Democracy:  How to Do it.     

The cold hard truth:  we Americans love to believe there are easy solutions to complex problems.

Want to build a democracy in southeast Asia?  If we were to believe Sargent Muldoon in The Green Berets, simply defeat the bad guys and write a Constitution.  There it is!  Happy Ending!

These guys know everything! Why don't we have more shows like this?

These guys know everything! Why don’t we have more shows like this?

Right.  In moments like these, it can be helpful to get some perspective from Monty Python.  In this case it is an old sketch, “How to Do It,” satirizing a popular children’s TV show in Britain, in which they explain how to do all sorts of amazing things.  It takes the Pythons all of thirty-four seconds to describe how to play the flute and rid the world of all known diseases.  There it is!  Happy Ending!  (Yeah, click on the link above.  It’s worth watching and it is short).

Come to think of it, want to fix America?  Our political candidates will explain how to do it in one TV ad, which is about as long as the Pythons took to rid the world of all known diseases.

Gosh, the Pythons didn’t have to satirize a children’s show — they just as easily could have done the same thing with our politicians.

But before we get too self-righteous here (a great temptation when writing blogs or discussing politics or, heavens, doing both) keep in mind that most politicians know these problems are very complicated.  They grossly oversimplify complex issues because they want our vote and we respond positively to those who give us simple solutions to complex problems.

Real life, of course, is complicated.  Very complicated.

Take, for instance, the establishment of democracy.  As I mentioned in my last post, the U.S. and the new Latin American nations had a number of important factors in common in the early 19th century.  But it didn’t go well in Latin America.  Between 1820 and 1990, twenty-two nations of Latin America wrote, implemented and scrapped between 180 and 190 constitutions (depending on how one counts them).  Not sure what Sargent Muldoon would say about that.

Why do some nations develop democracies and others fall short?

It is complicated.  Did I mention that?

Here are just a few things that the American colonies had going for them upon independence that Latin American colonies did not have:

  • widespread literacy among ordinary people
  • practices of religious freedom that had been established for decades before independence (Christians in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania getting a jump on this before Enlightenment thinkers caught on).
  • not just capitalism, but a particular kind of capitalism in which land (critical for an agricultural economy) was available to ordinary people (if they were white).  A while back I described how I have personally benefited from ancestors who took advantage of this situation, which would not have been possible in Latin America, where almost all the land was controlled by elites.
  • a couple of centuries of political developments, conflicts (and a civil war) in England in establishing practices that divided power between the legislature and the executive.  These developments produced…..
  • a tradition of representative government (on local levels) that goes back 150 years before independence.  Virginia got the ball rolling with the House of Burgesses in 1619 and every colony established a legislature shortly after they were founded.

And here is a rather odd and disconcerting factor:

  • Racism in America helped extend democracy to (some) ordinary people, while racism in Latin America worked against extending democracy to ordinary people.  How does that work?  In essence the whites in control of new Latin American nations simply did not want to grant “consent” in government to ordinary people, because the majority of ordinary people in most places were Indian, black or mixed-race (mestizo).  For instance, in an 1881 election in Brazil, 142,000 people were able to vote, out of a population of 15 million.  That’s 1% of the population, folks.  American founders were more willing to grant “consent” to ordinary people because a majority of Americans were white.  The American founders did not, for the most part, extend government “of the people, by the people and for the people” to the people who were black or Indian.  But the people of color were a minority, so they did not scare the American elites like the vast majorities scared the elites in Latin America.  (A reminder that it took the United States a long time after 1776 to grant basic democratic rights and opportunities to people of color).

Not a pleasant historical point, but there it is.

And finally, a factor that does not have to be a factor:

  • it has been common among many Americans to declare that one has to fight militarily to gain freedom and democracy.  But Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and several other nations have shown that it is possible to achieve democracy without employing soldiers to fight for it.  So there is one factor that is often thought to be a necessary condition that is not necessarily necessary.

And I haven’t mentioned all the factors.  In fact, you might know of other issues or factors that should be added in the mix.

Democracies are very, very difficult to develop.

So, what can we take away from this? Many things, but here are a few thoughts I have:

First, democracies take a long time to develop.  Americans had at least a two-century jump on new Latin American nations in many of these areas.   Americans are not superior to African nations because they are trying to achieve in fifty years what took America several centuries to achieve.

