(All pictures taken from the Lepage Center website)
On November 12, 2018, the Lepage Center continued the conversation about perspectives on democracy, hosting scholars from across the country who study the emergence of representative government across the world. In the first part of our coverage, we recapped the introductory statements. Here we will summarize some of the cross-talk and the question-and-answer portion of the event.
To begin with, Dr. Feinberg rejected the idea of graduating to democracy, quoting Vaclav Havel – a Soviet-era dissident and then the Czech Republic’s first president. In an address to the U.S. Congress he made in 1990, he said, “as long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never fully be attained. In this sense, you too are only approaching democracy.” Democracy is a process which pushes us toward further questions of representation.
Ms. Ortashvili agreed with contesting the idea of that graduation. She said this idea fermented a lot of cynicism in post-Soviet countries where they face new issues for which they are unprepared and unwarned, and that this explains some of the regression in places like Hungary and Poland. There continues to be an aspirational character to EU and NATO membership for countries like Ukraine, but that when you receive the protections involved there remains the question of whether the grass is truly greener. The alternative, though, remains Russian dominance.
This brought Dr. Steege to ask about how possibilities are limited in the creation of and participation in a state. Dr. Gaffield pointed to a racialized concept of civilization in the nineteenth century which precluded the early-twentieth century idea of ‘modernization’ or this late twentieth/early twenty-first century idea of ‘graduation.’ Elites in major powers questioned the ability of Haiti’s population to self-govern, just as they would later question the ability of the citizens in post-colonial states and sometimes post-Soviet countries. Dr. Abugideiri addressed the issue that our inability to conceive of Islamism as something neutral or positive as opposed to collapsing it into “terrorism” excludes people from politics and creates the opportunity or space for radicalism. 
Dr. Feinberg pointed out our predisposition in the West to presume that democracy is what every person, place, and nation-state necessarily aspires to limits our understanding of global political plurality. There are places that have advanced and progressed without assuming American political ideals. She also said that there is an institutional inability for theoretical democracy to take emotion into account, and that a lot of conflicts arise from the emotional human urge to run over the rules of democracy to expedite individual wants. Dr. Gaffield pointed-out how the Haitian case, the common dependence on family and community socioeconomic systems was seen as hazardous to the state. The emphasis on individualism which is championed in democracy has an opportunity to be destructive because of the way it can be used to disrupt nongovernmental support systems.
Ms. Ortashvili said that the dark side of democracy is that it is a menu – all post-Soviet states claim to be democracies in the words of their constitutions, but they are all varying levels of authoritarian. They create “managed democracies” which coerce popular choice through limiting the freedom and fairness of elections as well as limiting the possible entrants. Dr. Feinberg said that the people of Czechoslovakia in 1989 wanted democracy as well as socialism – which is in stark opposition to the Western imagination which ties democracy to capitalism. Dr. Feinberg was observing that some of the cynicism in post-Soviet states toward democracy has to do with the way in which people like the citizens of the former Czechoslovakia were force-fed capitalism alongside the representative government they wanted. Much as the manipulation of the democratic menu to grant legitimacy to authoritarian states is a dark side of democracy, so is its association with economic systems which do not fulfill everyone’s needs.
Dr. Abugideiri pointed-out that government and scholarly discussions of the Middle East often address the region with a problematic lack of understanding for the diverse people, cultures, and political histories of the spaces. The upside for the people there tends to be that democracy is often understood as a utilitarian facility for creating economic opportunity. It is just not necessarily romanticized ideals.
Dr. Gaffield tied Haiti in to this story of misunderstanding by arguing that Haiti’s revolution has long been panned as a failure and deprived of meaning. Dr. Feinberg posited that the portrayal of history is relative to the agendas of governments to perpetuating a certain narrative, philosophy and ideology, something contemporary historians – and probably most people that think about society – always have in mind.
The crowd question-and-answer session began with an audience member asking about the compatibility nationalism has or lacks with democracy. Dr. Feinberg explained that the basic tension is that nationalism is inherently exclusive while democracy is ideally inclusive. She and Ms. Ortashvili both expressed the issues of ethnic tensions in diverse spaces, a common problem among imperialized or post-imperial spaces. Dr. Feinberg pointed-out that Czechs have a tendency to see democracy as an inherent cultural trait but in so doing they gloss over minorities like Hungarians and Germans in their country, and sometimes they benevolently incorporate these groups but sometimes it leads to repression. Ms. Ortashvili said that “nationalism” for her elicited thoughts of civil wars and lack of compromise. In Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia this is often a case of people living within territories of disputed national ownership for three decades. Dr. Feinberg saw it as representative of the tension between the needs of the state and the needs of the individual, and nationalism as a way to promote state needs over individual needs when using the rhetoric and practice of competition between nations.
Dr. Steege asked Dr. Abugideiri about the way that nationalism fit into the democratic dream in post-Ottoman states in the Interwar period. Dr. Abugideiri discussed the emergence of nationalism in the early twentieth century as utile for resistance to imperial power, and the curiosity of nationalists claiming secular nationalist democracy as a philosophical rallying point considering the point of contact for people of the Middle East with western democracy would have largely come in a non-democratic, imperialist expression. These people were in turn able to use western imperialism as a point of distinction for reimagining democracy.
A student in the crowd asked about the necessity of the state in democracy and the philosophical tradition of the state as a perpetuator of inequality and oppression. He asked if it were possible or advisable for the state be shorn from democracy, and what happens when it is? Dr. Abugideiri answered this by pointing to radical Islamists, some of whom do not necessarily see the world in terms of nation-states so much as a space for a Caliphate, a pan-Islamic empire. She pointed back to the idea that there might be people in the world that do not preconceive that American/Western liberal democratic ideals are something aspire to. Dr. Steege pointed to the way that non-state actors in Haiti were critical to the independence movement there, where Dr. Gaffield pointed to the myth of Haiti being completely isolated until the country was acknowledge by France.
Dr. Gaffield said that de facto recognition of the country came through legal and illegal trade with trades from other countries – naming the Dutch and Danish empires, Britain, and the United States – before the formal recognition by the French. These mercantilists were in fact also petitioning their governments to recognize the country for their own business endeavors, informally engaging in a non-political or semi-political state-building project; they were “unofficial consuls.” Dr. Feinberg concluded that, as the first president of Czechoslovakia (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk) said, it is the duty of the true democrat not to act democratically only in parliament, but in everyday life because democracy is not just a form of government but a way of life. The onus for maintaining democracy rests with everyone, all of us whom have the responsibility of creating a truly democratic society.
Video of the event:
 There was a question I wanted to ask but did not have the chance to: Christianity is seen so often as essential to the American character, so why do we have a tendency to exclude Islam from the political conversation? Moreover, in Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia, is there a parallel to the hold of religion on politics? I think the ongoing Moscow-Constantinople schism speaks to this issue somewhat.