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Issue No. 118 (September 2008) – Mark Satin, Editor

Is “democracy”
what the world needs now?

Summary: Stanford professor Larry Diamond’s The Spirit of Democracy isn’t the hippest book on international relations these days (Samantha Power’s Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World is that), nor is it the one that most effectively upbraids Americans (Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World would take that prize).  But it may be the most important.  In impressive detail, Diamond tells us how to spread democracy abroad in the least coercive and most cost-effective manner.  His strategy is the “anti-Iraq,” and it might work.  But how benign is it, really?  And is U.S.-style democracy what the world needs now, or is it something deeper and wiser that’s struggling to be born?

Dear Larry Diamond,

I have just finished your new book The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World (Times Books / Henry Holt, 2008), and want to thank you no end.

I am a long-time advocate of reducing suffering abroad, by any means necessary (see our article on humanitarian military intervention HERE), and had feared that the ill-timed and ill-executed War on Iraq might poison our will to help other peoples for at least a generation.

Your book lays out a blueprint for helping other peoples that’s infinitely less cruel (and infinitely more cost-effective) than our Iraq adventure has been.

You’d have us seek to reproduce only our best traits abroad – free and fair elections, freedom of press, rule of law, transparency, noncorruption, etc.

And you’d have us do this not by threats (let alone unilateral invasion), but by having our government contribute generously to carefully chosen political parties and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and other entities abroad.  Alternately, or additionally, you’d have our government contribute to “independent” U.S. groups that would make similar investments abroad.

To put teeth in such investments, you’d make foreign aid conditional on developing nations actually practicing free elections, rule of law, noncorruption, etc., and not just insincerely aping such traits as most do today.

Reasons for reading & writing you

One reason I was drawn to your book is that you’re one of this country’s leading democracy scholars, coordinator of the democracy program of the Center on Democracy at Stanford University and senior fellow specializing in democracy abroad at the Hoover Institution.

A more visceral reason I was drawn to your book is you walk your talk.  Since at least 1990 you’ve been intimately involved with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which you describe as “the first congressionally funded but nongovernmental systematic effort to promote democracy abroad.”

A final reason I was drawn to your book (and a reason many of my newsletter viewers will be drawn to it as well) is that you’ve been places we’ve been.  In the early 1970s you were a student leader who fought against the Vietnam war AND against what you characterize as “intolerant, Marxist revolutionary currents within the antiwar movement.”  In the late 1970s you did a doctoral dissertation on the possibility of U.S.-style democracy abroad despite the ridicule of many far-left students and faculty, who felt your topic was “quixotic and naive, if not absurd.”

We were right to support the forces that we did (you and most of my viewers and I).  But you seem to think that the same strategies and the same democratic vision that were right 30 years ago are still right today.  I wonder about that, which is why I’m writing you this letter.

Faulty definition?

You define democracy in two ways.  “Thin” democracy is, basically, free and fair elections.  “Thick” democracy is elections plus such familiar attributes as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of ethnic and religious groups to pursue their beliefs, clear rules of law, an independent judiciary, checks and balances on elected officials, a vibrant “civil society,” and civilian control over the military.

I have a couple of problems with this.  First, you appear to assume that thick democracy is the logical and preferred outcome of thin democracy.  That feels a little off to me.  Suppose voters modified or even eliminated various aspects of thick democracy – would that make a polity less of a democracy?  Or merely less of a U.S.-style democracy?

Second, suppose one of the components of thick democracy (the independent judiciary, perhaps) decides to, for example, make it impossible for a neighborhood to keep obvious prostitutes, gang-bangers, and drug dealers off of its streets, despite the overwhelming desire of the residents of that neighborhood to do so.  Do we still have a democracy?  According to you, yes.  But at what cost to the people who must live there?

Finally, I cannot help noticing that none of your attributes of thick democracy guarantees food, housing, health care, or even jobs to the citizens of said democracy.  Why in the world should trivial and community-poisoning negative freedoms (e.g., not to be forced to keep one’s pants over one’s underwear) be privileged over life-giving positive freedoms (e.g., to be able to feed oneself)?

At a seminar two years ago, a former government official from Afghanistan perhaps rather rudely told you, “If a democratic society doesn’t serve the people, what is the use of it?”  All around the world, more and more good people are asking themselves that question.

Magisterial survey, depressing findings

For me, the most intriguing part of your book is the middle section, a survey of democracy’s “prospects” in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  It goes way beyond what one can find in even the best newspapers.

