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Future of democracy not assured say panelists

  • Democracy forum panelistsJim Lehrer and Sandra Day O'Connor were among panelists leading a discussion on the future of democracy.

    Democracy forum panelists

 The future of democracy in the world is not assured nor is the spread of representative forms of government necessarily welcomed, according to a panel of experts featured during a public discussion at the World Forum on the Future of Democracy Conference hosted by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William and Mary on Sept. 17.

The discussion, “The Future of Democracy: Why Does It Matter?” was moderated by celebrity PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer before several thousand people at the College’s Kaplan Arena. The panel, which comprised Sandra Day O’Connor, former associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and chancellor of the College, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, former U.S. Secretary of State and a senior policy advisor, and Ali M. Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, repeatedly extolled the benefits of liberalized democracy as a platform for extending human rights and economic benefits to the world’s people. Its members also cautioned that democracy takes time—even generations—to incubate, making strategies to export it suspect. In the words of Eagleburger, “You can’t drop American democracy” on nations and “expect it to work.”

Elaborating on that point, O’Connor pointed out that American democracy has been successful due to its system of checks and balances on executive power, including its independent judiciary, conditions that may be absent elsewhere. “All kinds of things can happen at the hands of the majority,” she said. Citing abuses exercised against African-Americans following the Civil War, she added, “Sometimes we must even change the Constitution.”

Eagleburger responded that many popularly elected leaders today tend toward exercising “executive authority” as opposed to functioning within a system of executive checks on power. Referencing Hugo Chavez, the controversial president of Venezuela who was swept to a landslide victory in a 1998 election, Eagleburger said that even if the United States wanted to remove him from power, it could not simply do it. “That kind of thing does not work anymore,” he said.

Perhaps the most instructive discussion during the night’s proceedings focused on statements made by alumnus Robert Gates (’65), U.S. Secretary of Defense, comparing “idealism” and “realism” as related to U.S. foreign policy. Gates, who spoke to a private lunchtime audience at the world forum, had said, “It is neither hypocrisy nor cynicism to believe fervently in freedom while adopting different approaches to advancing freedom at different times along the way—including temporarily making common cause with despots to defeat greater or more urgent threats to our freedom of interests.” Responding to those statements, Ansari said unilateral actions taken by the U.S. government were the reasons governments such the one in Iran could seriously question whether the U.S. sought to extend democracy or merely to protect what it deemed to be its own interests. Eagleburger countered that if the United States did not protect its interests, it would have long ago become a second-rate international power.

Concerning a question involving theocracy and democracy, Ansari agreed with the other panelists that the two were mutually exclusive, although he countered that religion and democracy may, in fact, foster each other. “You can’t have a republic without virtue, and Islam [can] provide the moral framework in which the moral virtue can operate,” he said. Eagleburger suggested that it was, in fact, the Protestant work-for-reward ethic that provided an initial foundation for American democracy while O’Connor stressed that the founders of the United States, while themselves Protestants, went to great lengths to ensure that no citizen would be penalized for adhering to any religious view.

Throughout the evening, members of the audience were quick in their applause for various points of view that were expressed, even as they were admonished  to secure the fruits of their own representational form of government for succeeding generations. O’Connor said that teaching the fundamentals were important, as “democracy is not passed on through the gene pool. It must be taught.” Later she added, “The mantra of democracy does not solve everything. … Citizens have to make it work.” Eagleburger cautioned that vigilance was necessary, especially in terms of the threat posed by rogue states with access to nuclear weapons. He predicted that unless the United States joined with other nations to become more attentive to the threat, a nuclear device would create chaos within decades.