Friday, December 7, 2007

The King of Democracy

It seems like a contradiction in terms to be called "The King of Democracy," but this epithet fits the role of King Juan Carlos of Spain uniquely and aptly.

Descended from the various royal families of Europe and imperial Spain, Juan Carlos has, in a single generation, created a new kind of monarchy, a modern institution which acts as the protector of the contemporary democratic republic, in direct contrast to the autocratic ways of his forbears.

Juan Carlos would have been recorded positively in the history books just for his extraordinary and courageous defense of Spanish democracy in 1981 when he almost singlehandedly stood in the way of a right-wing coup d'etat in Madrid that would have returned Spain to the falangist totalitarian state which existed under caudillo (dictator) Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975. A constitutional monarch, Juan Carlos has not ever had any specific political power in his country, but because of his leadership in 1981 and his subsequent dignified and mature presence overlooking the Spanish political environment, he has not only acquired moral power in Spain the old fashioned way, he has become a leading figure throughout the Spanish-speaking world (more than 400 million persons).

As I say, this would have been enough, but Juan Carlos apparently is not one to rest on his throne. Recently, in Chile for a conference of Spanish-speaking countries, the king confronted the latest version of caudillo, socialist President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. After Chavez continually and rudely haranged Spain and the United States, Juan Carlos told him in perhaps the most memorable riposte of the new century so far, "Por que no te callas" ("Why don¹t you shut up?").

Although most of the credit for the defeat of Mr. Chavez' constitutional power-grab this past Sunday should go to the Venezuelan people themselves, it was a close vote, and I think that Juan Carlos's remarks were a vital turning point in the referendum campaign.

So now the king of Spain has twice thwarted enemies of democracy, and he has done it against totalitiarian forces of the extreme right and the extreme left. Jose Ortega y Gasset, Spain¹s great philosopher of the 20th century (whose most famous book, The Revolt of the Masses, diagnosed and predicted the early Fascist and communist totalitarian regimes under Hitler and Stalin), would be very proud of the Spanish king today.

Coming from a nation which threw off a king and his colonial rule in 1776, I have not ever been particularly sympathetic to royal families and monarchs. I think it is fortunate that we have fewer and fewer of them today. The British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, has used his protracted waiting period to become king to take up the causes of organic farming and architecture, two positive matters, but not ones which create significant moral authority. (Fortunately, a Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. and a Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, were recent heads of the British government who, following the great Winston Churchill, have kept Great Britain as a leading moral force in the world today even as its military and political power has receded.)

There are a few remaining kings today, but the only other descended "head of state" who has earned worldwide respect is the Dalai Lama. He also descends from a line of autocratic rulers of Tibet, but since his exile 50 years ago, he has become a champion of Tibetan democracy, something which now does not exist. The Dalai Lama is not only a courageous political figure as he travels over the planet, but as the reigning philosopher of Tibetan Buddhism, he has brought a welcome message of compassion and tolerance to a world which is in great need of both.

The totalitarian threats to democracy do not ever seem to go away. Like viruses, they adapt to the medicines and vaccines we have made to defeat them in the past, and they reappear in new forms and with new "caudillos." Affluent and successful republics such as the United States tend to let down their guard, and permit these threats sometimes to grow and thrive.

There are hopeful sign, such as the recent victory of President Sarkozy in France, but there are many more worrisome ones. I wish that the American presidential campaign would address these threats more directly, and perhaps as the winnowing process of candidates continues, it will.

We have no king here, constitutional or otherwise. It is the president of the United States who stands at the "bully pulpit," and who must be the one to explain to the country and to the world why political and economic freedom is the only inoculation against encroaching tyranny.


-This article was first published in The Washington Times on December 7th, 2007.

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