Rumors of democracy’s death have been greatly exaggerated

June 11, 2013

The End of History and the Last Man is 21 years old this year. The book of that name, by Francis Fukuyama, has, in the view of many, matured badly. Published in 1992, it was much lauded for its view that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe.

After 9/11, the disparagements came quickly. The terrorist attacks were held to show that history may have paused, but it had reignited with a vengeance. Clearly, there were other powerful forces in the world than the “inevitable” liberal democracy; sharply different ideologies were alive, well and seeking power by any means.

Fukuyama was seen as a man of the right, though he is quite heterodox: he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and has recently said that the German social democratic model is better for workers than the U.S. free enterprise one. He has not given up thinking freely, and though he has modified his views, he has not abandoned them.

Shouldn’t he, though? A tour of the contemporary world reveals much that would give Fukuyam-ists pause. Democracy of any kind is often a corrupt façade when it’s not missing altogether.

The Syrian conflict appears to be swaying to the advantage of President Assad, as the city of Qusair in Western Syria was retaken by government forces. Determined oppression, for which the Fukuyama thesis left little room, remains a regime’s possible response. Syria still has powerful friends and every chance of victory.

China is not in the Syrian brutality league, but the world’s largest state will remain a one-party, authoritarian bastion. (No matter that Barack Obama described talks at the end of last week between him and the Chinese President Xi Jinping as “terrific.”) China’s Communist Party is likely to remain authoritarian, its leaders fearful of class and ethnic divisions. But without the checks and balances that a functioning, recognized and legal opposition offers, there is nothing but the consciences of its leaders to stop a descent into bloodshed, should a strong challenge to monopoly rule arise.

Nor do many of the new democracies offer compelling models. The Egyptian government of President Mohamed Morsi has disillusioned both the country’s liberals who saw in the fall of President Hosni Mubarak a springtime of the nation. It is not (yet?) a tyranny, but its general drift is towards the religious intolerance which is the legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter providing one part of Egypt’s ruling class — the military, as before, providing the other.

Turkey, meanwhile, has a Prime Minister, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, doggedly determined to ignore demonstrations. Those protests started as a push against the destruction of a park in Istanbul’s center, but have since flowered into a general critique of what many protestors say is a threat to democracy. Turkey threatens to show that a government elected by a majority without a strongly liberal orientation tends to neglect the rights of minorities and drifts to authoritarianism. This, at least, is what Turkey’s most famed author, Orhan Pamuk, fears.

In Russia, high-profile liberals — such as the economist Sergei Guriev and the opposition leader and chess champion Garry Kasparov — leave their country for self-imposed exile, warning of Kremlin crackdowns. In Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez’ successor, Nicolas Maduro Moros, lacks his mentor’s charisma but not his determination to brand the opposition as traitors. Even India cannot bask too smugly in its democracy: there, poverty is more stubbornly entrenched than in China, corruption is ingrained and mass murders between religious groups and by Maoist terrorists erupt frequently. In most authoritarian states, democrats and liberals are minorities — sometimes quite small ones.

But the democratic proposal, and Fukuyama’s vision, are robust enough to survive. It does not, in the end, depend on the perceived success of the democratic states (most of the European ones certainly aren’t succeeding, for now). It doesn’t depend on loving America. It doesn’t depend, even, on the perception that wealth and democracy have tended to go together, which the leaping success of China may be about to damage.

It depends on the wish of people to live, think, read, watch, talk and publish freely. The assumption that most people do wish that (when relieved of fear of its consequences) isn’t naïve or ill-founded. It has tended to be proven by time and events — not just in the convulsions of 1989 that shaped Fukuyama’s thinking, but after, and now, too.

Democratic politics may be — as Fukuyama claimed — the only form of government that can offer every citizen a promise of both economic development and a framework for how to live amongst one another and beneath a government.

