“Strong Democracy” and Muammar Gaddafi

Original Article

Prof. Benjamin R. Barber of Rutgers, a Distinguished Fellow at a progressive think tank called Demos, is a leading exponent of what he calls “strong democracy,” direct rule by the people. Weak old fashioned (small “d”) democracy that is set within traditional (small “r”) republican institutions is objectionable to Dr. Barber. America’s Founders wanted a government of checks and balances to cool democratic ardor and tame its dangerous tendencies. But Dr. Barber argues that we need strong leaders who will express democratic will directly.

Now it comes out that Mr. Barber is one of a set of intellectuals and officials who found reasons to admire the possibilities of Libya strongman Muammar Gaddafi and has served on the board of the Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation. He has just resigned from the board, a bit late, one might say.

Happily, his long held views are well known and on the record. Here was his opinion back in 2007: “Written off not long ago as an implacable despot, Gaddafi is a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat. Unlike almost any other Arab ruler, he has exhibited an extraordinary capacity to rethink his country’s role in a changed and changing world.”

Gaddafi, Barber proclaimed, is “flexible and pragmatic,” the author of a direct democracy manifesto, The Green Book. The direct democracy angle is crucial because that is how Barber connected his hopes with Gaddafi and the aims of Brother Leader’s “gifted” son, Saif al-Islam.

Why do American and European leftists have such a weakness for populist tyrants? There is a reason to tolerate authoritarian rulers whose policies arguably are the best that can be expected at a given moment in a particular country, especially if the only option is totalitarianism. But you can accept a strongman in power without celebrating him.

Gaddafi has blood—American blood—on his hands. For one thing, he authorized the Lockerbie bombing of Pam Am. He also planned at least one terror attack on Americans in Europe. His own people in Libya have lived in fear similar to that experienced in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The most one would want to achieve with him is a formal diplomatic correctness

But Barber and others fell for Gaddafi. They probably thought they were usinghim. So did British prime minister Gordon Brown and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, among others. They wanted access to Libya’s oil, of course. London School of Economics was happy to discuss “civil society” with Mr. Gaddafi and received a couple of million dollars for their interest. What did Benjamin Barber want? A model “direct democrat”?

Let’s remember this cautionary tale the next time we hear proposals for more “strong” and “direct” democracy in the United States. The Benjamin Barbers have it wrong; the American Founders had it right.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.