As we watch the successful end of the Libyan revolution unfold, it’s worth noting again the difference between democracy and elections.
American foreign policy has sometimes confused the two, promoting elections as though that meant promoting democracy. Democracy requires much more than just voting to allow the majority to choose the government. Voting isn’t enough. Democracy depends as much on that which cannot be voted on as it does on that which can.
Unless and until certain things are established as beyond the reach of the ballot box, beyond the ability of a majority to overturn, then elections can never be free, fair or democratic in any meaningful way.
What countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia need first of all is not elections, but a Bill of Rights. Establish that and legitimate elections will inevitably follow. Fail to establish that and legitimate elections won’t last for long.
I probably should say that a Bill of Rights is of foremost important, not that it is needed “first of all.” The “which comes first” question can be quite tricky. A nation needs a legitimate, established government to conduct elections, but until elections are held it cannot have a legitimate established government. A Bill of Rights is necessary for there to be legitimate elections, but until there are elections, how can such a Bill of Rights be regarded as the will of the people? It seems paradoxical, but history has a way of sorting this out. No national constitution was ever drafted under the rules of that constitution, but nonetheless, those constitutions do exist.
My point here is that democracy cannot be sustained without a guarantee of legal protections for minorities — protections not subject to the whim of electoral defeats or the opinions of a simple majority of the electorate. Democracy will fall apart unless those protections are firmly and reliably in place. I mean the whole panoply of rights and protections that can be found in the U.S. Bill of Rights and in the amendments of the second American revolution. That means freedom of religion, freedom of speech, a free press, freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the right to bear arms, protection from being compelled or coerced to incriminate oneself, protection from unlawful search and seizure, due process, equal protection — the whole shebang.
If your party losing an election means that you could be forced to convert to another religion, or that your union or newspaper may be shut down, or that your rights to privacy or property may be taken away, then you will not be able to risk allowing the ballot to determine your future. You will have to ensure that the outcome of the election does not entail the loss of the inalienable rights you rightly desire. So you will turn to fraud, intimidation and violence. That becomes a rational choice, and an inevitable one.
Without a Bill of Rights — without that not-subject-to-a-vote guarantee of full legal rights for minorities — an election can never be free and fair. Without a Bill of Rights, elections become just a slightly more mannered version of civil war.