How Do You Measure Democracy? Does Europe Get it Right?


I had a minor intellectual skirmish a few years ago with Tadashi Yamamoto. We were arguing about whether Japanese civil society had matured to a level to be considered a genuine democracy.
The mere fact that Yamamoto’s Japan Center for International Exchange was investing heavily in study groups, working papers, and books on the subject of non-governmental organization development and civil society maturation in Japan was a testament, in part, to official Japan’s own insecurity about the subject.
We were meeting at the old official residence of Japan’s Ambassadors to the U.S., which sits just next to its newer embassy, and being there was a reminder of how different Japan was today in terms of democratic governance than it was in the decades before December 1941.
That said, I questioned Tadashi Yamamoto on whether Japan’s then-recently passed NGO law had given any more legal stature to NGOs, to small entities, to clusters of citizens, or to individual citizens that hoped to fight more powerful and more rich entities in Japanese courts. He responded that he was unaware of any such adjustments in Japan’s legal codes, which seem to stack the deck in favor of powerful (and often corrupt) players in Japan’s political economy and give little hope to those who are simple victims.
My measure of a democracy is, in part, whether or not a small and relatively weak entity or citizen can bring to its knees a major corporate entity or an individual wealthy in terms of finances and political connections. I realize that many on the left will declare that America doesn’t fit my own measure as rich, powerful interests often prevail over the weak — but that’s just not true, at least not always true, in my view.
Americans tend to focus on ballot boxes and elections as measures of democracy. But I think that the real character of a democracy is measured in its institutions and in the ability for David & Goliath stories to be realized in the courts.
Today, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg reversed a judgement in Britain and upheld the rights of two individuals to challenge (and harrass) McDonald’s Corporation. The case may force the United Kingdom to update and revise its ridiculous libel laws as well.
Remember when Richard Perle threatened to sue Sy Hersh. . .in British courts? He would have done it using these controversial laws that helped McDonald’s win the now-overturned case against Helen Steel and David Morris.
I have to admit that I like the fact that individuals pursued their interests in European courts and won against one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations. I am not anti-corporate, and I don’t advocate that all individuals ought to always prevail over corporations in all cases. But this case seemed ridiculous — and McDonald’s was idiotic to sue these two citizens for libel under such controversial laws.
What is important about this case is that it demonstrates an important aspect of democracy often neglected by the pundits. The weak have to be able to pursue justice against the strong in courts. This kind of judgment ought to be embraced by Americans and Europeans as part of the tool kit of democracy-building and democracy-inspiring that the Bush administration purports are its goals.
In my mind, Japan is mostly democratic, democratic enough anyway — but it falls short when it comes to the rights of citizens in its courts. America gets a lot right in our own democracy — but doesn’t focus on institutional justice when it comes to identifying what is and what is not a democracy.
But this case in Europe seems right on target. I hope that governments in the Middle East inspired by President Bush’s words on democracy are paying attention to what actually constitutes real rather than cosmetic democratic governance.
— Steve Clemons