Why democracy may have been just a passing phase

June 1, 2015
Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with China’s President Xi Jinping during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, May 8, 2015. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

In the past half century, some of the most prominent minds in international affairs have predicted the end of meaningful global divisions based on ideology. Daniel Bell published his “End of Ideology” in 1960; Francis Fukuyama published his “End of History and the Last Man” in 1992; and Thomas Friedman his “The World Is Flat” in 2005 . Especially in Bell’s and Fukuyama’s cases, the message was fairly clear: All this energy put into ideology was pretty much posturing.

You cannot say that now. The forward march of democracy has been halted, and decisively.

In fairness, some form of capitalism is pretty much global — even Cuba is inching toward it, leaving North Korea even colder, hungrier and more alone than ever. But the assumption that capitalism and the ensuing growth of a middle class, would naturally and inevitably produce a competitive political as well as an economic and consumerist market is looking shaky. It may work in time but it’s way too early to say.

Xi Jinping, head of the Chinese Communist Party, chairman of the committee on the armed forces and president of China has stated his an aversion to democracy quite flatly, insisting on absolute loyalty to the Party’s rules and aims, and an end to any kind of organized activity outside of its purview. “So-called” liberal democracy and freedom of the press are not for China. As a Chinese scholar I met at a conference said to me: “Stability first, democracy second.” If not now for democracy, I asked, then when? He would not be drawn; he didn’t know.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has created a neo-nationalist ideology, appealing to Russia’s centuries of separateness from Europe and its preference for a strong central power. A 2012 law severely limited all NGOs that took foreign money and worked in a broadly defined political space. Another law just passed aims to do the same for “undesirable” associations , which seem, at first sight, to include Carnegie’s Moscow office and Memorial, a body formed in the late 1980s with the purpose of recording the vast repressions of the Stalinist years (and beyond), especially in the Gulag.

Putin’s style appeals to other leaders, notably President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt; the latest addition to the Putin fan club is Prime Minister Victor Orban of Hungary: The wind is “blowing from the East” is how he put it while recently giving the Russian president a warm welcome in Budapest. This is all the more distressing given that Turkey is a member of NATO, Hungary of the European Union: The style is catching on within organizations set up to further the tenets of democracy.

Then there is jihadism, a diverse ideology propounded by widely differing groups, sometimes hostile to each other. Islamic State is the most dramatic of these and the most successful, in its marches across parts of Syria and Iraq. But all jihadist organizations are becoming increasingly attractive to some young Islamist radicals worldwide: A report from the United Nations says that the groups are recruiting from half the countries in the world.

The dream of most of these jihadi organizations is to establish a caliphate, in time, across the world, so that all humanity will worship the Prophet and dissent, division and wars will be of the past. Christians thought like this for most of their religion’s existence. Now, many “Christian” countries are losing their faith — or certainly their fervor in faith.

What’s left for liberal democracy? It’s not precisely an endangered species, but in places that are new to it — in parts of Central Europe, Africa and Asia — it’s still fragile. And more to the point, it’s weakening in the two areas which have been its engines: North America and Europe.

The United States faces a China which is not just confident in its authoritarianism but increasingly proactive militarily. The European Union, recovering feebly in most economies, is no closer to its founding long-term goal of forming a new state called Europe. It occasionally talks tough to Russia over its meddling in Ukraine, but in practice reduces its military capabilities — especially in the UK, which had been the strongest of the European states.

Fifty-five years ago, in his “End of Ideology,” Bell wrote that ideology “is an all-inclusive system of comprehensive reality, a set of beliefs infused with passion, and seeks to transform the whole way of life.” The definition applies most to jihadism — but it comprehends communism and authoritarian nationalism too, since these are moral frameworks and rules on how to live. The days when rulers sought to present their rule as conforming to liberal and democratic norms, or simply didn’t talk about their authoritarianism are disappearing.

Several of today’s most powerful leaders are proud to be authoritarian, and commend it as an example to others. The hope is that not many will join this exclusive club.

24 comments

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I wouldn’t measure our U.S. republic, and, its democratic processes against China or Russia. I fully respect the challenges those two nations face in keeping their people well and prosperous. The U.S., on the other hand, is only challenged by keeping an educated and interested constituency–that’s all we need to thrive. If our democracy is undermined, I have to look first at our communications companies (read: the press) who appear to be undermining the accuracy and completeness of the information the citizens are receiving. Be assured that with accurate and complete information, citizens will see that democracy follows. We’re not all stupid.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Soviet-educated Putin called the downfall of the Soviet Union the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen. Surrounding hisself in his cabinet with his former KGB buddies, every step of his reign served the re-building of the old Soviet Union. The idea of “democracy” was purely a Western illusion.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

“.. The forward march of democracy has been halted, and decisively..”

