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Long May Her Bunsen Burners Burn

It's a beautiful morning here in New York City. As I start writing this post, it's Saturday evening in Bangkok (exactly 12 hours ahead of NYC). Tomorrow morning the people of Thailand will vote in a "snap" election called by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in an attempt to shore up his power.

Charges of corruption, cronyism, tax-evasion and even treason have been made against Thaksin. Some say he has been taking the country down the road to authoritarian rule, and in recent weeks anti-Thaksin demonstrations have clogged the streets of Bangkok. There have been calls for King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and exercise his constitutional power to appoint a new Prime Minister.

And so in an election that will probably be mostly free of vote-rigging or other forms of fraud, by this time tomorrow Thaksin will likely have been returned to power in a landslide victory.

The short explanation for this seemingly odd outcome is that 70% of Thailand's voting population lives in rural areas, and Thaksin has taken care to see to the most desperate needs of Thailand's rural poor. He has introduced, and promises to expand, a program of inexpensive health care. His government has made cheap loans of the equivalent of US$25,000 to rural villages to help them develop their local economies. He has handed out cows to villagers like pieces of hard candy.

Not surprisingly, support for Thaksin in rural areas is overwhelming.

In the cities of Thailand, most of the country's middle and upper class elites fear and resent Thaksin based on the charges of corruption, cronyism and increasing authoritarianism that have been made against him. Parenthetically, there doesn't seem to be much doubt that these charges are for the most part true.

The only hope for those who oppose Thaksin is a constitutional quirk that prevents a parliament from being formally seated if a minimum number of candidates don't get 20% of the available votes. The opposition parties have boycotted the "snap" election and are calling for their supporters to either stay way from the polls, or tick the "Abstain" box. The hope is that if they can prevent a legitimate parliament from being seated, the King may finally intervene and begin a process of constitutional reform.

As I say, that's the short-version, as gleaned from the news reports I've been able to read. I'm sure it's all more complicated than that, but that's a pretty accurate free-hand sketch, I think.

What do we actually need to make democracy work? Not just in Thailand, of course, but also in the U.S., Iraq, and anywhere else you want to point to and mouth the words "the flowering of democracy".

On the face of it, in the case of Thailand at least, it doesn't seem like it would be that hard to find a way to address the needs of both the urban and rural populations. Do the stuff Thaksin has done for the rural poor, and then, you know, don't be corrupt and don't do things that edge the government toward authoritarianism. How hard is that?

But I guess the High and Mighty aren't built that way. Doing the thing that will both ensure you maintain your power and increase your wealth seems to be the preferred way to go. Split the "low" motivations from the "high". Identify and address the most fundamental needs of the largest voting blocs, and you pretty much get a free ride on whatever else you want to do.

In the U.S., our politicians identify our fundamental need to Be Safe, address it in showy but essentially ineffective ways (the war in Iraq as a prime example, or the "ports controversy"), and they pretty much get a free ride on raping and pillaging the country. It's a great formula once you master the fundamentals, it seems.

I don't know what you do about it. I really don't. It's easy to say that we should only elect People of Merit -- politicians who are not primarily interested in dividing us in order to maintain and increase their own power and wealth. Yeah, okay, all we need now is for People of Merit, and only People of Merit, to stand for election.

And it's easy to say that, for example, the rural population of Thailand should ignore their economic needs and vote strictly for democratic ideals. It's not going to happen, of course. In an obvious sense, they would be idiots to follow that advice, and it isn't anybody's place to tell them otherwise unless their critics are prepared to effectively address the problems created by the poverty of the rural population.

In my country, it just doesn't seem that it would be that hard to, for example, take effective steps to both protect the American people and to preserve our freedoms, economic and otherwise. But we are made to choose: do we want a warrantless and unconstitutional Terrorist Surveillance Program or do we want to die? That's it, take your pick. It's the best we can do. Take your free cows and shut up about the corruption, the cronyism, the creeping authoritarianism.

American political philosophers like to make a big deal about the notion of the several states being "laboratories of democracy", the idea being you've got fifty little democracies out there, free and independent enough to be able to experiment with all sorts of ways to get democracy to work better. It's a great idea. All you need to make it work is for people to pay attention to those experiments that yield useful results.

So maybe the real benefit for America in all this hoped-for world-wide "flowering of democracy" is not that the world will somehow be magically better in some airy-fairy way, but that there will be even more of these "laboratories of democracy" out there, searching for ways to address the inherent shortcomings of democracy itself.

I don't know what's going to happen in Thailand tomorrow, or in the weeks that follow. But it wouldn't hurt to keep a close eye on things over there. It doesn't seem likely, but maybe, just maybe, their little laboratory over there will come up with a result that will teach us something about how to do democracy a little bit better.

Because the problem with my country is that in spite of its much vaunted Entrepreneurial Spirit, way too often it thinks of itself as being way too smart to ever learn anything from anybody. Which suggests to me that probably the first lesson every democracy needs to learn about democracy is that you are never as good at it as you think you are.


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