In the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, we American Exceptionalists were on quite a roll; that roll was about “the wave of expanding Democracy”.
With the fall of the Second World – the commies – the First World would be strengthened to spread the one-person-one-vote, choose-your-path gospel to the “Third World”.
Bob Collins at MPR’s NewsCut notes that it doesn’t seem to be working out at the moment:
So what happened?
The Boston Globe’s Joshua Kurlantzick today uses Thailand as an example of a receding wave. The streets of Thailand have been crammed with protesters wearing the color of the former monarchy, demanding an end to the reign of the democratically elected prime minister. Last week, they got their wish.
The events unfolding in Thailand are part of a gathering global revolt against democracy. In 2007, the number of countries with declining freedoms exceeded those with advancing freedoms by nearly four to one, according to a recent report by Freedom House, an organization that monitors global democracy trends.
How could this be? Blame the middle class, Kurlantzick says.
As a country develops a true middle class, these urban, educated citizens insist on more rights in order to protect their economic and social interests. Eventually, as the size of the middle class grows, those demands become so overwhelming that democracy is inevitable. But now, it appears, the middle class in some nations has turned into an antidemocratic force. Young democracy, with weak institutions, often brings to power, at first, elected leaders who actually don’t care that much about upholding democracy. As these demagogues tear down the very reforms the middle classes built, those same middle classes turn against the leaders, and then against the system itself, bringing democracy to collapse.
“Elected dictators” are not just a problem in Thailand, but Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Indonesia, and — the big one — Russia, the poster child for tension between pro- and anti-democracy forces.
Both pieces bring up some interesting questions, with by-no-means simple answers.
For starters, I question the validity of Kurlantzick’s numbers; using the raw number of nations as a metric can be misleading; if Andorra, Luxembourg and Montenegro (hypothetically) adopt dictatorships, and India is democratic , do you count the nations (3:1 for dictators) or by population (hundreds to one for democracy)?
And for all of the alarmism of the conclusion, it’s worth remembering that it’s been worse; in the Thirties, the intellectual current was to assume socialism, even authoritarianism, was going to win out in the end; in the Sixties and Seventies, people assumed Communism was here to stay, and the red wave engulfed much of the Third World.
Still – nations like Russia and Thailand are hardly small potatoes; there would seem to be a problem here.
Reading Paul Johnson’s classic “The Birth Of The Modern”, it’s interesting to note that so much of what we recognize as the “Modern World” today – from direct democracy to abolition of slavery to the asphalt road, steam engines and pants – got its start between 1815 and 1840 or so.
Among the more subtle and yet wide-sweeping changes was the notion on the part of people in the “liberal” (with a small “l”) west that Democracy was the way things should be. It’s not always been a given, even in the West; it took many sweeping intellectual changes – the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment – to set the philosophical stage for the notion that Man can rule himself.
Huge swathes of the world never had a Renaissance or an Enlightenment (and as to the Reformation, many of the world’s major religions are not nearly as tolerant of dissent and uppitiness on the part of the peasants as Judeo-Christianity have been). Russian society in particular never had any of the benefits of the change in Western intellectual tradition; authority (especially the authority to protect one from rampaging Huns, Tartars or Nazis) is government’s most important attribute to great swathes of Russian society.
The real question isn’t whether nations with long, illiberal histories – Bolivia, Thailand, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico – have a hard time adopting democracy. The real, important question is how any nation with a long, illiberal history – India, Colombia, Mali, Senegal – adopt it at all, and how we can help similar nations with similiar traditiosn – Iraq, Afghanistan – do better in much, much less time.
Which leads us to the obvious question: How does the U.S. respond to this?
That, on the other hand, is easy. We do what we did in 1983; we remain the best, healthiest democracy in the world; we provide a strong contrast with the alternatives; we remain the place on this planet where everyone wants to go (and, since they can’t, we provide a model for them to copy in their own countries). And we do what we did in 1948; stand up for fledgeling democracies against totalitarians – diplomatically, materially, and if necessary (heaven forfend) militarily, with all the moral and material strength we have.
Which necessitates having a government that believes in American exceptionalism – that this is the kind of place and system worth defending and exporting.
Glad you asked.