In the late 1980s, at Cold War’s end, many believed that democracy, as obvious political best practice and key driver of strategic success, would without doubt spread and ultimately become universal. A prominent advocate of this prediction, Francis Fukuyama, stated his view in more careful and conditional terms than the many who did not read his fine print, but nuance aside, the coming global triumph of democracy was in those days a widespread expectation that many prominent observers, not least Samuel Huntington with his earlier “third wave” analysis, played a part in bringing about. It is no longer so widespread a view. The ostensible reasons are many, but let us note the three most common themes.
First, many hold that Western democracy was not the only or the main reason for the West’s victory in the Cold War. To the extent that conclusion is believed, democracy benefits less from association with victory. The weaknesses of the Soviet system, not the strengths of the West, doomed the Soviet Union, many came to believe, and subsequent developments seem to support that verdict. After all, while Soviet authoritarianism collapsed, other forms have prospered, leading to notions like the “Beijing Consensus”, a hybrid arrangement combining expanded market incentives without political liberalization. Democracy, then, is not the only winner’s game in town.
Second, the record shows that in fact liberal democracy did not spread fast or far after the Cold War. Its triumphs were limited largely to the old Soviet sphere in Eastern and Central Europe. Additionally, the fact that Russia itself never found the path to genuine liberal democracy is one of enormous global consequence. In some less influential cases, too, largely in Latin America, populist movements displaced older authoritarianisms using democratic forms and rhetoric, but in most cases avoided genuine liberal democratic reform. Thus there arose the specter of “illiberal” or “imitation” democracy.”1 Even the “color revolutions” of the 1990s, which briefly vied to revive optimism about democracy’s future, did not live up to expectations, neither in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan nor Lebanon. Most authoritarian regimes in developing countries, too, proved effective at maintaining control. Even in the Arab world, where that control has recently been contested, it is far from clear that democratic forces will prevail over populist and neo-authoritarian ones. Thus many observers have speculated about the “return of history”, with the spotlight trained on the stubborn recrudescence of nationalist and sectarian enthusiasms, and have posited a reconfiguring of the global political map to put non-democratic China into the “First World” as a true leader of the new millennium.2
Third, liberal democracy has acquired obvious problems of its own. After the Cold War ended, Western economies were buoyant and extra-parliamentary protest was scarce to the point of nonexistent. Now economic dislocation reigns from Los Angeles to Latvia, the European Union faces an existential crisis, and the United States appears to have run out of arrows in its economic policy quiver. Protestors populate the streets and parks. The patina of best-practice democracy is not what it was two decades ago.
Very much related, and in reprise of the relationship between democracy and global power, there is a widespread perception that the United States is in general geopolitical retreat, whether because of fiscal austerity or for other reasons. If democracy’s most powerful protector and advocate is losing its taste for global activism on behalf of its ideals, can dark days for democratic outposts in fragile places be far behind? The prevailing optic, then, is that today’s world is more hostile to liberal democracy than it was twenty years ago, and that tomorrow’s is likely to be more hostile still unless the Western democracies can rebound in a big way.
These analyses are not wrong so much as peripheral, or, to say it more specifically, derivative of more fundamental causes. The consensus seems to be that the challenge to democratic countries arises from external forces. Little to nothing is said about whether democracy fits the contemporary conditions and internal makeup of Western societies today as well as it fit them twenty, forty or sixty years ago. The truth is that changes within Western societies pose the deepest challenges to liberal democracy, changes so intimate to the lives of Westerners that they disappear mostly unnoticed into the flow of everyday experience. If a fish is really the last to discover water, then perhaps the citizens of liberal democratic countries are the least mindful of the conditions that nourish democratic governance, and the least likely to notice when those conditions change. Indeed, while we recognize readily that some social histories conduce to democracy more than others at any give time, we sometimes forget that changes through time can stress political institutions, democratic ones and others alike.
The democratic political institutions of Western countries arose and matured as industrial capitalism matured. It was a time of historically unprecedented economic growth and the concomitant development of new social groupings and relationships. They arose in elite political cultures that were in the main ethnically homogeneous, even if, notably in the American case, the society at large was considerably less so. They arose at a time when the legitimacy of empire was waning and that of the nation-state was waxing. They arose when the normative environment was calling traditional hierarchical structures into question but was still far from embracing radical forms of egalitarianism or any form of anti-foundationalism. Not just since the Cold War, but decades before it, the seeds of change had been planted for the rise of the post-industrial economy, the emergence of multiethnic and multicultural societies, and the erosion of the legitimating bonds of the nation-state. The question, therefore, is not whether democracy as it exists today is best practice for those parts of world that have not known it, but whether it is still best practice for those parts of the world that have known it.
