means. We can only impeach and remove a president if we can prove to our Senate that he or she is a criminal, guilty of “high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” We have no way, even in theory, of getting rid of a president just for doing a bad job, no matter how bad. Not always do stupidity and incompetence rise to the level of criminality. See Dubya.

This is a big problem for us Yanks. It’s also a big problem for any nation that copies this unfortunate feature of our Constitution. Having no easily available way to get rid of a bad leader right away—without waiting for term limits to expire—is a big structural flaw. Not only does it extend bad leadership in a rapidly accelerating global economy and polity. It also encourages bad leaders to a adopt a “siege mentality” as they try to perpetuate themselves in office. Wasn’t that precisely what Richard Nixon did?

By itself, a parliamentary system like Britain’s or India’s is no cause for complacency. Often a popular leader sweeps a significant parliamentary majority with him into office, as did Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. Then, if the popular mood shifts, as it did in Egypt, the only recourse is to persuade some partisans of the unpopular leader to change their minds, or to wait for new elections, which is not much better than waiting for term limits to expire. The people of Cairo and Alexandria, who appeared to be suffering a genuine case of buyer’s remorse, chose to do neither. A similar thing appears to have happened in Ukraine with regard to the duly-elected but clueless and tyrannical plutocrat Yanukovych.

It’s easy to cheer or boo these developments, depending on your own politics and understanding of the merits (or lack thereof) of these foreign leaders. But one fact remains: whatever the word “democracy” means, it appears to preclude a bad leader from staying in power long after he or she has utterly lost the people’s trust.

Parliamentary democracies seem now to have the best means of getting rid of such a leader, but their means are not infallible. A bad leader can stay in office by maintaining a parliamentary majority, whether corruptly, by undue influence, through patronage, or by genuine political persuasion. And when the rules of removal and succession are not clear enough, you can have a succession battle, as in the case of Al-Maliki in Iraq. Then what resort do the people have, other than the streets and/or violence?

It goes without saying that we are speaking here of extraordinary circumstances, not minor political disputes or the inevitable decline in an elected leader’s popularity after a few years in office. We are speaking of a dramatic or sudden decline in public trust, of the kind that produced Dubya’s “thumping” in 2006, or that induced hundreds of thousands of Egyptians to march into the streets and camp out.

Such a decline is not easy to measure accurately, but it’s a combination of numbers and intensity. People don’t camp in the streets and risk violence, hooliganism, rape (for women) and tear gas or worse for trivia.

The problem of removing a duly elected leader quickly, peacefully and lawfully is a question to which politicians and political scientists should devote substantial attention. Human social evolution did not end with the American Constitution, any more than it did with the Bible or the Qur’an. Written constitutions can be amended. Newly-forming states can do better than tell an impatient and suffering people, as we Yanks do our own, “wait for the end of the n-year term,” especially when a bad leader might use the intervening years to entrench himself.

Possibly effective alternatives are not hard to conceive. A substantial minority of the legislature might have the power to call an early referendum or plebiscite on a bad leader. A verified petition by a substantial fraction of the people might do the same. Or a relatively neutral figurehead, such as a constitutional monarch, might call new elections, for example, after “substantial public disorder,” as in Egypt or Thailand.

Words on paper are one thing. Investigating possible consequences in the real world are another. There is no simple solution to this problem, because making it easy to oust a “bad” leader might encourage dark forces to use the same means to harass or get rid of a good one.

But whatever the risk, the reward of a viable solution is worth the pain. In Egypt and Thailand, the army stepped into the power vacuum in a depressingly routine way. In Egypt, it looks as if the army has entrenched itself for the long haul. Neither case is self-evidently a step forward for genuine democracy. It would be better, by far, if there were prescribed and orderly legal, civil procedures to remove a leader who has lost the people’s trust without mobs in the streets or the army stepping in.

Propaganda and media control

The third assault on democracy is far less immediate but ultimately far more dangerous than either of the other two. It’s also far harder to repel. Isn’t free speech a foundation of democracy? And don’t propagandists have the right to speak freely, too?

