Jim Clark: Can we define democracy the same as in the 1700s?
Special to the Bonanza
Most of us were taught in high school the wonders of democracy, how the founding fathers hammered out a governance compromise called the Constitution, how the system of checks and balances works, how the union of states was tested during the Civil War, and all that great high school civics stuff.
Nearly a century ago, President Wilson asked Congress to enter World War I on the side of Britain and France “to keep the world safe for democracy.”
For at least the last hundred years aggressive warlike nations have been run by tyrannical dictators such as Hitler, Tojo, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Putin, etc. And when the victorious World War II allies occupied Germany and Japan, we installed democratic governments under which both nations have thrived.
Ain’t democracy wonderful? But wait a minute. Is there another side to this?
US Army Gen. William “Kip” Ward, former commander of the US Africa Command, spoke at a recent meeting of the National Security Forum in Reno’s Siena Hotel. General Ward explained how his command was involved in African nations trying to keep locals from joining Boco Haram or other terrorist groups.
During Q-and-A someone asked what the prospects were for these African nations to embrace democracy. Gen. Ward responded: “Define democracy.”
His point: Democracy without a system for protecting minority rights is just mob rule. Look at Egypt and Iraq. He concluded that whatever the form of government, if it is transparent and responsive to the people, it is appropriate for emerging nations.
Another case in point is the story arising from the recent death of Lee Kuan Yew, founder and prime minister of Singapore.
Yew studied at Cambridge University and saw the contrast between law-abiding England and the poverty stricken, crime-ridden Singapore of that day.
Its population was composed of different races who spoke different languages and had different religions. There were few natural resources — even water had to be imported.
Singapore was granted independence from Britain in 1959 and Yew was elected its first prime minister, serving until 1990; he remained in parliament until 2011.
He was a martinet. He banned chewing gum, imposed fines for spitting and not flushing toilets; he hanged armed robbers and imposed caning for vehicular vandalism.
But he was scrupulously honest, promoted a market economy, welcomed foreign investment and required children to learn English in recognition of Singapore becoming a major port for international commerce.
Result? Singapore’s gross domestic product now exceeds that of Great Britain by 50 percent and its crime rate is negligible.
How does that compare with what’s going on in our own backyard? Well it’s clear that our 228-year-old democracy works.
The longest either major political party has been able to jointly control the White House and Congress was 14 years during the New Deal.
But how about transparency and responsiveness to the people? Not so much to be proud of here. A recent analysis by the Associated Press showed that the Obama Administration has set a new record for denying access to public files and records as required by the Freedom of Information Act.
Moreover, the Obama Administration has become famous for ignoring US laws (immigration, targeting by the Internal Revenue Service, Benghazi, Hillary Clinton destroying emails, executive tinkering with Obamacare after Congress passed it).
How about the Silver State? Again, neither major party dominates in Nevada, but political competition does not seem to guarantee either transparency or responsiveness. Repeated unlawful antics and secret agreements by the Washoe County School Board regrettably demonstrate this point.
And in Carson City, we read of frantic efforts by Democratic legislators to shield the state retirement system from public scrutiny despite a Nevada Supreme Court order to release evidence of double dipping, overpayments and other abuses to the media.
Makes you wonder if Singapore had it right.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada State GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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