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On Iran

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at the election in Iran. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

Let me be the first to admit that I don’t know if the recent Iranian “election” was fraudulent, but the faith some pundits have placed on the “evidence” for their conviction that it was gives me pause.

The elections certainly weren’t free and fair, not least because the regime had hand-picked the slate of candidates, but we are unlikely to ever know that straight-up fraud was involved or if voting irregularities were of a higher frequency than those we have routinely taken for granted even in this country. Our failure to contemplate even the possibility that many a dictator has been democratically elected is a dangerous democratic hubris that has shaped and sometimes thwarted our foreign policy.

I am not asserting that the Iranian election was definitely legitimate, only that it is at least remotely possible that it was. At least two independent pollsters agree, and have offered the illuminating factoid from their poll that the only demographic group that found Hossein Mousavi leading Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were graduates and those with high-incomes. (That is to say, they are people most likely to resemble western spectators still staring at the final vote tally in disbelief.) Yet Christopher Hitchens would have none of it and Steve Clemons has decided that there will be blood. But is the blood that Clemons not implausibly predicts will ensue the result of the subversion of democracy in the Iranian electoral process or its success?

Shutting down the media may be egregiously non-democratic, but it is different than creating ballots out of thin air. The reason why this distinction matters is that we must learn to contemplate why millions of people around the world would want to rally behind fanatical leaders who hold such spectacularly repugnant positions as denying the holocaust. This has happened so many times before that it makes our failure to accept its possibility even more revealing of the depth and scope of our mind-block: consider the cases of Gamal Nasser (Egypt), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Jerry Rawlings (Ghana), Slobodan Milošević (Serbia), and now, possibly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Democracy is messy, and it is not naturally or dialectically inclined towards human rights, western liberal ideals, or the best candidate according to our standards. Neo-conservatives in America positing that the Iraqi people would welcome our troops as liberators back in 2003 have had to learn the hard way the costs of believing what they wanted to believe. In an analagous way, today’s pundits have been so quick to assert that the Iranian people in their post-election riots have exposed the charade of their recent “elections,” but maybe it is democracy itself that has outwitted the pundits. To understand the unpredictable and poigant path of democracy and democratization in the world, those of us who believe in democracy must urgently and honestly contemplate the number of times we have been hoisted by our own petard.

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