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The ‘right’ sort of democracies

While it might be in poor taste, given the current state of global affairs, for me to strike a critical blow at the unity of the democratic world, nothing would evoke the unity of that world like the free expression of criticism. After all, the German delegation to Taiwan certainly exercised this freedom to criticize before I did, when they decided on Oct. 24 to scold the self-governed island for its continuance of capital punishment. 

There is an unjustified conceit to the Germans’ approach that prior generations might have recognized to have manifested throughout Germany’s various historical regimes. Here lies a great power, an undisputed liberal democracy of the present day, which undertook a provocative journey to a fellow democratic state claimed by Goliath as its own province, only to frame what might have been a declaration of equal solidarity as a self-righteous lecture, the aim of which apparently was to correct the deviant conduct of an unruly pupil. 

Of course, the symbolic fundamentals of the visit predominated as expected: Beijing submitted its usual rigid objections, while the international media expressed an unreserved approval at the high-level contact between two democratic states. Taiwan itself displayed to Germany only appreciation and gratitude, its government too aware of the general context to raise the hackles of a state far more reluctant to demonstrate a practical commitment to its fellow democracies than Britain, France, Denmark and most other transatlantic nations.

Berlin is more content instead to affirm its democratic credentials by disparaging those of other democracies; Taiwan was only the most recent sufferer of this. As per the German outlet Deutsche Welle, the German delegates had “expressed their concern” with regard to the Taiwanese management of Chinese threats. Their accompanying insistence that only mutual consent could resolve the cross-strait situation, while unobjectionable in principle, is nonetheless an apparent attempt to warn Taipei, equally as much as Beijing, against reckless unilateral initiatives. Their condemnation of the death penalty in Taiwan served to cap this grand exercise in undue admonishment.

The unpleasant element to this is not the fact that the German state directed its criticism at Taiwanese politics, which Berlin was entirely entitled to do, and which Taipei accepted without protest; nor does it derive from some fundamental wrongness in the German position on the death penalty (the discussion of which is an entirely separate subject). Rather, it is the presumption on the German side of its own correctness, without any consideration for the intrinsic debatability of its positions, that conjures a deplorable intransigence on the part of its policymakers. Regardless of whether the death penalty is right or wrong, to Germany the matter is settled; all other democracies still enmeshed in this debate simply haven’t caught up. A dirtier term to describe this position is bigotry. 

Since Berlin had, in line with the other members of its self-contained Western European political ecosystem, at one point decided that the death penalty is undemocratic, any nation which still retains it must now exist in continual violation of democratic standards. Who sets such democratic standards? Western Europe, of course, with Germany at its center. Since this community of nations happens to represent a crucial nerve center of the democratic bloc, it presumes that any general consensus there sets the purest standard to which all free societies must adhere. If any democracy peripheral to this Carolingian community happens to deviate from the Western European standard, then this country, no matter how legitimately democratic, regardless of whether it is Israel, Japan, Lithuania or the United States, must suffer a detraction from its democratic score. If Taiwan were to abolish capital punishment, it could conform once again to the template for what Germany conceives an ideal democracy to look like.

Whether Taiwan, which currently is debating the retention of capital punishment, decides to keep the death penalty or scrap it is none of Germany’s business; either outcome would reflect a judgment of compatibility with democratic standards in Taiwan, by the Taiwanese government that legislated it and the Taiwanese electorate that approved it. There may be legitimate interpretations of morality on either side of that debate, mutually disproving the other’s moral monopoly; such is the nature of democratic and indeed any intellectual debate, in which no single side can claim a moral mandate for its policy unless bidden by the electorate.

Germany might rebut this by indicating the illiberal policies which the Hungarian and Turkish governments had implemented with the approval of their respective electorates. These examples would illustrate that some policies must be acknowledged as undemocratic, which in the opinion of Germany includes the death penalty. Yet the majoritarian populism which so weakens the tolerance for political pluralism in those aforementioned countries does not characterize the likes of Taiwan or Japan; in fact, Germany might discover that democracy can perform better in those latter countries than within its own Western European neighborhood.

According to Freedom in the World, a survey and report released annually by Freedom House, Taiwan’s democratic metrics rank equal to Germany’s, with a total score of 94 in 2021. While Germany’s score has remained static in recent years, Taiwan’s has climbed slightly to reach parity with the very country which suggested its use of the death penalty fell short of democratic standards. It is conceivable that in another year or two Taipei might leave Germany behind in the dust, with a democratic state better functioning than that of Berlin. Japan, on the other hand, has already surpassed Germany with a near-perfect score of 96—while still in possession of the death penalty itself. If Tokyo and Taipei can maintain democracies of equal or better health than Germany’s while each retaining the death penalty, then Berlin is in no position to judge whether those countries fall short of a self-declared democratic standard. 

It should also be noted that Barbados, Cyprus, Uruguay, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Slovenia and other countries beyond the Western European ecosphere maintain—according to Freedom House—more successful electoral democracies than that of Germany. Berlin has no right to set a race for its fellow democracies, whereby to cross the finish line is to resemble Germany’s regulations and legislative decisions as perfectly as possible. If Germans have decided that the death penalty is inconsistent with its democratic standards, then it is equally legitimate for the Japanese to determine a compatibility between capital punishment and their democratic foundation; both have robust democratic scores and equally comprehend the meaning of democracy. Germany’s democratic tradition is no more ingrained in its cultural history than that of Taiwan or Japan; Berlin would do well to remember this before it attempts to supervise the regulatory developments of its fellow democratic states.

