America the undemocratic?
July 4th, 2013
05:00 AM ET

America the undemocratic?

"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN

By Fareed Zakaria

July 4 in America is a good time to reflect on the glories of U.S. democracy – especially given the turbulence in so many democracies these days, from Egypt to Brazil to Turkey.

More: Egypt's Morsy out, uncertainty in

As we watch these protests around the globe, we should keep in mind that the distinctive feature of the American system is actually not how democratic it is, but rather how undemocratic it is.

What do I mean? Well, we have three co-equal branches of government and the one with the final say on many issues, the Supreme Court, is composed of 9 unelected men and women. The American senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the democratic universe, with the exception of Britain's House of Lords, which is utterly powerless. California's 38 million people have the same representation in the Senate as do Wyoming's 576,000. State and local governments battle federal power constantly. Private businesses and other non-governmental groups are also part of the mix.

Now there are aspects of this system that many Americans don't like – especially the abuse of the system by largely invented practices like the filibuster – but the basic system of checks and balances, as the famous phrase goes, has worked well.

The form of government that came out of the French revolution, by contrast, is one of absolute sovereignty, centralizing all power at the top. Since that revolution, France has had many upheavals and changes in its regime. It went through two monarchies, two empires, one proto-fascist dictatorship, and five republics before it got to the present regime. The United States, by contrast, has had a continuous constitutional existence since 1789.

Why is this important as we look at the world today? In so many of these cases, what we are watching are democratic governments, elected freely and fairly,  that are abusing individual rights, ignoring minority groups, and eroding checks and balances. Observing the early flowering of this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, I described it as "illiberal democracy," and that is the problem we confront in Egypt and so many developing countries.

The good news is that the other elements within these societies are fighting back against illiberal democracy – political groups, student movements, opposition parties. The clash between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood reminds one of the many clashes between kings and lords, the church and the state, that produced the development of Western liberal democracy. It can look very messy while it's happening, neither side has a monopoly of virtue, but the contest between various centers of power over time helped create a system of checks and balances in the West.

So what we're watching around the world might look like crisis and breakdown, but it might turn out to be the road to better government.

Related:
Q&A: Historic parallels and what it means for the U.S.
5 key questions on Egypt
Egypt protesters in their own words
Background on the Muslim Brotherhood

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Topics: Egypt • Governance • United States

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soundoff (286 Responses)
  1. Rick

    I wonder how brave al you left-right-whatever cowards would be if you actually had to stand in front of a real person and state some of your idiotic, insulting, and twisted statements. Bet you wouldn't be so mouthy if there was a chance you were going person-to person with someone.

    July 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Reply
  2. bruce

    What will Democracy bring if the majority believe kill the infidel on the other side of the hill??

    July 6, 2013 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  3. Scott

    They had their chance at Democracy and BLEW-IT
    NOW they are back where they started.
    STUPID PEOPLE
    They basically, "Cut off their nose to spite their face"

    July 6, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Reply
    • Emad Zakhary

      The days t come will show you that you are wrong

      July 7, 2013 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  4. adamcanada

    A "Western Spring" is coming to this country, one that will hopefully be made out of the humanity I know we all have in us. I really hope we're up to the challenge and can get through this mess.

    July 7, 2013 at 4:13 am | Reply
  5. Emad Zakhary

    Fareed,
    I disagree with your last statement that the brotherhood is to be feared because they are a politically organized group. This is wrong . They are an armed terrorist group. They terrorized the Egyptian people. Go open the news now and ask your reporters on the ground in Egypt. As I am writing now the egyptian people are back on the street in spite of the terroirsists who tried to terrorize them yesterday .Now the egyptians for the first time are holding the photos of president Obama labelled "The loser". Fareed I read all your books. You portray yourself as a man who can read the future with expertise in the Middle East. What I see now is someone who cannot see what is already happening on the ground. The Egyptian people is giving everyone a lesson in courage by going in the streets unarmed in enormous numbers under the watch of the brotherhood terrorist organisation.I am talking abput millions,millions. The only one who is not watching is you, the CNN and President Obama.With respect to you all

    July 7, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  6. tonieshupe

    Comment on immigration: today like I always do on sunday, I watched "face the nation" and sen mccain was speaking about the democrats were against the immigration bill, yet when the commentator asked him if that were true how come the bill passed the senate with no republicans votes only democratic votes? Being the bill's next move is the republican majority house of representatives, is this another blame it the democrats avenue? No republican votes in favor of immigration in the senate? Wait a minute! Is sen.mccain a republican or not? He stated today he and his rep senators were in favor of it, yet their votes once again showed a different viewingm

    July 7, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Reply
  7. tonieshupe

    Mr. Fareed:
    Please check out moyers andcompany site and bill's coverage on a.l.e.c. A non- profit org. That is composed of republican representatives who get together with other 1 per cent conervative elite members and are basically by passing white d.c.as they work on getting

    July 7, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Reply
  8. tonieshupe

    Sorry for the cut off...
    To get bills passed within the state gov. That eventually hit the floor of our senate and house.
    So in other words; the recent push by the republican senators and house of representatives is to throw more power to state govs.,so the burden of blame will be given to our president, when in reality, a.l.e.c. Members are as they set out to privatize state government in favor of large corporations within their own state. Please check this out for all your "inquiring minds need to know viewers, such as myself. Again thank you for all that you do for us all!A

    July 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Reply
  9. Mark O. David

    Messy road?More like Messy Government at the end of the road.There is not one western demockracy that is not subverted by big money international corps.The USA is the best example of gov. for and by the 1%.

    July 7, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Reply
  10. lweba

    The one branch of government of America which is made up of 9 'Infallible' Saints who many times sit to overrule their previous rulings. The Supreme Court

    July 7, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  11. jorge

    This guy is a Communist, period! I have never seen a pro-american article written by this p.of.s.

    July 8, 2013 at 1:24 am | Reply
    • Scott

      And you are a TOOL.
      Fareed is a great public speaker who talks about what the truths really are as well as bringing up points that we overlook. If you don't like his articles go watch FOX News, "CRAPPY AND UNBALANCED" like you!!

      July 8, 2013 at 5:53 am | Reply
  12. George

    Democracy should not mean that Asians (Koreans, Chinese, ...) kick out Americans from USA. We are not rasists, not untolerate, but Asians should not be fighting Americans in USA.

    July 8, 2013 at 5:36 am | Reply
  13. Scott

    You forgot one of the most important Democratic tool. The all powerful Electoral Votes.
    You know the ones that actually vote for the next president. While our votes DON'T MEAN A THING!!

    July 8, 2013 at 5:46 am | Reply
  14. Lorena

    Thanks for any other excellent article. The place else may just
    anybody get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing?
    I have a presentation subsequent week, and I am
    on the look for such information.

    July 20, 2013 at 4:17 am | Reply
  15. Tariq Zahran

    This is an interesting article. Its never too late to change things though, this article has some interesting views

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/06/opinion/egypt-opinion-hellyer/index.html?iref=allsearch

    July 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
  16. Tariq Zahran

    http://manzellareport.com/index.php/trade-finance/414-the-best-way-to-grow-future-democracies

    July 23, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Reply
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