What Is Democracy?Let us continue by trying to define what we are talking about. In the beginning of the 21st century the term “democracy” is used primarily to indicate a society governed by officials elected and in some form controlled by the people. Typically it is assumed that in such a society citizens enjoy equality under the law, which presupposes a certain degree of informal social trust; that they possess several crucial civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and assembly; that basic human rights are observed and protected; and that outside the political domain proper there is a supportive civil society represented by numerous voluntary, “intermediating” associations. All these assumptions are based on the historical experience of building democratic regimes, since the progress of democracy aligned for centuries with the expansion of civil liberties and concepts of human rights. This is what the “liberal” in liberal democracy has come to mean, despite the fact that this use of the word is somewhat alienated from its etymology.
But this begs an important question: Was the rise of democracy the main driving force behind the development of contemporary liberal Western societies, or were long gestating developments in Western societies that fixed concepts of liberties and individual rights instead the drivers of democracy? The default assumption among most Westerners is the former, but the truth is the latter. American society, observed Gordon Wood, the reigning dean of early American history, did not become liberally minded because it was democratic, it became democratic because it was liberally minded. And thus the late Daniel Bell:
I am not a democrat. I don’t believe in democracy. I believe in liberty and rights. . . in certain elements which you can’t take away from people. Rule of law, the right of assembly, . . . hearings in open courtrooms—these are rights which guarantee the liberties of people. I basically prefer to deal with liberty rather than democracy.3
The system of civil liberties that exists today in all truly democratic countries comes from historical traditions nurtured by certain religious cultures turned outward into the temporal realm, and from the somewhat accidental felicities of good governance in key cases. They have nothing to do with the introduction of universal suffrage. No society can host a true liberal democracy that has not first become free and liberal-minded, and only people who have lost touch with their own histories can suppose otherwise.
This account of causality, once understood, raises three questions. First, if the establishment of basic liberties and rights precedes democracy, and if those liberties and rights are now firmly established and well secured in law, then why do we need democracy? What, and who, is it good for?
Second, is democracy likely to be stable or effective in a country divided into ethnic or religious communities, especially in a situation where one stable majority and many minorities coexist? Protection for minority rights is all well and good, but can majorities be expected to respect limits on their own power and minorities to tolerate subordination in perpetuity? In other words, isn’t democracy in such circumstances a formula for civil strife and state collapse? And with people moving around the planet in unprecedented numbers, are not such circumstances likely to proliferate? Put a little differently, does stable liberal democracy presuppose a demos comfortable in its own social skin?
Third, is it still true (if it was ever true) that choosing leaders through democratic processes ensures at least minimally competent public policy decision-making? The Western democracies are not plebiscitary or direct democracies, of course, but representative ones with firebreaks against the passions of the mob built into them. But it has been generally taken for granted among democratic publics and theorists alike that elected leadership was at least no more distant from wisdom than the unelected or falsely elected kind. The prerogatives of democratic executive authority allowed for expert counsel on esoteric issues no less than did other kinds of leadership, and, even better, democracies were arguably superior to other forms of government because leaders with unimpressive records could be sent packing far more easily, and at much less cost in blood and treasure, than could kings and dictators. But today we may question whether this system still works, given that so many public policy issues, many of them generated by democratic demand, have become so technical. Unelected technocrats now govern in Athens and Rome, thanks to a policy crisis that democratic methods failed to master. Is this a harbinger of a less democratic future?
All three of these questions raise the possibility that, like capitalism, the practice of democracy in changed conditions may be capable of unwittingly undermining its own foundations. Democracy has helped to ratify and stabilize the liberties and rights of Western societies, so who needs it anymore? Democracy promotes a right of migration as a part of the package of universal rights it espouses, leading to political communities whose lack of social trust may in turn undermine first democratic principles. Too many entrants to the policy process in a democracy may paralyze decision-making, not only exposing it to the passions of the mob but also making it easier, ironically, for special interests to manipulate it.
For these reasons one might suppose that democracy as we understand it today is a transient political form whose sources of decay are to be found not on the global periphery but inside the most democratic countries of the world. We might one day be faced with a choice that at first blush seems impossible: What if “too much” democracy should become an enemy of “enough” liberty and human rights? What if democracy becomes so misaligned with a changing social order that it comes to represent a threat to the Enlightenment ideals that still undergird Western political culture? What will we do then? These questions take on more definite shape as we examine the matter more deeply.
