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Democracy Begins At Home

The Bush administration has put expansion of democracy at the center of its foreign policy. This is a far nobler calling than simply expanding American hegemony. The question is, does Bush really mean it, and does he genuinely understand what democracy means?

The Bush administration praised Saudi Arabia’s municipal elections, but what about the rights of women—including their voting rights? It welcomed (if it did not actively participate in) the toppling of Venezuela’s democratically elected leader, but it continues to support Pakistan’s military dictator. It criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin, but only after he goes against business interests. And it may raise concerns about media concentration in Russia, but remains silent about media concentration in Italy.

There is a taint of hypocrisy in a more fundamental sense. The Bush administration is right to emphasize the importance of elections, without which democracy is inconceivable. But democracy entails more than periodic elections, and the legitimacy of elections depends on the public’s confidence in the electoral process itself. In this respect, the last two American presidential elections have hardly been models for the world.

Former President Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta center monitors elections around the globe, has raised questions about whether America’s recent election lives up to the standards the United States should uphold. Where former President Bill Clinton sought to ensure that all Americans who are entitled to vote are registered to vote, the Republicans have tried to reverse these advances, putting obstacles in the way both of registration and voting. Modern technology makes it easy to have a paper trail for voting machines, at little cost; yet several states chose not to provide this minimal safeguard.