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Democracy And Responsibility

One of the claims that I have seen made quite often over the last two weeks is that Palestinians in Gaza voted for Hamas and so ought to be “held responsible” for that decision. In other words, the idea is that they brought whatever they are suffering upon themselves. I have already discussed why this is the wrong view to take, but something else occurred to me over the weekend: when the Russians were responding to Georgian escalation in August and they wrongly began hitting targets outside South Ossetia, I don’t recall anyone saying that the Georgian people deserved what they were getting because they had voted so overwhelmingly for Saakashvili. On the contrary, the near-unanimous nature of support for Saakashvili was part of what lent his government legitimacy as the “democratically-elected government of Georgia,” as every Saakashvili defender insisted on calling it, as if the mere fact of being democratically elected invested the Tbilisi government with moral superiority. Putin and Medvedev’s elections did not count, of course, because they were manipulated and so not genuinely democratic, which formed the basis for the simple morality play that Saakashvili partisans wanted to fashion for us.

If we applied the standard being used to judge the Gazan population as complicit in Hamas’ wrongdoing to the situation in the Caucasus, we would have to conclude that the Georgian people were complicit in and should be “held responsible” for the actions and intentions of their government. Of course, we would recoil at doing this, because in that case we can see how absurd it is to blame an entire nation for the excesses of a hot-headed demagogue and his allies. Because we are not inclined to demonize the Georgian people, instead of identifying the people with the state’s wrongdoing we identify the state with the legitimacy that we believe flows from the consent of the people. Even though the very thing that supporters praise in the Georgian government–its democratic character–might lead us to hold the people responsible for its government’s actions, instead many of us are inclined to give the Georgian government a pass on the grounds that it is supported by the Georgian people, whom we have already determined should not be vilified. (Indeed, it is good that we are not vilifying them as we vilified the Serbs, but the point remains that we choose for entirely different reasons how we will treat a certain nation that has nothing to do with what its political leaders do or have done.)

The vital distinction between people and government will usually be blurred or erased for one of two reasons: the state needs to use the people as a shield against criticism, or a foreign state needs to reduce the population to an extension of the state in order to make war on it more completely. Realizing this should make us even more wary of rhetoric that invests democracy and elections with some moral significance. It should also warn us that the natural complement to valorizing popular sovereignty and democratic government is the demonization of entire peoples by identifying them with their political leadership in an indistinguishable mass.

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12 Comments To "Democracy And Responsibility"

#1 Comment By E.D. Kain On January 12, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

…which basically puts a huge gash in the “two-democracies-will-never-make-war-on-each-other” theory as well…a theory suffering numerous gashes these days….

#2 Comment By bamdadhassan On January 12, 2009 @ 5:02 pm


#3 Comment By bamdadhassan On January 12, 2009 @ 5:04 pm

the meaning of democracy? Do whatever Israel wants!

#4 Comment By conradg On January 12, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

I think some degree of responsibility does exist in the electorate of a democracy, if the government does indeed carry out the free will of the people. For example, it’s certainly arguable that the re-election of George Bush in 2004 means the US electorate is responsible for the war in Iraq and its consequences.

With Hamas, however, there’s a serious question as to just how “democratic” its elections have been, and what the consequences are of disagreeing with Hamas, which came to power in a violent coup and spent a lot of time murdering its political opponents. Under such circumstances, it’s not clear that the Palestinians have much choice other than to support Hamas, which does not seem willing to cede power regardless of elections.

With Georgia, it’s true that Georgians elected Saakashvili, but not with some agenda of military confrontation with Russia, so it’s not clear that he was actually carrying out the will of the people of Georgia, rather than his own crazed plan.

Nonetheless, the idea that people who elect a particular leader or party to power with a specific agenda in mind bear some responsibility for the consequences of that agenda. Those who voted Hitler into power bear some responsibility for how he turned out, especially when his plans were already spelled out in Mein Kampf.

The problem in a democracy, of course, is that a whole lot of people tend to vote against the victor. In Hitler’s case, 67% of germans voted for someone other than Hitler, and in Bush’s case, 49% voted for someone other than Bush, so its hard to make the case that an entire population is responsible for the policies of those who get elected.

