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What Was Democracy? | The Nation

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What Was Democracy?

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Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

The Logic of Discipline
Global Capitalism and the Architecture of Government.
By Alasdair Roberts.
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Ill Fares the Land
By Tony Judt.
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The Society of Equals
By Pierre Rosanvallon.
Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer.
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The Crisis of the European Union
A Response.
By Jürgen Habermas.
Translated from the German by Ciaran Cronin.
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The Confidence Trap
A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present.
By David Runciman.
Buy this book

The second, more palpable reason for the sharpening pitch of democratic fatalism originates in this misplaced free-market optimism. The generational rise in prosperity often thought to be an outcome of, or a prerequisite for, both liberal and social democracy has tapered off. The poor economies of the Global South and the rich economies of the West have lately entered into similar positions of political-economic imbalance, but from opposite directions.

In the Arab world, for instance, autocracies remained stable so long as low levels of opportunity were matched by the low expectations most people had for their own economic future. Over the past decades, as expectations rose, the economic foundations of regime stability were undermined. In the West, by contrast, the expectations gap has been produced not by rising expectations but by dwindling opportunities. The starting point was the eve of World War I, when the West boasted a highly educated population that enjoyed seemingly boundless economic opportunity. Today, a more educated generation contends for a smaller number of satisfying jobs. While Egypt and the United States may be in different phases of economic and political development, the expectations gap at the root of protests against the status quo in both countries is strikingly similar.

The problem of the expectations gap points to a vulnerable spot in liberal democratic politics. While the leaders and citizens of liberal democracies have come to believe that their system naturally produces better outcomes than other arrangements, its more honest theorists have long maintained that the core achievement of liberal democracy is much more modest: it guarantees a political process that allows people to make bad decisions without jeopardizing the entire political order. It does not guarantee good political or economic outcomes.

If the heartland of capitalist liberal democracy can be riven by an expectations gap, there is reason to wonder whether what we call “democracy” may not be so different from other political systems after all: perhaps only our arrogance has kept us from seeing it as one type of rule among many, struggling to satisfy the high expectations of its people in a time of economic stultification and stratification. Like monarchies, oligarchies and autocracies, democracies too are mortal. This sense is only compounded by the third reason for the dilution of the ideology of liberal democracy: the faith never spread very thickly in the first place. The word “democracy” was indigenized in ways more various than Americans like to admit. Outside of a few outliers such as India and the United States, where deep in the provinces one still encounters something like religious zeal for democracy, many people in nominal democracies around the world do not believe they are inheritors of a sacral dispensation. Nor should they.

Countries as various as Turkey and Thailand—to choose only two currently undergoing severe democratic crises—originally looked to Western examples when choosing political models for their states. At the time of their birth, however, each of them managed only to plant a seedbed for Western-sanctioned bourgeois democracy in a relatively small patch of their urban populations. For the villager in the rural regions of Cappadocia and the Isan, the arrival of “democracy” was not very different from the forms of clientelism and patrimony that preceded it and continued to co-exist within it: one decade you gave certain goods to your political fixer, the next decade you voted for him. Now, as these ex-rural masses make new demands on their states, win elections and crowd out resources, it is not surprising that the longtime inhabitants of Istanbul and Bangkok have pitted themselves against them in anti-populist battle, all the while developing a taste for human rights and liberal values. This is not to condone the violent and populist tactics of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Yingluck Shinawatra, but to underscore a well-known fact about the thin veil of “democracy” in the twentieth century: it often thrived by excluding a vast number of fellow citizens in the hinterland from a decent share in the political and economic life of the nation. “Democracy” has always been easier to achieve when citizens share the same mental and moral universe; in places where they do not, it is hardly shocking if widening the franchise includes outbreaks of political violence. Conversely, it is telling that one of the common uses of direct democratic procedures in the world—the insidious referenda of California, Switzerland, Gujarat and the Crimea—is to safeguard economic privileges and bogus ethnic and sexual solidarities that are perceived to be threatened from the outside.

But if those outsiders continue to rally around the word, it is because for much of the twentieth century “democracy” was synonymous with modernization, economic uplift and individual self-realization. For this reason, nearly every country today advertises itself as democratic, but the blanket adjective obscures a set of political realities that demand a less specious appraisal. There is no steady convoy of nations converging on liberal democracy in the world today, but rather monarchies trying to keep democracy at bay (Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia); oligarchies posing as social democracies (Indonesia); theocratic republics (Iran); totalitarian patriarchies (North Korea); democratic populist governments facing elitist uprisings (Thailand, Turkey); socialist gerontocratic oligarchies (Algeria); praetorian oligarchies (Burma); democratic populist governments facing populist uprisings from their own constituencies (Brazil, Argentina); anti-liberal autocracies (the Russian Federation); anti-liberal democracies (Hungary); and constitutional plutocratic republics (the United States). Even this crude typology compels the question of whether the world would not be better off—and would suffer much less violence and misunderstanding, with due deference to their political aspirations—if we began thinking about these states as they are, and not as we or they wish them to be.

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