The growth of the global middle class, nearly two-thirds of which will live in Asia by 2030, is something of a bedrock for participatory politics. A middle class with some property, private wealth and higher education is not necessarily either liberally or democratically inclined, but its members are more likely to be so than those for whom existence is an exhausting, all-consuming struggle.

“Liberal democracy,” said Fukuyama in a 2008 interview, “is still really is the only game in town worldwide, in spite of all of its shortcomings.” He’s right to stick to his opinion. And so should the world’s democrats.

PHOTO: Protesters stand behind a barricade during a protest at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Murad Sezer


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‘It depends on the wish of people to live, think, read, watch, talk and publish freely.’

I think this is the key. You can’t do this in an undemocratic country. However, as we know, democracy is not a paradise.

Posted by Motorniczy | Report as abusive

Democracy means the people have the power, not the leaders. Look at America – robbed by the leaders of their banks, spied on by their elected leaders, mislead by political leaders into wars to stop imaginary WMDs and so on. Quite the contrary – Potemkin democracy is alive and well – real democracy is in as much trouble as Ed Snowden.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

We now have the same democracy that the Ancient Greeks had. You only have a saying if you are rich and powerful.

Posted by Mariuss24 | Report as abusive

@BidnisMan, spot on, very well said.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Democracy is a meaningless term without real opposition.

A de facto single Party State can also be described, as in the USA, as multiparty but one ruled by “bipartisan” agreement. It simply means there are factions within the Party.

Building a persistent database of the communications of every citizen over time, including in the case of cell phones, their physical location, is an act of chilling discussion and introducing fear of the State into public life, especially political life. It does not matter at all what the motives, or putative motives, of the originators were. This is very similar to shooting someone with a gun. The consequence becomes divorced from the motive.

While a number of States have survived doing such a thing, none of them were even remotely “democracies” other than in name. It permanently separates the State from the population it controls. Recovery from such a horrendous blunder has so far never happened.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