#5 Comment By Roach On January 12, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

But hasn’t this conflation of state and people been a hallmark of nationalism and nationalist wars since at least the Franco-Prussian War if not earlier. In other words, so long as the war apparatus depended on massive popular support, conscript armies, popular militias, and unrestrained infliction of harm on the enemy, the conflation of people in state and rhetorically has been part of the scene. Democracy only made it all the more easy, and neither Israel nor Palestine’s (nor their supporters’) judgments of entire peoples has been something new on the scene since, say, the 18th Century.

That said, if the Hamas leadership thinks it can toy with Israel indefinitely and not win or at least be judged by “abitratement by arms” then it’s right to rule will likely disappear as a factual matter, and let’s just say there is probably some Divine Providence behind that, not least because it’s intertwined with a purely heretical religion..

#6 Comment By Bustrofedon On January 13, 2009 @ 12:54 am

I find the use of that “Gazans get what they deserve because they voted for Hamas” argument highly amusing because, of course, it is the same argument that Al-Qa’ida uses to justify attacks like 9/11. The American people, that argument goes, is complicit in all the many ills that successive American administrations visit on the Muslim and Arab world for decades, a principal one being unlimited support for Israel’s actions. And didn’t the good Rev Wright say something about “chickens coming home to roost?”

The other irony of the “democracy dodge” is that the Palestinian elections were a centerpiece of the Bush Administration’s “freedom agenda” for the Greater Middle East, a Neocon wet dream. The USG did all it could to ensure a Fateh victory, including lavish funding by USAID and bringing in a Bushie media specialist named Jim Wilkinson (he of the Jessica Lynch fraud and assorted other disasters) to work his television magic. I believe he was Rice’s Chief of Staff at the time.

Hamas won those US-sponsored elections fair and square because it ran an effective “change and reform” campaign (indeed it ran in a Hamas dominated coalition called “change and reform”) in contrast to the tired and corrupt Fateh guys.

#7 Comment By straw On January 13, 2009 @ 3:06 pm

You’re all glossing over something important. Unlike the Georgia situation, this case doesn’t involve citizens being held responsible for aggressive decisions by their elected leaders that might not have been predictable at the time of election. Gazans voted for Hamas knowing full well that they were voting for a party with a long history of terrorism (and of using civilians as human shields, for that matter) that was committed to the violent overthrow of Israel by any means available. Nor can it be argued that Hamas’s commitment to violent struggle and rejection of the peace process was some minor aspect of their identity that voters can easily have overlooked. In short, Gazans voted, with open eyes, for violent confrontation. Now, that certainly doesn’t mean that Gazan civilians can be harmed with impunity. But dismissing the electoral majority’s complicity in Hamas’s actions and equating their vote for Hamas with Georgians’ vote for Saakashvili strikes me as fatuous.

#8 Comment By Daniel Larison On January 14, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

When Saakashvili was re-elected in 2008, his bellicosity and provocative actions regarding the separatist regions were a matter of record. He had been elected and re-elected on a national unification (or “re-integration,” as I believe they like to call it) platform, so in this respect the Georgians understood what they were getting when they voted for him. That still doesn’t make them deserving of punishment when Saakashvili blundered, but the evidence of the sort of man they were electing was there for all to see. Saakashvili’s aggressiveness was not only predictable, but was typical of Georgian nationalist leaders going back to independence.

As for the Gazans, it is hard to say why they voted for Hamas. Most people in most countries do not vote on the basis of foreign policy and the like, but base their votes on everyday provision of services, quality of life and so forth. It seems entirely plausible that many Hamas voters preferred Hamas because of the corruption of the main alternative and did not necessarily desire a new round of confrontation and conflict. Obviously, they were not put off by Hamas’ militancy, and some undoubtedly voted for Hamas specifically because of that, but people vote for a party or a list for all kinds of reasons that may have little to do with the party’s past actions or its platform/charter.

#9 Comment By JBraunstein On January 14, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

Nationalism and the conflation of the state with society is collectivism defined. Why “people” voted for a certain party or regime is immaterial, and certainly inadequate as a basis for passing judgment or rationalizing collective punishment. It is just as much a fallacy when westerners resort to this twisted thinking as when Bin Laden cites it as justification for his Jihad.

#10 Comment By conradg On January 14, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

I think quibbling over the issue of whether Georians “deserved” the punishments inflicted on them is a bit of a red herring that distracts from the real issue, which is who is responsible for what occurred. I’m not as well versed in Georgian politics as you, so if you are correct that Georgians were well aware of Saakshavili’s confrontationist politicies, and expected him to act as he did, then they should also have been well aware of the very real danger of adopting and endorsing such policies.

