The biggest surprise in world politics since the end of the Cold War “is not the advance of liberal democracy but the reappearance of classic forms of non-democratic political rule in modern guises,” argues Mark Lilla, Professor of the Humanities at Columbia University:
The break-up of the Soviet empire and the “shock therapy” that followed it produced new oligarchies and kleptocracies that have at their disposal innovative tools of finance and communication; the advance of political Islam has placed millions of Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, under more restrictive theocratic rule; tribes, clans, and sectarian groups have become the most important actors in the post-colonial states of Africa and the Middle East; China has brought back despotic mercantilism. Each of these political formations has a distinctive nature that needs to be understood in its own terms, not as a lesser or greater form of democracy in potentia. The world of nations remains what it has always been: an aviary.
“But ornithology is complicated and democracy-promotion seems so much simpler,” he writes for the New Republic:
After all, don’t all peoples want to be well governed and consulted in matters affecting them? Don’t they want to be secure and treated justly? Don’t they want to escape the humiliations of poverty? Well, liberal democracy is the best way of achieving these things. That is the American view—and, true enough, it is shared by many people living in non-democratic countries. But that does not mean they understand the implications of democratization and would accept the social and cultural individualism it would inevitably bring with it. No peoples are as libertarian as Americans have become today; they prize goods that individualism destroys, like deference to tradition, a commitment to place, respect for elders, obligations to family and clan, a devotion to piety and virtue. If they and we think that they can have it all, then they and we are very much mistaken. These are the rocks on which the hopes for Arab democracy keep shattering.
Similarly, analyst David Brooks worries that Americans are losing faith in universal democracy.
“When the U.S. was a weak nation, Americans dedicated themselves to proving to the world that democracy could last,” he writes in the New York Times:
When the U.S. became a superpower, Americans felt responsible for creating a global order that would nurture the spread of democracy. But now the nation is tired, distrustful, divided and withdrawing. Democratic vistas give way to laissez-faire fatalism: History has no shape. The dream of universal democracy seems naïve. National interest matters most.
“Historically, Americans have been better at living democracy than at understanding it,” says Lilla, the author, most recently, of The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West:
They consider it a birthright and a universal aspiration, not a rare form of government that for two millennia was dismissed as base, unstable, and potentially tyrannical. They are generally unaware that democracy in the West went from being considered an irredeemable regime in classical antiquity, to a potentially good one only in the nineteenth century, to the best form of government only after World War II, to the sole legitimate regime only in the past twenty-five years.
“The American political science profession suffers from the same amnesia,” Lilla suggests:
During the cold war, scholars convinced of democracy’s absolute and unique goodness abandoned the traditional study of non-democratic forms of government, such as monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and tyranny, and took instead to distinguishing regimes along a single line running from democracy (good) to totalitarianism (bad). The academic game then became where along that line to put all the other “authoritarian” states. (Was Franco’s Spain to the right of Suharto’s Indonesia, or the other way round?) This way of thinking gave rise to the naïve assumption that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, countries would naturally begin making “transitions” from dictatorship and authoritarianism to democracy, as if by magnetic attraction. That confidence has now evaporated, and our political scientists have seen that under the cloak of elections many unpleasant things can grow. But they still want to hold on to their little line and so they write articles about electoral authoritarianism, competitive authoritarianism, clan authoritarianism, pseudo-democracies, façade democracies, and weak democracies. And, just to cover the bases, “hybrid regimes.”
“But in the mind of America’s political and journalistic classes, only two political categories exist today: democracy and le deluge,” Lilla contends.
“The democratic gospel was both lofty and realistic,” Brooks avers:
It had a high historic mission, but it was based on the idea that biblical morality is necessary precisely because people are selfish and shortsighted, capitalism is necessary because economies are too complicated to understand and plan; democracy is necessary because concentrated power is always dangerous, no matter how seductive it seems in the short term.
Sure there have been setbacks. But if America isn’t a champion of universal democracy, what is the country for?