Perhaps the most beautiful achievement of political life in the late twentieth century was the international movement for democracy that brought down several dozen dictatorships of every possible description–authoritarian, communist, fascist, military. It happened on all continents, and it happened peacefully. It began in the 1970s, with the collapse of the Greek junta and of the right-wing regimes in Portugal and Spain; it continued in the 1980s, mysteriously jumping the Atlantic, with the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil; then, vaulting the Pacific, it claimed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Finally, in the early ’90s, it spread to South Africa, where the white apartheid regime yielded to majority rule, and returned to the Eurasian continent, where the great Soviet empire itself shuffled off history’s stage.
The actors in this benign contagion acquired a name: civil society. “Civil”: they were peaceful, meaning that the bomb in the cafe, the assassination of the local official, the paratrooper invasion of the Parliament building were not their tactics. “Society”: they expressed popular will, not the will of governments. The movement broke or made governments. It was their master.
Recently, however, the movement has undergone a change both at home and abroad. Civil society groups in the more prosperous societies began to lend welcome assistance to poorer ones. But governments also joined in. Unlike private civil groups, governments are in their nature interested in power, and the civil society movements clearly exercised it. Here in America, the National Endowment for Democracy was created in the early 1980s. Funded by Congress and governed by a board that included active and retired politicians of both parties, it nevertheless called itself a “nongovernmental” organization. Its declared mission was to support democracy per se, not any political party; but the distinction was soon lost in practice. Most of the $10.5 million handed out in Nicaragua during the elections of 1990 went to the opposition to the Sandinistas, who were duly voted out of power. In 2002 the Endowment funded groups in Venezuela that backed the briefly successful coup against President Hugo Chávez, in which the Venezuelan Parliament, judiciary and constitution were suspended.
The day after the overthrow, which Omar Encarnación of Bard College has called a “civil society coup,” the president of the International Republican Institute, which is loosely tied to the GOP and is a conduit for Endowment funds, stated, “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.” Speaking for the US government, the presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, stated that the coup “happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people.” In fact, the Venezuelan people opposed the coup, and Chávez, notwithstanding his own repressive tendencies, almost immediately returned to power.
More recently Endowment contributions went to groups in Ukraine that supported presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who became president after fraudulent results engineered by the government candidate were reversed by popular pressure. In Venezuela, the outcome was the destruction, however brief, of all democratic institutions, whereas in Ukraine the outcome was the rescue of democracy; yet in both cases the integrity of civil society, which depends on independence from governments, was partially corrupted.
Something similar was meanwhile happening within the United States. The Republican Party and its supporters have been the pioneers, creating what might be called a shadow civil society and seeking to merge it imperceptibly with the real one. Former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley summarized the process in a March 30 op-ed in the New York Times: Large donors founded partisan think tanks more interested in propagandizing than in thinking; then proceeded to establish seemingly independent but actually politically subservient news organizations such as Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh show. Recently, some new wrinkles in the process have emerged: the use of fake newscasters, pretending to report from an independent news station while actually working for a department of government, and fake reporters, such as “Jeff Gannon,” the imposter permitted by the White House to ask sycophantic questions of the President at White House press conferences. There is also the fake “town meeting” (the very emblem of civil society) with the President, at which a screened audience asks pretested questions.
The strategy of faking civil activity has a long tradition in the foreign sphere. For example, the CIA virtually cut its teeth manipulating popular and intellectual movements in Europe in the late 1940s and ’50s. (Indeed, historian Allen Weinstein, who was the Endowment’s first acting president, has commented, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly twenty-five years ago by the CIA.”) But the domestic practice is more recent. One of the lesser-known points of origin is the presidency of Richard Nixon, who once ordered his aide Charles Colson to firebomb the Brookings Institution then called it off. But he also had some more workable ideas. He told Patrick Buchanan, then his communications director, that he wanted somehow not only to cut off existing “left-wing” foundations “without a dime” but also to found a right-wing institute that would seem to be independent but would actually be managed by the White House. As Buchanan commented in a memo, “some of the essential objectives of the Institute would have to be blurred, even buried, in all sorts of other activity that would be the bulk of its work, that would employ many people, and that would provide the cover for the more important efforts.” In this matter, as in so many others, today’s Republican Party is the legatee of Richard Nixon.
Some Democrats want their party to respond in kind. For urgent and understandable reasons, they want to level the playing field. But the cost could be high. In such a world, nothing would be what it seemed. Behind every blogger would lurk the PR spinmeister, behind every reporter would stand the political hack, behind every charming demonstrator holding her banner–rose, orange, purple or cedar–would lie the cold hand of the state. In the name of civil society, civil society would be spoiled.