Democracy and Law
he history of democracy is inseparable from the battle against the tyranny of the state. In earlier times the nobility represented the most common check on centralized power, as even a casual understanding of the history of Magna Carta illustrates. But all over Europe the drafting of charters and constitutions was a progressive form of limiting centralized royal power. Early modern capitalism, by differentiating and transcending the estates of medieval times, ultimately extended that balancing power to the gentry and, eventually, new merchant middle classes. In the process the state sometimes became the ally of the new classes against the nobility. However circuitous the route, democracy became a guarantor of expanding rights and freedoms that ultimately took institutional shape in the form of constitutionalism, the division of powers, secularization and consolidation of the rule of law.
It is a mistake, however, to think that the history of democracy is the preeminent history of these developments. That honor belongs to the history of the judiciary. Rule of law preceded universal suffrage everywhere in the West. Democratic action both in Europe and America became more profound and consequential when large groups of people realized its utility for promoting their own interests. Only after what sociologists call “mass society” developed did the demand for democracy (reflected, among other things, in voting activity) expand dramatically. That expansion came most vividly in the 1960s and 1970s. That is when Bismarck’s original noblesse oblige foil of public employment for surplus labor blossomed into the European social welfare system, and when civil rights movements unfolded in the United States, starting on a racial basis but quickly growing beyond.
The expansion of democracy found institutional validation in the judiciary. The remarkable progress in and popularity of social welfare schemes made governments less sensitive to collective action in general and to democratic involvement in particular. When that happened, the judiciary took over. In recent decades the most significant decisions ensuring compliance with and expansion of human rights have been made not through democratic actions but via court decisions: Note the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case in the United States, and Donato Casagrande v. Landeshauptstadt München in the European Court of Justice in 1974.
At the same time, however, the sense of integral community that enables the egalitarian ethos associated with democracy weakened. Postmodern individualism undermined the salience of social linkages as people began to look, in Robert Putnam’s words, for “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions.”4 The courts protected, interpreted and expanded certain rights in some cases that went beyond the general consensus. Busing schoolchildren to achieve racial integration in the United States, and widening immigration and asylum rights in the European Union are examples of this.
The point is that a citizen’s basic rights in Western democracies are secured more by laws and norms duly observed than they are by democratic action. In such circumstances voting becomes less freighted and consequential an act. It becomes something to do with spoils, not principles. Democracy becomes less important as the gains it once helped to secure become firmly institutionalized. Participation in politics gradually declines as people perceive the political system to be marginal to what matters most to them: a stable state, protected rights, basic welfare and social fairness.
Democracy and Liberalism
ne of the major principles of electoral democracies is the notion that the majority and minority both consist of individuals who are divided not so much by their wealth, faith or primordial features but by their attitude to key public policy issues. As Henry Kissinger noted not long ago,
Western democracy is based on versions of majority rule, but this presupposes that the majority can fluctuate and the minority of the moment has a prospect of becoming a majority in due course. When the divisions are along tribal, ethnic, or religious lines, however, this equation does not hold.5
It was therefore no coincidence that democracy developed in national contexts defined by, as noted already, a demos comfortable in its social skin. It is even the case, to take an obviously unsettling example, that American democracy might not have developed as it did had it not been for slavery and acute racial prejudice. Only by separating out of the democratic process those considered at the time not to be a part of the demos could American democracy unfold. That is the other side, so to speak, of the Jacksonian-era expansion of the franchise.
This point was of little practical importance either in Europe or the United States until the 1960s. That is when reinterpreted democratic principles pried open the acceptable definition of the demos. As the proportion of the foreign-born population now exceeds 10 percent in many European countries, immigrants and their descendants have begun to claim not just equal rights but some kind of special collective dispensation. These “claims of culture” have become ever more economic and political in their nature.6 This is the distinction in the American context between equal rights for African Americans and subsequent demands for affirmative action of various sorts.7
Two principal problems for democratic practice arise from this development. First, multiethnic pleading contradicts the essence of the democratic worldview. If citizens identify less with the society as a whole than with a particular ethnic or national group, and if those groups have special legal privileges or rights, we end up with some people having what amounts to two “votes”: one universal within the newly constructed demos, and one particularistic.
Second, the same principle applies to the special treatment of immigrants. The greatest declaration of liberties in Europe, adopted in 1789 by the National Assembly in Paris, bore the title “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” (Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen). In those days there was little to no blue sky between a man, understood to be a Frenchman, and a citizen. To become a Frenchman, a member of a minority group had to foreswear any other primary group allegiance. This is the essence of the republican message to the Jews at the time: full rights to Jews as individuals, no rights for Jews as a group. Now the distance between a man and a citizen has grown much wider. The rights of men understood as human rights are universal in nature, but the rights of citizens arise from their incorporation into a society. To the extent that immigrants claim rights but resist becoming part of the demos that nurtured and sheltered a country’s democracy from its cradle, they do not deserve citizenship. (Of course, it is true that sometimes it is the majority group that causes the resistance in the first place.)
