First of all, democracy is not a form of self-governance. Sorry, to break it to you, but it isn’t a form of government at all. Worse yet, democracy is not something that can be installed. The rhetoric of democracy broadcast from America in the last decade is nothing more than marketing. The drive addressed by the advertisement (freedom), is not the product that’s for sale (regime change). But if it isn’t government, and if American can’t offer it to other nations, what is it?
Simply put, democracy is a product of enframing predicated on belief. But belief in what? Let’s unpack this by starting with a critique of democracy.
Following Badiou, Nathan Coombs argues “that there is a constitutive illusion behind representative democracy [RD] which counts us all as individuals.” This illusion only counts as such if voters cease to believe in representative democracy. It would not be difficult to argue that this is the trend in American politics. But it is not so much the failing of RD as it is of the people who (do or don’t) believe in it.
So, if RD is a matter of belief, what is it a belief in? Simply, that the freedom accordered to all, regardless of the outcome, is a lesser evil than faith in a totalitarian minority. This is subtly different from communism, which holds the good of the whole above the good of the individual.
Surely, we have a common interest even in RD. Though sadly, this common interest is overshadowed by (an uncommonly stupid) single-click avidity that, more often than not, impels voters to vote against their best interests. But this returns to a critique of the voter, not the system of voting.
The categories that define our allegience (nation, party, ideology) comprise the “belief” of the Other to which we belong. This “belief” takes the form of “self-evident” in American history. I would argue that democracy can only take root in a collective once its individuals have been enframed by the principles of democracy. Once enframed, once the freedom of all becomes self-evident, democracy can emerge.
This is why I have watched events in Iran with such interest and horror. Do the protesters believe they have the power to change their country? If they do believe, they will change it. But can they do it alone? This question leads us through the sticky wicket of belief and regime change.
America could not have become a democracy without the help of the French. Yet, if France had simply installed a deomcracy in the British colonies, it would have become little more than French puppet. If Obama wants to help the protesters in Iran, he could find advice in our own history. We cannot install a democracy in Iran, but we can help the protesters believe.
Clay Bowler suggests that Obama’s foreign policy—a policy that begins with diplomacy rather than threats of war—will result in a bloodbath for the American people. What Clay fails to understand is that democracy is predicated upon belief, not force. Democracy, by definition, emerges from out of a people. If it does not, “democracy” just becomes a fancy name for regime change. One hired gun is replaced by another, higher paid, larger caliber weapon. I am solidly against a policy that believes that democracies can be installed. Force cannot enframe a people into belief. That said, what does Iran believe about itself?
If we have talked ourselves to the point where we can ask whether or not Iranian protesters believe, we are faced with a simple answer: Yes. The question that remains is: will we respond? This response could take the form of a speech, or fighter planes, or troops on the ground. I don’t know how best to help Iran believe right now, but I can say that we should help.
Democracy can’t be installed, but America can aid in the creation of a democracy in Iran, because it has already emerged from the enframed belief present within the people. They have shown their belief, I hope we have the courage to show ours.