Democracy is Not Natural

There is a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy that undermines much domestic and foreign policy.  One way to put it is that democracy is seen as a kind of natural way for societies to organize themselves.  What could be more normal than a bunch of people getting together for mutual benefit?  Just get rid of the autocrats, and the people will rule.

Unfortunately it’s the autocrats who are natural, and democratic societies are fragile, rare, and in dire need of careful cultivation.

For starters we can go back to the classical Greek models.   Democracy in Athens was both a sham and a disaster.  The Athenian democracy was created by Pericles as a way of wresting power from aristocrats.  Under its auspices he ruled with enormous personal power, and when he died things went to hell quickly.  The chaos led first to an authoritarian takeover (stopped only by the army) and then to the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars.  Plato, writing later, dismissed democracy as nothing more than a prelude to dictatorship. 

As another example, a whole raft of new democracies were created in eastern Europe in the wake of World War I.  By the end of the 1920’s every single one of them was a dictatorship.  Once you’re in power there’s no reason to give it up.  And without a broad societal commitment to democracy, there’s nothing to prevent that.  Hitler of course was installed by a democratic election, and the conversion to dictatorship followed quickly and easily.

In the US today we’re so accustomed to this idea of democracy as normal, that we’re unprepared for today’s anti-democratic Republican party.  Since we don’t even ask why democracy is good, the question “why should we give up when we’re winning?” has no answer. Republicans today and their Supreme Court are unapologetically all about winning and maintaining power indefinitely. We’re surprised how easy it is to subvert our institutions, but that‘s what happens if society is not prepared to fight.

There are in fact a strong arguments for democracy.  We can look today at what goes on in China and Russian.  With authoritarian leadership you can never correct disastrous mistakes or deal effectively with corruption.  Further, autocrats once installed are beholden to no one. Rule of law goes out the window, so there is no protection from the rich and powerful. As we’ve pointed out here before, the enemies of democracy are no one’s friends. One problem is that people tend to think that the status quo is permanent, since they’ve always lived it.  So real consequences tend to come as a surprise.  Think of Brexit and the Supreme Court Dobbs decision.

Democracy is important, fragile, easily lost, and very hard to recover.  The powers that be (e.g the ever-present Koch organization) will always want to stand above rule of law.  They have enormous powers to sway the population, and once the population loses interest it’s hard to keep them out.  It is everyone’s responsibility to stand up for democracy.  There’s plenty of publicity these days about the threat to democracy in Israel, but the threat is just as real here and now.  It may take the same kind of mass movements to fight it.  As we all know the Supreme Court already has an end to democracy on its docket, and we can expect to hear about it in June.

Finally it’s worth recognizing that this same misunderstanding of democracy contributes to foreign policy goals that are to say the least delusional.  Most countries are corrupt dictatorships, and they’re going to stay that way.  Further our own attempts at state building (as in Iraq or Afghanistan) will continue to fail in chaos and corruption, because belief in self-evident democracy means there is no recognition of the magnitude of the job (or our own contributions to the problems). In one of Elena Ferrante’s novels she speaks of the power of expectations in controlling behavior—you cannot suddenly have democracy and the rule of law if that’s contrary to the everyone’s experience: 

“It was a world of favors, of services exchanged for other services, of debts contracted and debts called in, of concessions obtained and never returned, of pacts that could be broken and others that held until death. It was a world based on friendships and animosities, on associations and affiliations, on old enmities and new alliances. How could one change that world? By oneself, no one could. There was only one possibility: to become part of it, accept its conditions, go along with it to survive.”

Our biggest responsibility to the world is to build a working democratic society.  At the moment that’s a tall order, but that’s the job we’ve got.  In this juncture in history the US and EU are critical–the West is on the line to show it is a model that can be believed in. That’s not self-evident.

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