Translation – US’s surrounding of Russia and China with NATO forces was challenged and China’s island building is continuing without regard for US’s cry and foul.

This democracy that we feel good about, has given us a deadlocked and or dis-functional system ridden with legal corruption via lobbying and left the nation with close to $20T debt, depleted competitiveness and local jobs through free-trade that facilitated unimpeded flow of duty-free imports while funneling precious US tax payer dollars incessantly, to senseless defense related global calamities we continue to foment.

A dose of non-democracy till the above systems are cleaned-up, is not a bad idea for US.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Why are you conflating democracy and capitalism? Democracy is vastly over rated and capitalism is vastly underrated. Personally I would say I was freer in not very democratic Hong Kong than I am in the vastly regulated USA. Certainly my property rights and rights to due process are considerably better in Hong Kong.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Political terminology is a minefield and there’s no better example than the wildly imprecise “democracy.” The United States was founded as a Constitutional Republic. On close examination of the historical record, democracy refers more to form than to substance.

It is “a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.” Substance is a separate matter.

In substance, Alexander Hamilton succeeded in his vision of establishing a financial aristocracy and the Gilded Age after the Civil War enhanced the power of the financial elite, the founding of the Federal Reserve, 100% privately-owned by its private member banks took that a step further, and then there was a problematic Great Leap Forward for the 1% when the Bretton Woods agreement collapsed in 1971. The immediate response was the first derivative fund and since that time growth in the financial sector at greater than the pace of the economy as a whole has resulted in an enormous concentration to wealth to the detriment of growth in small and medium size enterprises, employment, and physical infrastructure investment. I find it very alarming when the 1% now has 43.8% of national wealth (38% in Jan 2009) and when the 0.01% has 22% of national wealth. More alarming when they sponsor and control a political duopoly that creates an illusion of citizen representation.

There’s a historical precedent; The Roman Principate was the first period of the Roman Empire, extending from the beginning of the reign of Augustus Caesar to the Crisis of the Third Century, after which it was replaced with the dominate. The principate is characterized by a concerted effort on the part of the emperors to preserve the illusion of the formal continuance of the Roman Republic.

Form vs. substance, putting on airs or appearances vs. reality; what matters is a complete overhaul to restore citizen rights and to level with them.

“Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.” – Robert Heinlein (1907-1988)

Wall Street, progressives, Big Business, socialists, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party; all of them use different labels when they all want people to be controlled.

Posted by JimVan | Report as abusive

Communism failed and the fruits of socialism wither on the vine because Equality was not a legitimate political virtue in opposition to Liberty. Truth is. From Truth as a political virtue, is derived a scientific framework for the regulation of capitalist enterprise – requiring the application of technology on the basis of scientifically conceived merit, with the aim of balancing human welfare and environmental sustainability in our favor. The democratic question is authoritarian science versus ideological freedom – valid knowledge of the reality we inhabit and constitute versus the liberty to believe whatever conception of the good is necessary to the self-constituting individual.

Posted by OneKarlStone | Report as abusive

Anarchy is the highest level of democracy.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Excellent! Perhaps the best article I have read in Reuters so far.What is said is absolutely realistic and what we see today with our wide open eyes.
The concept of so called “Democracy” since time of Romans,has been created by few influential group of people to misuse the ignorance and weakness of masses.Even today in most of the democratic countries democratic election are held on the monitory strength of candidates more than any thing else.The problem of law and order and corruption also have roots in so called “Democracy”. Democracy in India for last more than 60 years has not given even electricity,water and health care to poor people unlike what China has done in few years.
The very fact that Pop of Vatican involves in politics is the other example of how religion is misused.How can such ideology and religion exist!How long?!
My heart burns to see the total destruction of one time prosperous countries like Iraq,Libya,Egypt,African countries and many for the sake of Democracy.How can such ideologies exist!How long?!

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Democracy is an illusion, nearly everywhere. Even in the United States, any given President received yes votes from about 12% of the entire population. And that’s the high turnout vote.

What they do receive is money from very wealthy, very non-representative 3rd party entities.

Illusion.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

As a reminder:

Of the Top 10 world economies, which comprise 80% of the GDP of the entire world, only TWO nations are not democratic. China and Russia.

Russia is an oligarchy and currently on the brink of economic disaster. Russia has ruined its credibility and legitimacy by illegally annexing Crimea, and causing unrest in Ukraine.

China is currently destroying its credibility in the Pacific and around the world by trying to play bully in the East and South China Sea. China’s only formal allies are Russia, N. Korea, and Venezuela. And, the relationships with N. Korea and Russia are quite tenuous and strained.