That’s been our traditional Yankee approach. Let everyone talk. Let liars, thieves, scoundrels and the most dangerous propagandists take to the airways and run rampant on the Internet. Let the “marketplace of ideas” become a street bazar. Then the best ideas will win, as free and informed people sort truth from lies.

That’s the much-recited abstract theory here in the US. We Yanks use it to justify what is, in fact, an uncharacteristic bit of legal absolutism. Generally speaking, the only “speech” we condemn is false speech with immediate and obvious adverse consequences, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ example of crying “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We even tolerate provably false speech, at least about public figures, as long as it was not published “recklessly.”

Take hate speech, for example. In the United States, you can call members of your favorite bash group lazy, genetically inferior, degenerate, habitual criminals, psychopaths, and worthless human trash fit only for extermination. As long as you don’t directly advocate violence against them, or incite others to it, you are home free.

It’s worth noting that other fully democratic societies don’t see things quite the same way. Germany, for example, has strong laws against hate speech. It even has laws against denying the Holocaust, which, while reprehensible revisionist history, concerns an abstraction several steps removed from violence. And isn’t today’s Germany a model democracy?

Yet the most dangerous speech today is not hate speech, although it does appear to be on the rise. The kind of speech most dangerous to democracy today, by far, is demonization and character assassination.

Let me begin here at home, with the infamous Koch Brothers. Encouraged by our Supreme Court’s categorizing their billions as “speech,” they are using their money to influence elections for their personal benefit.

Now the Koch Brothers are fossil-fuel magnates, and there are valid arguments in favor of fossil fuels. The vast bulk of transportation, industry and agriculture worldwide runs on fossil fuels today. Should we go cold turkey while we convert to alternative energy, letting our economies, our crops and our agriculture literally rot meanwhile? Probably not.

The Koch Brothers’ interests are primarily in oil and gas. They could argue credibly that oil and gas contribute much less to pollution and global warming than coal, and that gas creates less risk of environmentally damaging spills because (being a gas) it dissipates naturally at the site of a spill or leak. They could argue that, in today’s economy, energy independence in fossil fuels is important for political strength and stability, as, for example, the EU seeks to throw off Russia’s energy hegemony.

But do the Koch Brothers make these credible and valid arguments? Not much. What they do is give their billions to propaganda mills run by the likes of Karl Rove, which specialize in character assassination. They destroy the character and reputation of politicians who don’t accept a dogmatic agenda of lower taxes and less regulation, especially of any business involving fossil fuels. So the Koch Brothers get useful influence, while the public gets lies and hate.

The Rovian propaganda mills use the same sophisticated techniques of propaganda (euphemistically known as “marketing” and “public relations”) that Madison Avenue uses to sell inferior and defective products and services. But there’s one key difference. Even the worst and most misleading product ads occasionally say something positive about the products and services they promote. The Rovian propaganda mills focus on the negative, with the goal of destroying the character of their political opponents, or at least making opposing-leaning voters disgusted enough with both sides to stay home on election day.

According to political pollsters and pundits, these negative ads and related tactics work. But are they really what our Founders had in mind in adopting our First Amendment? And are political campaigns based on them really “democracy”?

Before you answer those questions, let’s switch gears back to Vladimir Putin. He has ginned up the most treacherous kind of Russian nationalism by demonizing Ukrainian patriots, many Europeans (especially in nations with substantial Russian-speaking minorities), and even us Yanks. If you watch the constant drumbeat of demonization on Russian television (all of which today is state-controlled or state-influenced), you get the sneaking suspicion that Putin today has learned all he knows about negative advertising and demonization from the likes of Karl Rove.

Don’t get me wrong. I revere free speech as the foundation not only of democracy, but of science and civilization itself. But when free speech without restraint or moderation turns elections and international relations into demonization- and hate-fests, don’t we have an obligation to do something?