These are not questions of mere theoretical interest. If democracies do not restore the “one person/one vote” principle in societies with multiple group identities and do not find a way to distinguish between those newcomers entitled to citizenship rights and those who are just free-riding economic residents, they will in the end destroy the Western societies that birthed democracy itself.
oday democracy is equated with universal suffrage, but as I’ve said, this is historically mistaken. Voting rights were “exclusive” long before they were “universal”, both in Europe and the United States. The current understanding and practice of democracy, now applied to women and 18-year-olds, is barely forty years old.
Why was progress toward universal suffrage so slow? A reading of the American Founders makes vividly clear one reason: Those without property were considered insufficiently vested in the commonweal to have the right to make decisions about it. The other, related reason is that the fathers of Western democracy, more or less following the counsel of Socrates, believed in an implicit competence test: The illiterate, uneducated and ignorant did not know enough to make considered decisions. It is noteworthy in this regard that the advent of universal suffrage in the Western world dovetailed with the expansion of universal secondary education for both men and women.
Around two centuries later, alas, things have changed again. Economic and social life are much more complicated owing to the distinctions and specializations mandated by technological innovation. Marx spoke of an individual’s and a class’s relation to the means of production; now it is more appropriate to speak of relations between people and the means of consumption as well as production. Life is permeated by the downstream effects of technology, and it is the very uneven relationship of people within and among countries to the science behind, production of, and competence with technology that defines the boundaries of postmodern “class.” Public policy is more complex for an additional reason: Today’s technology sires a level of social interdependence that requires more oversight than was even remotely the case two centuries, or even a half a century, ago. Democratic government presumes to do more than it did at the time of its birth and maturation, so that citizens have far more to understand and judge about government than ever. The burden is often overwhelming even for the fairly well educated.
The implication is that even universal secondary education can no longer reliably produce a responsible citizen. Liberal democracy born in the Republic of Letters has to survive in the Empire of Television, where information flows in one direction and need not involve direct response.8 The civic dialogue that was once the very foundation of democratic decision-making has become a one-way process of convincing voters. The political dialogue of liberal democracies is not just degraded, as is widely acknowledged; it is qualitatively different.
Moreover, as the capacity of citizens to grasp policy issues has eroded from one side, the percentage of citizens expected to grasp them has risen from the other. In Western countries today there is far more inequality within electorates than ever, simply because, as was not the case during the 19th century, everyone above age 18 can vote. At the same time, the cult of money that is so widespread in contemporary consumer society tends to narrow the spectrum of voter interest even as the real spectrum of public policy challenges widens. This produces voters ready to support anyone who promises more prosperity, and voters who, when they get the chance (as in California’s referendum democracy) will vote for getting more while paying less. Impossible? Of course. And they do it anyway? Of course.
Democracy was the optimal form of government when voters were capable of making rational choices through an understanding of what was at stake, when they were ready to bear the responsibility for the consequences of their choices, and when the right to vote was understood to be a privilege, or the result of a struggle still remembered. Nowadays it is difficult to shake the impression that democratic societies are rapidly turning into ochlocracies, where the vast majority of citizens, seeing their rights as given and their responsibilities not at all, are easily addled by propaganda, distracted by spectacle and either unable or unwilling to invest the time and energy required to be a responsible democratic actor.
s we have seen, for historical reasons the development of democracy paralleled the expansion of liberty, social trust and the rule of law in Western societies. Democracy was thus an element, though not the only or the most important element, in the maturation of contemporary liberal society. When the U.S. Constitution began with words, “We the people” it essentially proclaimed the identity of the essential democracy principle—popular sovereignty—with the other elements of the liberal ethos.
The result was that democracy seemed, and became, inseparable from the rule of law and the accountability of those in power. During the 20th century, no one could mistake a democracy from an undemocratic country because the alignment between democratic procedure and liberal institutions was nearly perfect. In time, as we have seen, the achievements of democratic action were institutionalized in law and social mores, so that in a sense democracy dissolved within the liberal brew. Then something strange happened: New electoral democracies arose that were unaligned with liberal institutions. Last year, Freedom House named 115 countries as electoral democracies, but only 87 evinced Western standards of rights and freedoms.9 This would have been unthinkable half a century ago. We now have electoral democracies that are not liberal and we have liberal societies, like Singapore, that are not electoral democracies. Some would call this a paradox.
