Civil unrest is normal, and therefore expected, in any democratic nation where political factions disagree with government actions and feel public officials have failed to adequately address their grievances. Dissent is a healthy part of any democracy. Civil War, however, has become a rare occurrence in the stable democracies of the West. Civil war and sectarian strive have become things observed in ill-democratic and non-democratic nations where populations are primed to rise up against their self-serving, corrupt oppressors. With that in mind, Catalan’s vote to secede from Spain is a very unexpected occurrence. The history of Catalan explains why Catalan wants to be an independent state, but its actual attempt to secede and the backlash are surreal.
The strength of democracy is its ability to respond to the changing needs of the population. When governments no longer responds to the needs of the Peoples they govern, they become self-serving, dysfunctional, and oppressive then eventually collapse. Through proper representation, true democracies have the potential to more readily change with the shifting interests of their Peoples. Clearly, the People of Catalan no longer feel their interests align with the other Spanish Peoples’ interests. Based on an unofficial vote, which appears to align with the true sentiments of the Catalans, the session effort is democratic in nature. As such, the effort by the Spanish government to stop the secession would seem to violate democratic principles, but the story is far more complicated than that.
As demonstrated by the US Civil War, the United States would not tolerate an effort on behalf of any State to secede. There are few nations that would. On the other hand, quite a few nations, including the US, most of European allies, and Russia, have supported secession movements in other countries. The US supported the secession of South Sudan and helped facilitate the breakup of Yugoslavia. Russia, for example, supported the secession of Crimea from Ukraine, yet the US fiercely opposed it. Unfortunately, people and public officials tend to sympathize with the partisans that they find most useful, not sound and consistent public policy rationales. To understand the situation in Catalan and how it relates to the democratic process, it is helpful to look at a situation like the one observed in Crimea.
The difference between the Western, Ukrainian view and the Russian, Crimean view on the 2014 Crimea secession vote is that the ill-democratic referendum was not truly impartial or representative. In the eyes of pro-Russian Crimeans, however, their hastily arranged secession referendum, which followed Russia’s silent, bloodless invasion, was a valid act of democracy. In the eyes of Westerners, Russia’s actions were seen as an act of piracy, because the territory was owned by the Ukrainian People and the People of Crimea must follow Ukrainian law, including when they want to secede. In other words, the Crimeans felt their homeland was solely their land to do with as they pleased, which is the same thing the Catalans believe. In a democracy, however, all citizens have the right to decide the fate of all the territory under the rule of the commonwealth government.
To understand democracy, people must first recognize that democracy is not about freedom. Democracy is about establishing limits. By placing limits on the authority of government on the national, provincial, and local levels, the citizens of a nation enjoy protections from the harms of oppressive, self-serving governments. By placing limits on small and large businesses, workers, consumers, and communities are protected from business decisions that cause great harm. By placing limits on individual behavior, citizens can be protected from crimes and crippling bigotry. The limitations imposed by democratic governments help ensure all citizens enjoy the same protections. In doing so, individuals are given a large degree of freedom to act without undermining the freedoms of others.
In contrast, dictatorships ensure absolute freedom for those strong enough to impose their rule; whereas, democracy harnesses the strength of the community. Where anarchy is the natural state of the human animal that provides absolute freedom to the point there is no government to protect the interests of anyone and might-makes-right becomes the law of the land, democracy balances the interests of citizens, so all can enjoy freedom and dictators cannot seize control. The problem with pure democracy is that it gives people the power to undermine their own freedoms and the freedoms of their neighbors. By placing limits on the power of government and ensuring the freedoms of citizens, democratic nations are able to secure and balance the will of the People and the freedom of the People.
Democracy is synonymous with civil liberties and human rights. A government by the People is, after all, predicated on the freedoms of individuals and their ability to freely express their interests. It is, therefore, easy to forget that both civil liberties and human rights are embraced to place limits on government. Civil liberties and human rights are intended to defy the will of the People whenever democracy undermines the freedoms of individuals. Like the military and judicial system, human rights and civil liberties are all undemocratic social institutions that exist to protect democracy from the fallacies of people. Democracy can only be sustained as long as the freedoms of individuals are protected.
Whether discussing minorities disenfranchised by the majority or the majority disenfranchised by powerful, special interest minorities, civil liberties and human rights must be supported to limit the power of government. The failure to defend the civil liberties of one is a failure to defend the civil liberties of all. This is particularly true when it is inconvenient or offensive to do so. For the sake of ease and self-interest, it is tempting to simply reason away the rights of others, or even deny their existence, yet the failure to defend the freedoms of others undermines the freedoms of everyone. When we share the majority view, democracy provides the best opportunity for our interests to be addressed by government. When we share a minority view, civil liberties and human rights safeguard our freedom to express our minority views from those in power and our fellow citizens who are offended by our views.
In the case of secession, unless there is some legal means for the residents of a sovereign, secured territory to secede and the legal burden is met, secessionists have no right to invalidate the territorial claims of their fellow citizens. Secessionists have the right to leave their home country at anytime, but they cannot declare their own nation within the borders of another nation. Secession movements can be democratic in nature, but allowing succession movements to proceed without popular consent undermines democratic governance and the rights of fellow citizens. Catalans may own their homes and Catalan may be their homeland, but Catalan belongs to Spain and the Spanish People, which includes them. If both the Catalans and the rest of the Spanish People decide to part ways, secession would be democratic and legitimate, but Catalans are choosing to deny non-Catalans their right to say.
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