Death will come by a “thousand cuts” – cuts to civil liberties, the rights and freedoms granted in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Rumors of democracy’s death have NOT been exaggerated they have been discounted, dismissed, ignored, and buried in the obituaries columns. Fukuyama’s future vision that liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe is only a future probability; there are others. The 11th paragraph, “It depends on the wish of people…to be proven by time and events”; NOT! Starting with SCOTUS appointing ole # 43 as POTUS, US citizens have lost more Constitutional granted Civil rights, freedoms and protections from arbitrary government acts or laws from 1787 to 1-20-2000 – 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9 Amendments have been ignored, violated, revised and or legislated away Congress; the Patriot Act authorizing the Federal Airline Transportation Agency for Safety and Security (FATASS) throws every 4th Amendment protection under the bus and then into the trash. A liberal democracy political structure depends on citizens demanding an active oversight role in governing, demanding honesty, fairness and integrity from government agencies and elected legislators and demanding joint and individual responsibility and accountability from all government Branches and agencies, federal staff, legislators, judges and political appointees.
I strongly disagree with this statement, “But the democratic proposal … are robust enough to survive.” It is false to fact and evidenced by the current dysfunctional Federal government; a venal and reactionary Congress obstructs and thwarts the Executive leadership and attempts to restrict or usurp Constitutional delegated Presidential powers by misusing its’ Constitutional delegated budgetary power while passing arbitrary and discriminatory legislation taking away Constitutional guaranteed civil rights or removing or revising citizens protections from arbitrary government acts or laws. It happen all the time, I read yesterday that SCOTUS banned, by regulation, civil protests activities – picketing, speech-making, marching or vigils on its’ grounds; ironically the court that supposedly protects and defends the US Constitution & US citizens’ Bill of Rights blatantly violates the First Amendment protections; “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or the right of the people to …assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The absolute arrogance and casual contempt for the US Constitution and their recent decisions like FEC vs Citizens United reflect a conservative bias and interpreting the Constitution rather based on the Constitution.
The US Federal Republic operating as a Representative Democracy ‘might’ survive; however, I’m not optimistic. The Americans sociocultural values matrix isn’t divided, it’s shattered. The culture clashes between religious talibangelicals wanting their god’s moral precepts turned into law, the LGBT community that demand social equality and legal rights, the pro-lifer’s homophobes that somehow justify killing doctors and ‘queers’ is OK,, racists and bigots that believe a woman is worth less, can’t make health care decisions or doesn’t have equal rights as men, those that think skin color denotes lower class, the NRA crazed gun nuts that don’t or can’t think beyond their gun’s muzzle, ignore the repetitive, senseless murders of schoolchildren and people murdered daily, everywhere but knee-jerk to oppose any attempt to reduce firearm caused murders by requiring a background check on every non-family gun sale violate their 2nd Amendment rights, the GOP class warfare bogy-man are most but not all conflicting beliefs and values.
Our Democracy is further threatened by structural process issues deliberately caused by Congress passing legislation with tax credits and loopholes favoring and benefiting Corporations and the wealthy and shifting more of the tax burden to the middle class and in return receiving donations during reelection campaign; Bush’s two tax cuts resulted in a $10 Million dollar tax revenue loss over a ten period. The tax code inequality is a serious threat. Remember one cause of our War for Independence that became a rallying call – “No taxation without representation.” Another issue is the actuality of a two tiered legal system that again favors the wealthiest 1 % and Corporate America and both causal factors stem from money. It’s been my experience that the local courts& prosecutors were chronically underfunded and budgets limited criminal prosecutions. The rich and famous and corporate defendants outspend and retain a legal team or a corporate legal department and divert and/or outlast the local prosecutor by finding and using legal loopholes they can find; the O J Simpson murder trial is a great example and prove the truism that ‘you get all the justice you can pay for’. Government processes are also responsible for the two tier legal system because the rich and famous and corporate America have access to political and financial power brokers who have access to and influence at the highest level of Government and political factors can do prevent criminal indictments and prosecution of individual and corporate offenders criminal acts and credible legal evidence proving their intent and criminal actions. The Massey Coal mine disaster that killed 29 miners caused by management were repeatedly cited for unsafe working conditions, non compliance with OSHA regulations, violating EPA regulations non compliance with removing, handling and storing hazardous materials. Federal investigators discovered two sets of Federal compliance inspection records with deficiency citations requiring corrections. One set of records had documented corrective actions taken, procedures changed to prevent future occurrences and the other set showed that Massey management hadn’t made any attempt to take corrective actions that caused the explosion that killed the 29 miners and a criminal wasn’t initiated, no criminal indictments were ever filed. Likewise not one Wall St banker was ever investigated or indicted for their illegal criminal behaviors that caused the 07 Financial and Housing market crash despite sworn testimony given at the Congressional Committee Hearing admitting their responsibility and subpoenaed emails and other documents that proved knowledge of lawbreaking actions, involvement and participation in illegally manipulating of the Secondary mortgage market by falsely certifying fraudulent loan documents, Investment fraud and embezzlement. The last process issue is the presence of an estimated 12 million undocumented, illegal immigrants remains unsolved as does gaining consensus on enabling legislation making major changes to American Immigration policy and develop a solution process policy that no one ‘really likes, but does have elements they really want and at some point gains a simple majority voting to pass.
I think the major cause of American Representative Democracy death and also the major impediment to a miraculous recovery is the Federal legislature. Congress controlled by ignorant, right wing ideologues with a personal agenda to gain enough political power and influence to turn what they believe into the only right to save murican Democracy. The Senate is controlled by a like minded minority, marching in lockstep and pushing aside the disorganized Democratic majority. However I’m absolutely certain about behaviors they in common: they won’t relinquish any political power, delegated or usurped; they won’t give up their perks, and most of all they will never pass term limit legislation, public funding for all Federal elective offices, extend the no lobbyist rule to 5 years, or allow an independent ethical review panel.

Posted by JBltn | Report as abusive