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Democratic Differences

In matters of democracy theory, I would rather be criticized by Tom Carothers than praised by almost anyone [“Democracy and Discontent,” Issue #10]. Carothers believes that I am too hopeful about the whole enterprise of democracy promotion, and perhaps, for all my innumerable cautionary notes, he’s right. Carothers points out that the wind has gone out of democracy’s sails. But I would put it differently: We are discovering how very rickety and shallow are many of the world’s new democracies, whether in Kenya, or Bulgaria, or Thailand. And democracies which fail to deliver the goods, whether of prosperity or stability, eventually exhaust the patience of citizens. Can outsiders do anything to help consolidate these shaky states? Not always, but sometimes–think of the recent diplomatic intervention in Kenya. And so long as we believe that such states have a brighter future as democracies than as autocracies–again, think of Kenya under the corrupt and dictatorial Daniel Arap Moi–we should do whatever we can.

But is democracy good for us? Carothers rightly notes that shaky democracies like the Philippines are open enough to allow terrorism to flourish and too weak to suppress it. I agree that this demonstrates the danger of viewing democracy promotion as a weapon in the war on terrorism. But it also forces a question: Is the long-term answer that we should seek the establishment of strong states, of whatever cast, or the consolidation of democratic states? For all its current difficulties, I still believe the latter is the only option. After all, strong but undemocratic states are hardly immune to terrorism; look at Pakistan. There an apparently strong state was in fact using Islamic extremism for its own purposes. The best hope both for Pakistan, and ourselves, is the consolidation and extension of what is now a very weak and unstable democracy.

James Traub
New York City, N.Y.

Thomas Carothers responds:

As James Traub notes, I believe that democracy is going through a rough patch globally due to an unfortunate combination of events: badly flawed U.S. policies that tainted the legitimacy of democracy promotion; many weak new democracies struggling to deliver the goods for their people; and the surging self-confidence of certain authoritarian powers. But although the wind may have gone out of democracy’s sails for now, I am not as pessimistic as he implies: Winds can and do change. A new U.S. administration can put democracy promotion on a better footing. The international community can bolster new democracies both economically and politically to help them get through hard times. And some authoritarian governments may discover their basis for self-confidence is more shallow than they thought, especially when it is directly tied to the price of oil.


Inequitable Education

Theda Skocpol and Suzanne Mettler’s article speaks to one of the root problems eroding the quality–and legitimacy–of our nation’s colleges and universities [“Back to School,” Issue #10]. But it is worth highlighting the way even supposed solutions work at cross-purposes. There are far too many regressive schemes within higher education finance that disproportionately benefit middle- and
upper-income families, such as 529 college savings plans, income tax credits, and state scholarship programs. Georgia, for example, funds its “merit-based” scholarships through its state lottery. A disproportionate share of lottery players are from low-income households, while the majority of scholarship recipients come from wealthy families. This trend is common throughout education finance at the state and federal level. Our political leaders need to start answering questions about “who pays and who benefits” from these financial schemes. It’s a sad state of affairs when our leaders push these issues to the political backburner, letting inequalities persist while our nation’s quality of education flags behind the rest of the world.

Nick Hillman
Bloomington, Ind.

Persian Dreams

The conclusion drawn by many so-called Iran experts, including Abbas Milani, regarding the government in Tehran is that any saber-rattling against the fanatical elements of the Iranian regime would weaken the position of pro-democracy elements within the regime [“Persian Politicking,” Issue #10]. But the idea that democracy in Iran will come from the elements of the Islamic Republic is a big hoax, if not an oxymoron. The differences between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mohammed Khatami before him are only cosmetic. The Iranian people have waited 30 years for the regime to change for the better, to no avail. Only a strong stance by the rest of the world, use of force, complete isolation, and an effective embargo (including oil) will bring down this regime. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s failure in Iraq has taken this option off the table.

Iraj Azimzadeh
Los Angeles, Calif.

Democracy Readers who would like to submit a letter to the editor can do so by emailing dajoi@democracyjournal.org.

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