Second, we should resist supporting policies based on oversimplifications.  The United States has sometimes underestimated these complexities.  The Vietnam War showed that it was very difficult to “win the hearts and minds” of the people.  In 2003 the U.S. invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam Hussein and his military in about three months (which was what the U.S. military had calculated).  However, our government did not have an effective, or even well-developed plan for how to help Iraq move to democracy after Hussein was gone.  We sort of assumed the Iraqis would just embrace freedom.  A long, painful and protracted civil war followed that ensnared us since, well, we helped create the disorder that produced it.  So, think carefully about simple promises that we can bring freedom to other places in the world.

Third, if you think about the factors above that helped establish democracy, you will see that many are built on ordinary people doing what is good and right in caring about other people, even if they are quite different from themselves.  Teachers teaching.  People of faith, and business people and politicians working to ensure that all people have economic opportunities.  Ordinary people granting respect and freedom to people of different religions.

In fact, a number of months ago I mentioned a ground-breaking study by Bob Woodberry that shows that the work of missionaries in history has actually helped build democracies around the world. So, we should support our missionaries, our non-profits and those who are serving others particularly the “widows and the orphans,” as the Bible reminds us regularly.  We should do it anyway, but we can add the development of democracy to our list of motivating factors.


Those Missionaries. There They Go Again, Building Democracies Around the World. Wait a Minute…What?

I think I’m done with my ranting.  I may not be done being snarky.

One of the points I made in my previous post was that Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, social scientists from the 1970s, and Barbara Kingsolver did not really know a lot about missionaries.

But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe they were still correct.  Maybe they picked up their information from others who knew the situation well.  Maybe missionaries really were cultural imperialists who set back causes for freedom and human flourishing.  After all, a lot of really intelligent people of goodwill in the American establishment viewed missionaries as cultural imperialists.  And we certainly can find examples of missionaries behaving badly.

On the other hand, maybe Bob Woodberry is right.

Bob Woodberry says that “areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on the average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.”  And, oh yeah, they “heavily influenced the rise and spread of stable democracies around the world.”


That runs smack in the face of 100 years American establishment thinking about missionaries.

But who is this Bob Woodberry guy, anyway?  And what does he know?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Does this guy know what he is talking about?

Bob Woodberry is a sociologist who recently published an article in the American Political Science Review (APSR), which is the top academic journal in political science.  Some things to consider here:  you can’t get published in this journal unless you can convince others that your work is top-notch.  The APSR is also a journal that is not inclined to believe Woodberry’s argument.  The editors of the APSR, in fact, were skeptical enough to ask him for more data and studies when he first submitted his study.  He responded with 192 pages of supporting material.  Woodberry has been at this research for fifteen years now and he uses historical analysis and very sophisticated quantitative methodology of social science, including “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis.”

There you are.  The “two-stage least-squares instrumental variable analysis” technique.

I have no idea what that is.

If you are one of those people who are deeply fascinated in both missionaries and sophisticated sociological methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR....

If you are one of the millions of people who are deeply fascinated by both missionaries and sophisticated social science methodology, you can pick up the May, 2012 copy of the APSR….

But I know this:  his article in the APSR has won four academic awards.

In other words, he has convinced a lot of skeptics with his research.  There is a fine article about him and his work in the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Christianity TodayIt goes into more detail about how he reached his conclusions and some of the things he was up against as he tried to convince others of the validity of his research.  I happen to know Bob and I’ve heard a story or two about scholars who got quite irate when they were confronted with his research.  Other scholars, though, are sitting up and taking his work seriously.

Now, I should point out that these global developments did not happen simply by missionaries going out and preaching democracy.  It is more complicated than that. Usually, missionaries were just trying to figure out how to spread the Gospel.  Sometimes, in their falleness, they acted in undemocratic ways.  Furthermore, many people who did not convert to Christianity still ended up embracing democracy and education and better health practices and more honest government and more robust economic practices.  But according to Woodberry’s findings, the influence of missionaries played a key role in that whole process.

This is very important research.  And it matters, because if Woodberry is correct, there are a lot of scholars (in the United States and around the world) who will need to reconsider the relationship between religion and the formation of democracy.

....or you might just want to read the CT article....

….or you might just want to read the CT article.

Woodberry is not alone in his scholarship on missionaries.  A number of very good scholars in the last couple of decades have started to show that the 20th century establishment view of missionaries is flawed.

Of course, maybe Woodberry is wrong.  After all, you can always believe H.L. Mencken, who did his research on missionaries by reading a few newspapers at his desk in Baltimore in the 1920s.   Or Barbara Kingsolver, who not only read a book by Chinua Achebe but also one by David Livingstone.