TCS Daily

Iran's People's President

By Lee Harris - August 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a populist outsider, has won the election for the presidency of Iran by a landslide, and many in the West have expressed dismay and shock at this result. Both in the United States and in Europe, the general attitude toward Ahmadinejad has been that he is no friend of the West and, to use the words of Donald Rumfeld, "no friend of democracy."

That he is no friend of the West seems indisputable. But it is a bit misleading to say that Ahmadinejad is no friend of democracy.

True, he may not be a friend of democracy as we in the West have come to use this word. Certainly, he is not going to establish the kind of open and pluralist society that we modern Westerners have come to think of as being democratic.

Yet, merely because Ahmadinejad does not represent our idea of what democracy should be, it would be a terrible and potentially tragic error for the West to look upon his victory as if it said nothing significant about the nature of democracy. In fact, if you wish to find an example of a genuine democratic revolution -- in the original meaning of this word -- then you could do no better than look at the election results in Iran.

Ahmadinejad's triumph came about for one big reason: The marginalized and the excluded classes of Iranian society loved him; they saw in him one of their own -- a man of the people who felt in his guts what the people feel in theirs; who shared their hate and their loves, their passions and their antipathies.

Ahmadinejad emerged triumphant because he came across as a champion of those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale -- the champion, in short, of the People -- and this undisputed demographic fact should give us pause before we declare that the Ahmadinejad election was not "democratic." On the contrary, his landslide win is a classical illustration of a democratic revolution.

Our failure to see this fact is due to a confusion about what the Greek word demos originally meant. It did not mean all the people in the sense of all the human beings in a particular society, the way we have come to mean it; rather, the word demos referred to only a clearly defined and designated group of human beings within society -- namely, the marginalized, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, the excluded, the lower class, the proletariat, those, in short, who did the productive work of the society, but who had absolutely no voice in how their society was governed.

Here we are getting to the essence of what democracy originally meant to the Greeks, and what it continued to mean all the way down to the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. A democratic revolution meant an uprising of the excluded masses against an entrenched elite; it meant a revolution, either violent or peaceful, in which those who have been on the margins of society decide to remove from power those who have been their bosses, masters, or sometimes simply their betters.

Note that this definition of democracy is ethically neutral. It does not assume that the excluded masses are superior to the ruling elite, or that the elite is superior to the masses. Instead, it simply recognizes this division, and notes the political and social dynamics that operates between these two antagonistic classes.

It is altogether possible that the ruling elite that is kicked out of office may be composed of decent and dedicated men, such as John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson's opponent in the American democratic revolution of 1828. It is equally possible that the beneficiary of a democratic revolution may be a perfectly horrid individual, such as Adolf Hitler -- who rose to power by appealing to the People, or, in German, Das Volk, and whose appeal, like that of Ahmadinejad, lay in his capacity to feel what the dispossessed felt, and to give voice to their frustration and anger.

In short, we are deluding ourselves if we refuse to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory as a genuine democratic revolution. What happened in Iran fits the profile of such a revolution to a T.

It is only our irrational faith that the People must always be in the right that blinds us to the evident reality that the People have so often chosen wrong.

The true believers in the panacea of democracy in the Middle East are engaged in wishful thinking if they try to dismiss this latest Iranian revolution as bogus or insignificant.

What happened in Iran is that the excluded classes elected a man who represented their own point of view -- and it is not the point of view that is favorable to America or to the West; indeed, it is one that is bitterly antagonistic. We can either try to explain away this result by denying the obvious, or we can begin the painful process of reconsidering America's mission to bring democracy to a part of the world in which the Power to the People seems inevitably to put into power those people who hate us the most.


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