Saturday, March 14, 2009

Democracy in North Korea

Some random reflections occasioned by a New York Times story on the recent elections in North Korea:
North Korea elected its rubber-stamp Parliament on Sunday in an election that outside observers monitored closely for signs of a shift in the isolated Communist government’s power structure.

With the election of delegates to the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea laid the groundwork for a new five-year term for its leader, Kim Jong-il. The new Assembly’s first task when it convenes in the coming weeks will be to re-elect Mr. Kim as chairman of the National Defense Commission, an event that analysts in the region say the North will most likely celebrate by test-launching its longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2. [....]

Soldiers in uniform and civilians in fine dress, dancing and singing, lined up at polling places across the country, the North’s state-run media said. They voted under the portraits of Mr. Kim and slogans avowing loyalty to his leadership.

In the previous election in 2003, the country reported a 99.9 percent voter turnout and total support for the single candidate running in each of the 687 constituencies, all hand-picked by Mr. Kim. [....]
Not exactly a cliff-hanger.

Of course, election results like that (along with the process that produces them) make the whole exercise a grotesque parody of a real election. In that respect, these elections fall in the same category as a lot of other elections, referenda, and plebiscites conducted by various dictatorial regimes over the past century or so. They're not always quite as blatant as the North Korean version (though I gather that Saddam Hussein got 100% of the votes in his 2002 re-election referendum), but these kinds of events have been a recurrent feature of political ritual in modern despotic regimes, especially those with totalitarian aspirations.

It is tempting to dismiss these charades as simply laughable (in the sense of gallows humor), and at one level they are. But they're sociologically interesting, too. Why do these regimes, even when they make no bones about being closed and repressive dictatorships, feel the need to stage these transparently bogus rituals at all? Do they think anyone is fooled by them?

Well, yes and no. Some people actually are fooled, especially foreign sympathizers. But that's not really the central point.

I'm not really sure we know the full answer to those questions. But I think at least part of the answer is hinted at by the old saying that hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. We should add that sometimes such hypocrisy doesn't even have to be plausible--one goes through the motions purely for form's sake, or to keep up appearances. What have changed historically are the appearances that have to be kept up. What's going on here is a ritualized assertion and enactment of the myth of popular sovereignty. And the need to appeal to that myth is something fairly new. In their own way, these bogus elections, referenda, and plebiscites, with their stage-managed and unbelievably lopsided voting results, are distinctive expressions of the democratic age.

So why don't all authoritarian and repressive regimes stage these 99% elections? Again, I'm not sure of the full answer, but I think a few of the bits and pieces are clear enough. Some regimes, like the Saudi theocracy, can still appeal to other effective bases of legitimacy. Pure gangster regimes can pretty much dispense with worrying about legitimacy at all. And a number of authoritarian regimes would probably like to stage political spectacles like this, but don't have the capacity to do so effectively, so they put their energy and resources into other priorities. In fact, most of the time most despotic regimes, even in the modern world, are content with passive obedience and everyday consent, without demanding active and explicit enthusiasm. But the elements I've just mentioned add up to only part of the whole picture.

=> Of course, (more or less) genuine elections are also a distinctively important feature of modern politics. Aside from their straightforwardly practical functions, real elections are important forms of political ritual, too (as any student of Durkheim knows, "ritual" is not simply equivalent to either "routine" or "fake")--and sometimes, as I've noted in the past, elections can be genuine moments of revelation, with powerful and unexpected effects. Even in their mundane versions, with all their imperfections and distortions and limitations, democratic elections that happen on a regular basis and actually make things happen are a significant achievement--as we ought to remind ourselves occasionally, especially when we're tempted to feel cynical about them or take them for granted..

--Jeff Weintraub