The result is the spreading belief that being democratic no longer equates to or can guarantee liberal outcomes, and generating liberal outcomes no longer so clearly requires being a democracy. At the dawn of the 21st century, democracy has lost much of its quantitative character and with it a huge part of its importance. Electoral democracy doesn’t determine a society’s identity anymore; something different does.
That is not all. As we have already suggested, more people are voting than ever even as actual political participation declines. They are voting with less consequence than ever as well. This, too, may be considered paradoxical. Democracy presumes, or it ought to presume, civic participation in the creation of institutions; that is what justifies a citizen’s acquiring benefits from those institutions. Instead, the contemporary meaning of democratic equality has acquired a sense it never possessed before. It has ceased to be tethered to any sense of obligation and, especially in the social welfare democracies of Europe, has become a foundation for a categorical demand for the redistribution of material and social benefits. In many cases these demands, when satisfied, advantage disproportionately those who have made no contribution to the prosperity of any given society. It is no surprise, then, that core majorities resent these free-riders, because it rubs against their sense of basic fairness. As a Russian citizen, I have witnessed these phenomena in a profound and clear form over the past twenty years. Electoral democracy has not brought liberal institutions, has not generated real political participation, and has not satisfied the average person’s sense that fairness reigns.
What Is to Be Done?
ere it possible, democracy would benefit from the restoration of certain conditions original to its successful and socially progressive development. The franchise should be pared back (a development that would not, by the way, seriously jeopardize the rights of the people, since these are now secured by social and judicial norms). We could, in short, benefit from more elitism. If those who seek elected office must go through a competitive selection process, proving their competence as they compete with respected adversaries, why shouldn’t voters have to prove themselves as well? This does not require revisiting any of the principles of the democratic process, only the actors participating in it. There is perhaps a model for this beyond classical meritocracy as described by Plato, Confucius and even Thomas Jefferson, where a person’s position in the hierarchy of power is determined by his intellect and virtue. Perhaps a new, more multi-tiered version of democracy can be produced wherein certain citizens earn the right to participate in certain more difficult and complex decisions.
No one supposes this would be easy to do, or that the solution would look precisely as I describe. It might be easier to pull off in new democracies than in more established ones. Regardless, unless we somehow address the accumulating contradictions of democracy, democracy will continue to suffer from its own universality. The Enlightenment ideas of freedom and equality are as worthy and critical to genuine civilization as they ever were, and democracy once inspired and enabled people to fight for a just society based on the rule of law and political guarantees and freedoms. But these goals have been achieved in the developed countries, and the democratic means that helped achieve them are dissolving into a mere instrument of “intercultural dialogue”, or else drifting into an inchoate ochlocracy, ironically subordinate to the interests of oligarchs. As such, it does not offer a very attractive model for developing societies anymore, whose elites today see as many illiberal and imitation democracies as they do the real thing.
It would be ideal to preserve all the achievements of the democratic form of governance with which it is properly associated: liberty, the rule of law, prosperity and fairness. But to do so the essential liberal foundations of democracy must be preserved in the face of the current threat posed by runaway multiculturalism, populism and autonomy of the bureaucracy in the face of technology-driven social interdependence. These threats can only be managed if democracy is reinvented as an elite (in the positive sense of the word) project, which is of course what it was until recently. Democracy has gotten too far ahead of itself at the turn of the 21st century, both on a global scale and at home. If its ambitious reinvention succeeds, then it could be said with good reason that history has indeed returned—a new and perhaps better history. If not, that could be a problem.
1See Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton, 2003), and Lilia Shevtsova, “Imitation Russia”, The American Interest (November/December 2006).
2See Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Knopf, 2008), and Parag Khanna, The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (Allen Lane, 2008).
3The Age of Disjunctions: Reflections of the 21st Century World, conversations between Daniel Bell and Vladislav Inozemtsev, conducted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2006 and published in Russian by the Centre for Post-Industrial Studies in 2007.
4See Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2000) or Zygmunt Bauman, The Individualized Society (Polity, 2001).
5Kissinger, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century (Simon & Schuster, 2001), p. 203.
6I use here the title of Seila Benhabib’s book, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2002).
7See, for example, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (W. W. Norton, 1998).
8See Al Gore, The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision-Making, Degrade Democracy and Imperil America and the World (Bloomsbury Publishers, 2007).
9See Freedom in the World 2011: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties, www.freedomhouse.org.