Anti-Democratic Democracies
Jude Wanniski
March 30, 1998


Memo To: Website Browsers, Fans, Clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Oligarchic Democracies

In Sunday's New York Times, there is a story on page 15 from Istanbul about "Secularism and Islam," which discusses how the political ground in Turkey shifts back and forth between the Islamic fundamentalists and the secular/military forces: "In no other NATO country does the military play remotely as great a role in public life as it does here." What is especially instructive about this story is how clearly it tells us about a democracy that is not really as democratic as it might be which helps explain why so many "democracies" around the world seem to be so backward when we assume democracy is the solution to problems of poverty, ignorance and stagnation.

The generals, highly educated and shaped into a rigorous elite, are deeply sincere in their desire to defend the secular order and fulfill their historic debt to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. But they have another motive: They consider most elected officials incompetent or worse.

"These members of Parliament are ignorant people," a senior general filmed in his office recently. "Many of them have no sense of duty, no idea of the big picture. When it comes to the survival of this country, we can't trust them to do the right thing."

Such sentiments reflect a lack of confidence in the civilian authorities that is unsettling in a democracy, but they are disturbingly close to the truth. Political parties are tightly controlled by self-perpetuating elites, and it is much easier for a willing errand-boy to rise into Parliament than for a selfless idealist or imaginative manager.

Turks know this, and as a result they consistently rate the military as the country's most trusted institution. A handful of business leaders, intellectuals and human-rights advocates have urged the generals to step back from politics, but most Turks still consider the military as the single absolute guarantee that their country will not slip into chaos or come under religious rule.

What is interesting about this account is the point that "Political parties are tightly controlled by self-perpetuating elites." These kinds of systems appear around the world, with oligarchs successful in rigging the rules so that they can "self-perpetuate." Oligarchic elites are constantly trying to find ways to retain power by using their superior financial leverage in what are technically democracies. This is also true of the United States, with the political establishment working constantly to control both the Democratic and the Republican parties. The difference is that the nature of our constitutional democracy gives populist forces several chances to force the political establishment in the right direction, whether they like it or not. One such mechanism enables individuals to assemble ad hoc political movements at the national level that the primary parties must deal with in order to retain power. Ross Perot's candidacy in 1992 was clearly a populist movement designed to wrest control from the political establishment. The system of initiative and referendum is another one that permitted a single citizen, Howard Jarvis, to lead the California tax revolt and have it spread into the Reagan agenda. Another is the relatively recent method of choosing standard bearers through the primary process. It was only in 1952 that primaries began replacing smoke-filled rooms as the method by which leaders are chosen. In democracies such as Turkey's, and a great many others, by the time the masses get to vote for one candidate over another, both have been co-opted by the self-perpetuating elites.

These points are worth noting as you observe sanctimonious politicians here in the United States, Democrats and Republicans, denounce one country because it does not have elected leaders at the top (China) when its form of democracy is actually more populist than others, which we consider allies, but which control the outcome of elections by means not available to the masses.