Chavez Proves Democracy Isn't Enough

More

I've been interested to follow the reaction in the US and Europe to Hugo Chavez's election victory in Venezuela. Chavez has his admirers, of course. They praise what he's done to help the poor and the democratic process that made it possible. His critics, much in the majority, point to the broader economic and political damage he's caused--but rather than blaming democracy, they say the Venezuelan version isn't the real thing. They're reluctant to accept that a genuine democracy can produce (as they see it) such terrible results.

Illiberal democracy, the third way (you might say) between liberal democracy and outright autocracy, seems to be catching on. Venezuela is the classic case, and it's a study in the dangers of elected dictatorship. As the US Constitution ought to remind us, a healthy polity needs a lot more than the vote--a lot more, that is, than mere democracy, vital as that is.

In the US, dispersal of power is securely underwritten in the law, and, even better, the importance of checks and balances is universally understood. Still, one lesson the US could draw from Venezuela is the danger that polarization poses to a constitutional order. Chavez has very deliberately used polarization to delegitimize his opponents and concentrate power in his own hands. The point is, an opposition that is illegitimate, rather than wrong in good faith, seems undeserving of constitutional protection. Once that idea gets a grip, majority opinion can be guided to suppress political competition and entrench executive control. Venezuela is a worked example of the use of anger and intolerance to concentrate power--democratically.

As I say, America's constitutional protections could hardly be stronger. Even so, I wince whenever I hear a Republican call a Democrat (or vice versa) a "shameless liar" rather than a fool, say, or a spinner of the facts, unless the charge is indisputably correct. You can be wrong or stupid, and you can aim to mislead, without putting yourself outside legitimate politics, but shameless liars are beyond the pale. You can't do business with them. That's what the term is meant to convey, and it's corrosive. Add resource dependence and authentic political genius, you can end up with Venezuela.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In