I’ll add to Daniel Larison’s criticism of Ross Douthat’s claim that “the last few weeks should bury, once and for all, the foolish idea that neoconservatism’s rhetorical commitment to democracy promotion is just a smokescreen for Likudnik dual loyalties or U.S. imperialism.” Douthat’s otherwise sensible post employs some gratuitous, right-baiting straw men. Who has ever said that democracy promotion is “just” a smokescreen? That’s not an argument one would expect to see from right-wing critics of the neoconservatives, since those critics are, as Larison observes, hardly enthusiasts for democracy. If neoconservatives are Likudniks or imperialists — and many of them are — it hardly follows that they cannot also be democracy-promoters.

Douthat should be well aware of this: what the neoconservatives mean by democracy, and what their critics know they mean, is not one man, one vote. It’s not procedural democracy but a substantive democracy: a democracy that entails an American-style mixed-market economy (“democratic capitalism”), liberal institutions of civil society (e.g., labor unions, but not too strong or violent labor unions; religious institutions, but only those organized on a voluntary basis), and a political system that is democratic in name but designed to promote enlightened objectives rather than whatever the popular will might be — especially if that popular will is retrograde by American standards. On this model, a democracy is by definition going to be pro-American and favorably disposed toward some of the more grandiose claims of Israeli nationalism. This is precisely why people like George Gilder insist that Israel is fulfilling the dream of the Enlightenment, just as America supposedly does. To oppose the expansion of Israeli settlements into the occupied territories is to oppose the expansion of high technology, capitalism, tolerance, and civilization itself — in a word, democracy. (That many of the settlers are religious fundamentalists can be glossed over: after all, the grand strategy of the Republican Party here in the U.S. demands the assimilation of Christianity to substantive democracy.)

That procedural democracy in the Gaza strip and elsewhere in the Arab world has not produced substantive democracy might be a scandal, and it can put U.S. neoconservatives temporarily at odds with their Likud friends, but neoconservatives have no more difficulty than leftists in theorizing their way out of the contradiction: the priority is on substantive democracy, and only uncivil institutions and a lack of appropriate consciousness-raising can account for the failure of the popular will to meet the standards expected of the “true” popular will. (Compare this to the tensions that arose between certain advanced Western left-wingers, with their emphasis on sexual liberation, and their somewhat backward but still admired socialist friends in the less developed world, who often retained politically incorrect attitudes. American neoconservatives are certainly more “advanced” in their ideology than the Likud Party is. But saying neocons cannot be broadly sympathetic to Likud’s objectives because of a difference emphasis on procedural democracy in the Arab world is like saying New Leftists could not have been Castroites because they disagreed with Fidel about gay rights.) A procedural democracy that fails to produce substantive democracy simply has to be forced to be free — preferably, perhaps, through re-education, but by brute force if necessary. This is why nation-building is an essential component of neoconservative foreign policy. The idea is not only to neutralize a real or imagined security threat, but to create a new personality in foreign lands, a personality that is less authoritarian and more democratic. People reconditioned in this manner will naturally — by virtue of a remade nature, that is — be friends of America and Israel.

To admit that this substantive democracy may be incompatible with procedural democracy would require junking an American myth cherished by liberals and neoconservatives alike (but which is far less readily subscribed to in Israel or within the Likud Party). The irony here — at least for those of us predisposed to be skeptical of democracy — is that sometimes procedural democracy really does produce substantive democracy, or something like it. This was more or less what happened, much to the surprise of the neoconservatives themselves, in Nicaragua’s 1990 elections that saw the Sadinistas lose to Violetta Chamorro. And this may happen — who can say? — in the Middle East. Of course, Daniel Ortega eventually made his way back to power in Nicaragua, albeit without a guerrilla war. Maybe there is something to be said for procedural democracy even when undesirable elements prevail. But substantive democracy is something else: an ideology detached from messy reality and a power play disguised as benevolence. As Larison points out, however, the believers in substantive democracy are quite sincere — if substantive democracy happens to align with their interests, that merely proves that their interests are as benevolent and enlightened as they have always claimed that they are.

(Lest there be any mistake, in condemning substantive democracy I’m not saying that fundamentalist religious law or coercive labor unions are good things. But the process of imposing substantive democracy on foreign lands is a bloody and unjust one, and the end state at which substantive democratists would like the whole world to arrive does not look like a paradise to me.)