I suspect that you originally intended this section to be a relatively cheerful progress report.  But you are an honest scholar and reporter, and democracy has begun losing its global luster, and by the time you finished this section it was a chronicle not of progress but of frustration and failures.

Over the last 30 years, some version of thin or thick democracy has been tried seemingly everywhere.  But nearly everywhere it’s been tried, people have found it seriously wanting:

  • In Eastern Europe, by your own account, democracy bears an overwhelming association with “sleaziness, influence peddling, cynical political maneuvers, and corruption”;

  • In Asia, you say, the very “viability of democracy” is in doubt given that region’s struggles with “political corruption, abuses of power, political violence, and paralyzing confrontations between government and the opposition”;
  • In Africa, tragically, democracy coupled with prosperity based on oil and aid revenues has created a situation not of incipient progress but of “economic irrationality and waste,” a situation playing right into the hands of the “monster of African politics: corrupt, lawless, personal rule.”

Despite this objectively lamentable track record, you are quick to call all of democracy’s critics “authoritarian.”

Many of them are, of course.  But I wonder if you’re not pressing a little too hard on that trigger.

Given democracy’s actual results over the last 30 years – and not just in the developing nations, but in Western Europe and the U.S. as well (the soaring deficits, the coarsening of the popular culture, the collapse of the urban public schools) – it is not just authoritarians who are sensing that U.S.-style democracy may have taken us about as far as it can.  Many, many good people – from champions of “Asian values” to students of indigenous people’s ways of decision-making -- are casting about for alternatives.

It is a failing of your book – a moral failing, as well as a political one – that it doesn’t cut such people any slack.  Is it inconceivable to you that the world will ever progress beyond the views set forth in The Federalist Papers?

For you there appears to be only one legitimate question: “What can be done to renew democratic progress?”  I would rather ask a different sort of question: Given all that we’ve learned about the various forms of government decision-making over the last three centuries or so, how can we devise new forms of government decision-making (drawing on the best of all that’s come before) that can help 21st-century peoples manifest the best of who they are?

Renewing democratic progress?

You provide answers to your question by (usefully and fascinatingly) examining why democracy was largely on the march for the quarter-century beginning approx. with the Portugese revolution of 1974 . . . and why it’s been largely on the decline since approx. the time of the Pakistani military coup in 1999.

But I wonder how persuasive your answers really are.

For example, you attribute democracy’s decline to corruption, self-seeking, weak rule of law, bad economic performance, and increasing social chaos.  But if democracy allows or (worse) subtly fosters such results, then what’s the point of saving it?  Why shouldn’t it be transformed or even replaced if a more life-affirming form of government can be devised?

You note that economic development, even under authoritarian regimes, tends to raise personal income, education, access to information, and awareness of the world, in ways that jump-start democratization.  Well and good.  But you don’t note an important corollary – that if democracy isn’t working, then economically stable, educated, informed, and globally aware citizens may take the lead in casting about for pertinent alternatives.

You (approvingly) cite economist Amartya Sen to the effect that certain cultures, such as India’s, seem to tend toward democracy.  But if some cultures tend toward democracy, then who’s to say that other cultures’ governance preferences are potentially less humanly satisfying for the members of those cultures?  Wouldn’t we Americans better be advised to honestly share the positive AND negative aspects of our own preferred system of government with other peoples, rather than seek to persuade them it’s the best they’ll ever be able to come up with?

And while we’re on that subject: You proudly claim that government-funded NGOs like your own National Endowment for Democracy (and many partially government-funded Western NGOs) have been a major factor in selling other countries on democratic forms of governance.  I must say that it makes me nervous to read that NED and similar organizations have played a major role in spreading democracy around the world.

You stress the work of NED in funding opposition groups in places like Communist Poland and contemporary Nigeria; however, critics of NED tend to stress its work in funding opposition groups in places like Sandinista Nicaragua and contemporary Venezuela (see, e.g., some of the articles HERE).

I would like the line between “democracy promotion” and U.S. interventionism to be drawn more clearly than it is in your strategy.  And I can’t help wondering – how can groups on the U.S. payroll in other countries be as “independent” as you say they are?  Even Radical Middle Newsletter refuses contributions greater than $1,000 for a reason.

The American example

My hat goes off to you for ending your book on a modest note, with a chapter called “Physician, Heal Thyself,” on the troubled state of U.S. democracy.

At the same time, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the remedies you offer for the U.S. are technical fixes – proposals for containing corruption, reducing the purchase of influence, enhancing voter turnout, etc.