We obviously can’t have a “speech czar” making fine distinctions between legitimate speech and propaganda and censoring the latter. In addition to being dangerous and unreliable, that would put far too much power in the censor’s hands.

But there are cleverer ways of addressing the problem. Before Ronald Reagan, we had a rule for the broadcast airwaves called the “Fairness Doctrine.” Any candidate for office attacked during an election cycle had the right to respond to the attack, on the very same broadcast station, and for free.

This rule was brilliant in two ways. First, it forced the same audience that heard the attack to hear (or at least to have access to) a rebuttal. Second, by making the private broadcaster that aired the attack air the rebuttal for free, it encouraged private broadcasters to exercise a measure of moderation and discretion in what they aired, so as not to give up too much free air time. If they felt strongly about an attack (for example, in a case of obvious corruption), they could air the attack as a public service. But few of them then, except the most rabid, would have aired most or all of Karl Rove’s attack ads.

The Fairness Doctrine, which the Supreme Court had upheld, died under Ronald Reagan, hardly the deepest thinker in America, even at the time. It has never been resurrected.

Of course devising a similar doctrine today would be more difficult. The advent of cable TV, the Internet and streaming has completely revolutionized the media.

But the Fairness Doctrine’s four basic principles appear to have enduring merit. First, a new fairness doctrine would censor nothing, i.e., do no harm. Second, it would make our atomized media fairer by requiring attackers to provide responses to their attacks to the very same audience that received them.

That’s like building a “marketplace of ideas” with full comparative advertising. It could help solve one of the chief impediments to public cohesion and cooperation these days: the tendency of our ideologically polarized people to rely only on media that reinforce their initial ideological prejudices.

Third, such a rule would reduce extremism and defamation (even if legal) by putting a price on it, making a commercial information service spend time and money publishing a rebuttal to attacks. Even a non-profit blogger, like me, would have to spend time (albeit probably not money), publishing the reply, and perhaps negotiating with the submitter over its wording and grammar.

Finally, by letting no important lie go unchallenged, and by putting a price on attacks roughly proportional to their vitriol, the rule would encourage accuracy and civility in public discourse, whatever the medium used. If the Internet is indeed in the process of destroying print journalism, as it appears, without anything to replace journalism’s traditional standards of accuracy and professionalism, the least we can do is encourage online sources to adopt similar standards.

Of course, we Yanks have big obstacles to making all this happen: our First Amendment and its so far near-absolute interpretation in our courts. In order to adopt such a common-sense solution, we might have to amend it or seek a Supreme Court that has its eye on practical consequences as much as received dogma. Other nations, of course, are not so confined.


We live today in a multipolar world. We Yanks may think ourselves supreme, but we are not. We are falling behind increasingly, in an increasing number of areas, and not just in our mismanagement of ever-festering wars like Iraq’s.

No nation today, including our own, has a lock on good government or human social evolution. All can and must contribute, each in its own way. And each should not be ignorant of progress in the others.

Even Putin appears to know this now. An ex-KGB man, he appears to have thought that the popular yearning for decent government and an end to corruption in Ukraine was a product of Western agitation and our CIA. Now, as he looks around at his best foreign friend Angela Merkel raising her hand for sectoral sanctions, despite the pain they will cause Germany, he seems to understand better. He’s covering the tracks of his troop massing and support for civil war with overtures of peace and a humanitarian mission (as to which, see below). He looks around the world and sees few understanding faces, a lot of puzzlement and chagrin, and an eagerness on the part of China to take commercial advantage of Russia’s blunders and distress.

Our Yankee Constitution is a marvelous document. When it was written, it was absolutely brilliant. Even the parts perpetuating slavery and tending toward legislative minority rule were necessary compromises to make the whole work. But we should never forget how odious were and are those compromises, and how much human social evolution has moved on worldwide.

Now our Constitution is over two centuries old. It doesn’t represent the very latest in social thinking, and it doesn’t address all the real and current problems of democracy. In particular, it doesn’t address: (1) getting rid of a bad but non-criminal leader before his time is up, (2) lower officeholders usurping supreme power (as Dick Cheney did the powers of the presidency) and (3) the subversion of elections and government itself by deliberately obfuscatory propaganda.

