The Dilemma of Democracy

A perennial problem in almost any organization is the conflict that often arises between what is held to be principally right and practically advisable.  Churches, for example, face this issue when they deliberate about admitting into their fellowship members who had been divorced and remarried while still unchurched.  Principally it would seem not only that confession should be made, but also that the guilty parties should leave their way of sin.  On the practical level, however, it seems far-fetched to break up a happy marriage for this reason.  Societies also meet this problem on a very small scale when they conveniently ignore some tight rule of their constitution when it apparently leads to a strange or absurd situation.  Generally it seems that the practical side of the question holds the most weight when it appears very advantageous.

Democracy, the U.S. brand of it at any rate, also finds conflict between principle and practice.  Democracy is based on certain principles held to be true and important and applicable to situations which present themselves.  To some, democracy is just another way of government; to others, it is almost a religion.  But between the extremes a good share of our citizens are found.  Our office holders swear to uphold the Constitution and laws of our government.  They claim to believe in the principles of democracy, such as the derivation of power from the governed to the governing and the unalienable right of every man to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as at least partially expressed in the “Four Freedoms.”  Consistency would demand, therefore, that these principles always be held to be important, that they be fought for, and not that they ever be conveniently ignored.

Yet, we do not have to scrutinize government affairs too critically to see that our policies are often very inconsistent with our principles.  The same government that at home can sing with such fervor the song of the “Four Freedoms” and every man’s right to them, often changes its ditty to a wishy-washy “You’re a jolly good fellow, anyway” when it deals with foreigners.  The country which prides itself on its hatred of dictatorship is often willing to lend support to a dictator, if he is friendly, pro-Western, non-communistic.

For example, before Castro clasped Cuba, that country was on exceedingly friendly terms with the United States.  Yet, its dictator, who enjoyed the sanction of our government, ruled with an iron hand.  We were enjoying Cuban trade, we were certain of some measure of suppression of Communists, and so we kept shaking Batista’s hand.  We raised no cry then about democracy for Cuba.  We were forced to play it very cautious, however, when revolution began.  Officially we had to support Batista.  But we stayed out of the quarrel as much as possible, lest we should happen to pick the losing side and lose a friendly country.  Ironically, the side which stirred patriotic blood with its cries of democracy, turned out to be a thorn in the side.  Unfortunately, Fidel, as far as democracy was concerned, turned out to be an infidel.

This situation has parallels.  The cold Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic, has been basking in the warmth of our smile while his people have been living in poverty and chains.  Salazar of Portugal has been keeping the Communists out of his country so he has our support while we amusedly watch a few ardent rebels fight for principles.  Our fear of Communist infiltration has been so great that we have courted Franco as well as many South American totalitarians.

In contrast, although Russia cannot be ignored, we have chosen to ignore Red China, advancing reasons of principle.  Officially we do not recognize this regime and so far we have gotten along quite well with this policy.  Yet it seems rather absurd to shut our eyes to the fact that, recognized or not, this country must be reckoned with, as its strength, military, economic, and political, is constantly increasing.  Quite probably, it cannot be kept out of the U.N. forever.  Japan is looking more favorably at its trade-seeking neighbor.  And, strangely and shockingly, our northern neighbor, Canada, takes advantage of our situation as it prepares for trading on a large scale with Red China as well as with Cuba.

The U.S. has a difficult position to maintain.  It is no longer self-sufficient.  It needs its allies, democratic or dictatorial.  Yet it cannot control even its closest friends on the international scene.  It has principles vital to its life and it may not neglect.  Yet it must live and with a different world.

It faces a dilemma.  Must it always maintain principles, or must it work at a practical level?  If it follows the former course, it suffers material disadvantage.  If it pursues the latter, it loses prestige and finds itself on dangerous ground in sacrificing principle.  Must it continue to talk out of both sides of its mouth?  Must it be consistent, or will the end justify the means?

J.F.K. and Co. faces this dilemma.  Will they swing the horns, or will the horns continue to swing them?