Despite its economic miracle since the 1970’s, China still has nearly 400 million citizens who earn less than $3 USD per day.

So, who will trust and follow these wonderful examples of the merits and promises of authoritarian regimes?

Posted by WorldlyPatriot | Report as abusive

American “democracy” is most certainly not perfect, but why do people try to compare the most successful “system” of government to live under the world has yet produced to as-yet unachievable perfection? By what logic does the imperfection of a wonderful “work-in-progress” become unacceptable, and what, precisely, is a realistic alternative?

Perfection is a laudable goal but a terrible expectation. The intelligent must not let “pie-in-the-sky” aspirations take finite resources from the obvious and genuine progress necessary to make tomorrow better than today.

In short, we need consensus among all peoples as to what is “better”. Good luck with that!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Even thought the article is very good comparing Putin with Erdoan and especialy Sisi Military Dictator was the worst wrong here.

Posted by AmirD | Report as abusive

This is balderdash. America needs a strong President that won’t buckle to foreign powers. The current President has pushed his Communist worldview on an ignorant populace. Democracy is not dead, just suffering a setback. Looking forward to a bold leader in the White House.

Posted by ajwrites57 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately this development is exacerbated internationally by a rising China, which categorically rejects the longstanding Western promotion of human rights and democracy. In its quest for influence, oil, and resources, the Chinese leadership will court favor with the worst of the worst leaders in developing countries, such as Sudan. Where the World Bank tries to tie aid to democracy promotion and human rights, the Chinese have no standards whatsoever.
However, without full democracy and the free flow of information, Chinese economic development will always be circumscribed and massive corruption will always be institutionalized, as there are no checks and balances on the Communist bureaucrats. The same goes for the completely dysfunctional Russian economy.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

The worst threat to democracy comes not from China or Russia but from the growth of domestic oligarchy that is in a position to buy not just individual politicians but the entire electoral process.

Posted by wsokol | Report as abusive

ajwrites57 complains: “America needs a strong President that won’t buckle to foreign powers.”

We finally have one. Unless you mean you want the guy back…. who looked into Putin’s soul and had a hug-fest. Bush was a wimp. Ruined this country.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

http://www.rabbithole2.com/presentation/ news/political_news/bush_putin_jintao_me eting.htm

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

America is successful not because of democracy.The wast land for agriculture and natural resources like oil.coal,sea products have created wealth for relatively smaller population,besides wealth brought from other countries.When wealth is there naturally talents do come plus talents coming from other countries.
The performance of democracy can clearly be seen the way how country is ruled with destructive divisions of political parties.In fact the world over democracy in true meaning can be defined as “Mobocracy”where many cooks spoil the soup.Putin was all alone against stalwarts of EU/US.Look at how Putin could decide quickly and effectively against divisions among EU/US.In books and theory Democracy look good but not in practice.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

Respectfully as a scholar of religion, this article contains a serious inaccuracy in stating ISIS and other jihadi groups wish to make the world “worship the Prophet.” This would be considered grave idolatry under most forms of Sunni AND Shia Islam. Prophets, especially Muhammad may be revered, but worship is to Allah (God) alone in the Muslim faith. Stating this would be akin to saying Jews worship Moses, or Christians the Pope. Christians worship Jesus because they consider him to be part of the Triune God, but none of the other monotheistic Abrahamic faiths have any individual considered divine in this fashion. Indeed, ISIS as well as many of the Saharan jihadi groups are noted for their zealous destruction of tombs of saints and prophets from various religions because they think this will prevent the “worship” of these persons. Understanding this is key to realizing why they are desecrating so many archaeological and World Heritage sites.

Posted by CelticRover | Report as abusive

Democracy only works with an educated electorate that has a fundamental respect for human rights. Without these, democracy devolves into a spoils system, where more powerful groups prey upon weaker groups. US political parties have capitalized on this flaw, gaming the system and behaving not unlike crime syndicates.

Posted by KiloVoltaire | Report as abusive

Democracy doesn’t pull people out of poverty and enlarge the middle class, the rule of law and strong private property rights do, especially intellectual property.

Posted by hdc77494 | Report as abusive

“80% GDP controlled by 10 countries which include 8 countries are democratic! This is not the criteria because the question as to how that wealth is distributed among their people.In most of the so called rich and democratic countries there exists big gulf between rich and poor keeping poor deprived of countries wealth.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

According to the 18th century German philosopher Hegel, every ideology already bears the nucleus to its own destruction. As capitalist countries drift more and more toward socialism, the communist world adopts more and more capitalist features.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Interesting article. However, as Churchill said, “‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’ “

Posted by NatalieSue | Report as abusive