I’ve proposed such fixes too – see, e.g., HERE.  At ground level, though, I think most of us are less bothered by democracy’s technical imperfections than we are by deeper concerns.  In the U.S., democracy seems to have no way of stopping (and may in fact contribute to) phenomena such as the following:

  • public school systems declining in plain view – for decades now

  • popular culture becoming coarser by the minute
  • poorly informed or poorly educated voters shaping crucial political decisions
  • health systems groaning beneath the weight of lack of personal and collective responsibility
  • ignorance and belligerence and a sense of victimhood becoming “cool” among the young and, increasingly, not-so-young
  • political campaigns appealing to our basest and most selfish instincts
  • federal and state budget deficits careening wildly out of control
  • socially shared ethics and norms disappearing from view
  • mainstream political candidates marketing themselves like soap
  • energy and environmental decisions being made with the short-term firmly in mind

I don’t know about you, but I think the implications of such trends are terrifying.  Surely good people need to successfully address them ASAP, even if aspects of thick or thin democracy must give way in the process.

Alternatives to democracy?

Because your book is so thorough, you do touch on some of the alternatives to traditional democracy that are arising now – although without acknowledging their rich and conceivably positive implications for post-democratic governance.

For example, at various points in your text you appear to speak positively of the United Nations . . . but you never discuss the reduction in national sovereignty that will be necessary if the U.N. is ever going to play a leading role in changing the world for the better.

You acknowledge without respect or empathy what you relentlessly attack as the “authoritarian” political model that’s arising now in nations as diverse as Singapore and Venezuela.  By contrast, note the respectful tone in the recent testimony of Thomas Carothers, another prominent democracy expert, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, democracy no longer enjoys an unchallenged place on the international scene as the only political system viewed as successful and credible.  China’s continued economic success has elevated the “strong-hand” political approach to managing economic development as an attractive model in many parts of the developing world. . . .  Citizens in some countries with poor development records show a willingness to sacrifice some of their freedoms for the possibility of better economic development [or happier social or cultural arrangements - ed.]. . . .

U.S. democracy-promotion groups must focus attention on the fact that they can no longer assume a majority of citizens in countries where they work believe that democracy is necessarily the best possible political system.

You quote a phrase from one of Donna Lee Van Cott’s journal articles on page 181.  You don’t acknowledge that Prof. Van Cott is one of the U.S. scholars seeking to present indigenous people’s decision-making processes as a possible alternative to traditional thin-democratic decision-making processes (see her faculty page HERE).

Similarly, you quote from one of James Fishkin’s Internet articles, on “deliberative polling,” on pp. 361-62.  You do not acknowledge that his important book Democracy and Deliberation suggests that polls of random samples of citizens (n.b.: citizens who are educated about a particular issue, encouraged to discuss that issue, and then polled for their position(s) on that issue) could be used IN LIEU OF traditional popular or legislative voting mechanisms.  (You imply that Prof. Fishkin would only use such polls to educate the wider public.)  (For a quick introduction to Prof. Fishkin’s work and to that of other advocates of “deliberative” or “discursive” decision-making, see HERE.)

You are obvously well-informed about the debates on globalization.  But you do not acknowledge that many of the most articulate critics of unfeeling globalization, such as Naomi Klein and David Korten, see radically decentralized decision-making as an alternative to traditional democratic forms (see, e.g., Korten’s book The Great Turning, 2006, reviewed by us HERE, and the suggestive final pages of Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, 2007, reviewed by us HERE.  For approaches to decision-making that would privilege direct over representative democracy, see the pioneering work of Tom Atlee’s Co-Intelligence Institute and Jim Rough’s Wisdom Councils, briefly discussed by us in the last part of HERE).

Finally, but not leastly, I think it's incumbent on you and all democracy scholars to acknowledge feminist critiques of democracy, beginning with Jane Mansbridge's classic Beyond Adversary Democracy (orig. 1981).

Seems so long ago, Larry

Forty years ago, Larry, you and I and many of the viewers of this newsletter began to struggle for a world that could finally get us beyond the shibboleths of both traditional liberalism (embodied then by the Vietnam War) and traditional radicalism (embodied then by violent Marxist uprisings around the world).

I think it’s important that we continue to provide critical support to those who would transform political systems that are failing to meet the real needs of the real people who must live in them . . . no matter how admirable the pedigrees of those systems may be.

Sincerely, -- Mark Satin



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