The quantification of those rankings, of course, warrants scrutiny in its own right. Freedom House, along with all other organizations devoted to the comparison of democratic metrics, must find a way to not only identify the structural commonalities of diverse democratic systems of government, but measure the efficacy of every such commonality against a rubric of objective standards. The problem pertains to what is objective and what is not. Individual countries such as Germany might presume that its own standards, such as that in relation to the death penalty, represent the ideal; it might also portray the political structure of another democracy as different from its own, and therefore inadequate for the proper maintenance of an elective government. Freedom House must carefully determine which democratic standards transcend debate, such as electoral competitiveness and media freedom, and which are interpretatively ambiguous. If conducted objectively, its rankings can reveal democracies of extraordinary structural diversity, with a variety of different regulations by which to approach justice, commerce, education and other matters. It is this freewheeling experimentation that characterizes the dynamic policymaking and creative solutions of the democratic world; if Freedom House were to decide that any democracies that restricted the death penalty, drug usage or firearms somehow failed some democratic standard, the pluralistic essence of a free society would be subordinated to the judgment and whims of a central decision-maker.

Far from the clownish suggestions by Moscow and Beijing that their states represent “alternative democracies,” the notion of democratic diversity actually pertains to those myriad states that perform robustly in objective democratic criteria, such as France, the United States, Japan and Costa Rica, even as they maintain very different political structures. Chile, South Korea and the United States have presidential systems in which the head of government is elected independent of the legislature; France in turn has a semi-presidential system in which a prime minister exists to assist the president; Poland, Finland and India have parliamentary systems in which a president serves as a generally ceremonial head of state, while the prime minister serves as the active head of government; Japan and Britain maintain parliamentary systems in which a hereditary monarch acts as a ceremonial head of state to supervise the the activities of the elected government. Democracies may also vary in their administrative structure, depending upon the regional requirements of its subdivisions; Japan may function well as a unitary state, while Germany and the United States require more localized federal models to operate most efficiently.

Each of these systems arose in recognition of the unique histories, traditions and aspirations of their respective countries. Many were tested, abandoned and replaced until the political structure could achieve harmony with its constituent population; each is therefore contoured to the specific conditions of their population. These national conditions are not excuses by which to justify forms of autocratic government, but genuine realities that underpin the electorate’s habits, reliances and societal configuration. Britain and Japan at different times rejected the replacement of their millennium-old monarchies with republican regime change, with their understanding that no form of government could impart a unifying legitimacy to the same degree as their most ancient sources of authority (stripped of their political power, of course). France represents a country that undertook extensive political experimentation before it finally found a government of best fit, having rejected monarchy and empire multiple times; Paris even decided that a traditional parliamentary democracy proved too unstable and indecisive for its liking, making sure to incorporate a powerful presidential role into its fifth attempted republic. The United States likewise realized nearly two centuries earlier that a stronger presidential system was necessary to administer its deeply regionalized model.

If derived from a common historical influence, regions may come to similar political conclusions. It is no coincidence that virtually all countries in the western hemisphere that were independent before the 20th century adopted the presidential system of the region’s hegemon, the United States; likewise, England’s ancient democracy has left its imprint throughout continental Europe and its former empire. But is there a “right sort” of democracy that can transcend regions and be applicable to all free states? Certainly, the intrinsic diversity of countries testifies that no model is a universal fit; a government will be abandoned if it fails in its mission to govern—such is the mandate of a revolution. Do presidential or parliamentary systems perform better? If Uruguay with its presidential system ranks higher than Germany with its parliamentary system, and Finland with its parliamentary system ranks better than South Korea with its presidential system, then no reasonable conclusion can be reached. Each system betrays strengths and weaknesses: While Germany’s delicate coalition-building and America’s elaborate checks and balances may facilitate gridlock or delay new governments, yet this complexity is consciously designed to prevent the domination of a single political element. Some leaders in presidential and parliamentary systems alike may lose the popular vote yet win power; other leaders might have no term limits, like German chancellors; some leaders can exploit momentary political fortunes with snap elections, while others are powerless before fixed election dates. 

Yet no matter the different trade-offs in the operation of government from country to country, the ultimate responsibility that legitimizes democratic rule is its capacity to represent the interests and defend the rights of the electorate. There is no “right” sort of democracy beyond that which can demonstrably perform its duties to whatever population it happens to govern. To apply pressure upon another democracy in the expectation that it might adhere more closely to one’s own, and to pretend that national judgments represent universalized standards, is to defile the spirit of liberalism itself; it is to pretend that you alone comprehend the paramount morality that governs human nature, to which all other states with their alternative philosophies must bend. The interpretative pluralism which justifies and sustains a free society can only endure while this conceit is resisted. A warning is necessary for countries like Germany, which venture out to lecture democracies of equal stature about the immorality of their laws: The free world only remains free while it respects the plural possibilities that freedom allows. Let Taiwan debate for itself what it deems to be right.

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