The longest-lasting modern democracy is the Brits’. In fact, it may be the longest-lived in human history. If you count from Magna Carta, next year it will have lasted eight centuries.

In all that time, the Brits never had a written constitution like ours. Maybe they felt they didn’t need one. After all, they haven’t had to declare themselves independent (and different) from a pre-existing power since Rome. Maybe their dreadful weather keeps them oh-so-sensible by cooling their hot blood.

But for whatever reason, there are governments on this globe whose structure and operation are more democratic, more effective, and more sensible than ours.

Even China’s may be more effective. It has strict term limits for top leaders and even a five- or ten-year “apprenticeship” program on the top committee. And while not enjoying universal democracy, China has a certain air of democracy among its ruling elite: its Communist Party.

China’s eighty million Party members have a bigger “population” than all but thirteen countries on Earth. Collectively, they are a self-selected political elite which jockeys intimately for power and policy in a lifelong, meritocratic struggle, much as did the Mandarins during the imperial era. That’s not a bad system, even if it doesn’t give the persons in the street or the peasant in the rice field much of a voice.

But whatever you may think of China and other foreign countries, they all bear watching and, on occasion, imitating. The nation that wins for its people and enjoys consistent peace and prosperity will be the nation that copies the best ideas from others and implements them most quickly and effectively.

Human social evolution is now reaching an inflection point under the pressure of population, pollution, global warming, global communication, and increasing energy scarcity. As a species, we are going to have to grow up quickly, lest we go under. Improving our governance, without undeserved adulation for any single form or constitution, is one way of doing that.

Putin’s Humanitarian Mission: Trust but Verify

Yesterday Vladimir Putin’s humanitarian mission to the suffering separatist regions of Eastern Ukraine arrived at the Russian border near Donetsk. There are a number of long, white trucks, all blessed by an Orthodox priest.

Is this entourage a mission of mercy or a Trojan Horse? How should Kiev respond to it? The answer is easy. Let the trucks in, without Russian military escort. Once they are safely on Kiev-loyal soil, search them thoroughly before letting them through to rebel territory.

It’s unlikely that Putin would be dumb enough to try to smuggle munitions in those pure looking white trucks. It would be too easy to search them, and too embarrassing if any contraband is found.

But Kiev should take nothing for granted, not with all the feints, twists and turns in Putin’s apparent policy so far. It should search every cubic centimeter of the trucks and X-ray all crevices, conscious that in war, as in love, important things often come in small packages.

It may help to recall three essential facts about Putin. First, he’s far from stupid. Second, he’s often decisive, as he was in grabbing Crimea. Third, he’s a macho man. If he lost control of his chain of command or events, he would be the last to admit it.

The notion that all the apparent twists and turns in his Ukraine policy come from Putin himself seems untenable. More likely, he’s been misled or misinformed by the rebels and members or factions of Russia’s military. Russia hasn’t fought a real war since its Great Patriotic War (its name for World War II). (Georgia wasn’t a real war but a romp.) So its military leaders, like all military after a long period of peace, are probably unrealistic. Remember our own experiences in Vietnam and Iraq?

It’s entirely possible that Putin may now be disgusted, if not enraged, by what has happened in Eastern Ukraine. And the target of his disgust or rage may be as much or more his own underlings and the rebels in Donetsk as the new government in Kiev, which he purports to respect.

So Putin may indeed have changed policy, not due to a change of heart, but due to more accurate information and the trend of events. If so, it would be wise to welcome his trucks, let them feed and aid the battered residents of Donetsk and Luhansk, and let them accordingly cleanse Russia’s reputation just a bit. Letting a rival save face is often a cheap and effective way to discourage further blunders.

But search the trucks first, thoroughly, every cubic centimeter. And don’t let their aid or its timing become an excuse for letting the rebels regroup, resupply or advance.



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