Chavez Proves Democracy Isn't Enough

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.

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