Harvard’s James Robinson and MIT’s Daron Acemoglu make an unusual argument in Foreign Policy this week: sometimes fraud-ridden elections, which would appear to subvert democratic growth by neutering the voting process and enforcing anti-democratic authoritarianism, can actually be good for democracy. . . . Their argument will sound unusual to Americans who are used to thinking of the only way to liberalize an oppressive country is by forceful regime change, as the U.S. engineered in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, a number of Latin American nations, and more. However, Robinson and Acemoglu argue that even the worst nations, such as Burma, can bring about their own gradual democratization even through the decidedly anti-democratic act of holding a sham election.
All elections are sham elections, designed to convince unruly populists to calm down and accept the imposition of order. Every time there is a truly coherent “will of the people” expressed by majority vote, it involves the palpable hatred of a majority tribe for a minority tribe, resulting in massacre, enslavement, or expulsion for the minority.
Democracy works not because it achieves some kind of ideal society or because it discovers some perfect truth in majority opinion; it works because it keeps the general populace docile with the assertion that their leaders are their servants, and it keeps leaders restrained by conditioning them to fear any sign of popular discontent.