One can’t jump from that to saying Georgians deserved the death and destruction that followed, but one can certainly say they are responsible for it, not just Saakshavili or the Russians themselves. Certainly the individuals who died or had their homes destroyed were not personally responsible, so it’s quite unfair in how warfare actually distributes these “punishments”, but as a moral matter, the Georgians who voted for Saakshavili, and who perhaps supported his aggressive confrontationalism, certainly have as much blood on their hands as the Russians.

And I’d argue similarly with Gaza and Hamas. Those who have supported Hamas’ policy of aggressive provocation of Israel don’t “deserve” what they have gotten, but they are certainly at least as responsible for the death and mayhem that has followed from it as Israel is. There’s no other rational outcome I can imagine from pursuing such a policy against a neighbor with vastly superior military forces. Now, maybe the people of Gaza are just naive or stupid or emotional or motivated by religious mania or what have you, but there’s no way one could imagine supporting Hamas’ military provocation of Israel could be expected to NOT result in this sort of bloodshed somewhere down the line. So yes, those who advocate such policies are indeed responsible when thos policies get enacted and produce the expected result. How can you honestly argue otherwise? Is the electorate composed of children who have no responsibility for the results of their votes?

#11 Comment By Daniel Larison On January 14, 2009 @ 9:03 pm

“Is the electorate composed of children who have no responsibility for the results of their votes?”

Do you really want me to answer that question? Seriously, if Obama ends up launching military strikes against, say, Iran, are you and other Obama voters to be held responsible for that? I might argue that it was highly likely that Obama would do this, that it was clear for all to see and was a virtually inevitable result of his interventionist views, but not a single Obama voter supported him with any expectation that it would happen and certainly did not desire this outcome. Indeed, Obama voters assumed quite the opposite. Nonetheless, Obama voters are in some limited way responsible for putting him in power. Are they then responsible for everything he does that could have been and was predicted? I don’t think you want to make that claim, and I don’t think that claim holds up for any elected government.

Do voters bear some responsibility for what they do when they vote? Yes. They bear an incredibly tiny amount of responsibility in keeping with their incredibly tiny amount of influence on actual policy. If I thought elections mattered for the conduct of policy, I might be more inclined to hold voters responsible for policy, but I see little reason to think that.

#12 Comment By conradg On January 15, 2009 @ 7:06 pm

To answer your question, yes, Obama voters would have some small responsibility if Obama launces some kind of catastrophic war with Iran. I say “small” simply because he did not in any way campaign for such a war. If McCain had been elected, and started such a war, and then launched such a war, they would be far more responsible, in that McCain signaled rather clearly that he would give us more wars, and most particularly wars with Iran.

But that kind of scenario is not nearly as compelling as the situation in Gaza, in which war is not some distant and compartmentalized issue within a very large foreign policy debate. In Gaza, war with Israel is the absolute most compelling of all possible issues, and how their government conducts military operations against Israel has enormous and immediate and most compelling and overriding significance. One simply can’t live in Gaza and be unaware of the military situation, the conflict with Israel, and weigh the consequences of electing a militarily confrontationist government whose policy is the deliberate military provocation of Israel combined with a policy of embedding its miltiary infrustructre within the civilian populace, leading of course to massive civilian deaths in any escalated conflict.

This doesn’t mean I blame the Gazans and excuse Americans. Americans do indeed bear some serious responsibility for doing some really horrendous and provocative things abroad, and when those chickens sometimes come home to roost, as in 9/11, they should realize that voting for politicians who pursue those policies has consequences, deserved or not. That view is of course highly unpopular stated so baldly, but the point is perhaps being made in a more subtle fashion by politicians like Obama, whose opposition to the war in Iraq is the key external factor that catapulted him from obscurity into the White House. If Obama were to betray that by lauching us into a serious of calamitous wars with Iran, then certainly we would feel responsible in some way, in not recognizing his real character or intentions. But in that case, as you have said many times, he’d only be carrying out the general political will this country has not only endorsed, but made the central theme of our foreign policy almost 70 years.

As for the electorate possibly being children, so are their leaders. Most of these people are just children with very large guns. What separates children from grownups is taking responsibility for one’s actions. So it is by making the electorate feel responsible for the actions of the government they elect that they become adults, and that is why I think it is important to blame not merely a government that acts badly, but the people who put that government into power, by voting or other means of support. If people realize that they are responsible, they will then hold their government responsible as well. Until then, nothing meaningful will change.