Democracy's Hour

'PEOPLE, your government has returned to you." These words, spoken by playwright-president Vaclav Havel to his fellow citizens two months after the November 1989 "velvet revolution" in Prague, were taken to heart not only by Czechs, but by people across the globe waking to the idea that totalitarianism need not be a permanent condition for people and nations.

In 1991, the idea of democracy is on the march. Marxism has been discredited by one of the most basic litmus tests around - practical experience. President Bush this week called on Fidel Castro, one of the few remaining committed Marxists, to open up Cuba's frozen political system. On Tuesday, Ethiopia's President Mengistu - a Marxist whose rule has led to mass starvation in East Africa - fled his country.

As today's Monitor series on political "Global Frontiers" notes, efforts in El Salvador to include labor unionists in the political process, and a freer press in Algeria, are examples of a larger, worldwide impulse for greater democratic freedoms. The fact that the Soviet Union sided with the West in the coalition against Saddam Hussein's aggression made a "new world order" at least temporarily possible.

Yet it is far too early to announce, as some would, the "triumph of democracy" in today's world. The failure of Marxism hardly means the automatic ascendancy of an idea as complex and as grounded in Western values and culture as democracy. Democracy has long been described as fragile, as an "experiment." Abraham Lincoln noted that democracy is always "one generation away from extinction echoing the Founding Fathers' Puritan-rooted concern about the corruptibility of human nature, and also implying that s

elf-government in this world is not simply a "state of nature" that can be accepted unconsciously, but is something that must be learned and worked at. Democracy is not a mechanism; it must have a soul.

Tides of feeling must be examined. Optimism is not an accurate barometer. In the early 1950s there was great hope in some internationalist quarters for a new world brotherhood. Some characterized the era as "the twilight of materialism" - not a particularly accurate forecast of how aggressive in coming decades would be the rise of secularism, mass culture, and material science.

Just so, aggressions threaten today's buddings of democracy. The tragic slaying of Rajiv Gandhi and the killing of more than 200 Muslims and Hindus during India's election shows the dark side of religious passion. Nationalist hatred between Serbs and Croats may split Yugoslavia.

Moreover, as it becomes popular, a political nostrum for the times, the word "democracy" itself may be devalued. Boris Yeltsin's running mate heads a party called "Communists for Democracy." What does that mean? One lucrative new role for old communist bureaucrats in Budapest is to set up consulting firms with the name "democracy" in the title.

It is important, perhaps more than ever, that the idea of "democracy" not lose its deeper identity - especially in countries that profess to be democratic.

Democracy must be rediscovered. Many people are "for" democracy. Fewer can articulate what it means. What are the conditions for a healthy democracy? How, today, is the balance between pluralism and unity to be struck? How are democratic states to check unbridled capitalism? How are individuals to know, in an age of sophisticated marketing, if they are making free choices, or are being coerced? Has the dictatorship of the proletariat given way to a dictatorship of the consumer?

The elements of democracy - literacy, law, respect for history and conscience, individual rights, religious tolerance - aren't achieved overnight. The volunteer associations Alexis de Tocqueville found so vital in America in the 19th century must survive. Churches, civic groups, journals, and other associations are crucial "mediating structures" between state and market. They keep alive our values, give guidance and meaning to life and society. As Mr. Havel said this New Year's: "It is up to you to show

the return of your government ... has not been in vain."

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