By Pankaj Mishra
WE LIVE in an era of political earthquakes; but the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s defense of her country’s ethnic-cleansers before the International Court of Justice at The Hague last month still came as a shock.
Not so long ago, Suu Kyi was hailed as an icon of democracy in the West. Her apostasy now adds to the growing sense that democracy is in danger worldwide.
The mood is certainly bleak at The Journal of Democracy, the house periodical of one of the Beltway institutions promoting democracy around the world. Writing in its 30th anniversary issue, Francis Fukuyama claims that we are living through a “‘democratic recession,’ with reason to worry that it could turn into a full-scale depression.”
This jeremiad then opens out to denunciations of various “authoritarian populists” today, and to vague hopes of “rebuilding the legitimate authority of the institutions of liberal democracy.”
As in many such dirges these days, it is never asked: What and whose democracy?
History has continuously revealed democracy as the most radical idea of the modern world, which more often generates chaos than freedom. Yet the massive infrastructure of democracy-promotion that came into being during the Cold War assumed that it was a guarantor of political stability and economic progress: In other words, it delivered something that totalitarian communism could not.
Ignoring democracy’s tormented history, its ideologues naively reduced it to a magical formula, consisting mostly of elections, that can be applied to any political context and guarantee benign political outcomes.
Talking up the ideal of democracy abroad, they overlooked its daily violation at home, as a range of figures from Jawaharlal Nehru to Martin Luther King pointed out. (Abroad, too, avowed democrats expediently supported right-wing or military dictatorships from Congo to Iran, Chile to the Philippines.)
Of course, the boosters of democracy who aimed largely at securing a moral advantage against communism were assured of victory. Democracy-mongers, in retrospect, had it far too easy, ranged against regimes that were as inept as they were brutal.
Their sense of confidence could only inflate after communism collapsed, and history appeared, in Fukuyama’s own conception, to have reached a safe terminus in liberal democracy.
Even Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s mentor, set aside his profound reservations in the 1960s about America’s democracy-promoters, to hail a “third wave” of democratization.
Such was the complacent mood in 1990 — the year that The Journal of Democracy confidently started publication — that the old and deep problems of democracy that date back to the French Revolution seemed to have disappeared along with the enemies of the West.
But in the postcolonial world, the challenges of democracy had long been in plain sight.
The teachers of democracy in the West had accomplished high economic growth, partly with the help of imperialism and slavery, well before they began to gradually extend democratic rights to most citizens.
But Asian and Africans in the world’s poorest and weakest countries faced the task of instituting democratic rights simultaneously with economic development and political cohesion.
Moreover, the new nation-states in which democracy was meant to be implanted lacked some crucial ingredients. The people rather than a monarch or despot are supposed to be sovereign in a democracy. But in racially and ethnically diverse societies, potentially many peoples can claim to be the people.
Take, for instance, Iraq. Summarily “democratized” by the American military in 2004, a new “people,” representing the Shia majority staked its claim on power, provoking many among the previously regnant people, the Sunnis, into open and still ongoing rebellion, and another minority into secessionism.
For a long time, the promise of growth and general improvement kept many new and artificial nations from damaging struggles over power and sovereignty. In some countries liberated from foreign rule, such as Burma, pitiless local despots kept the lid on the many conflicts and contradictions of nation-building, democracy, and economic development.
The opening of this Pandora’s box in the third wave of democratization was always likely to plunge much of the world into a prolonged era of instability. Unshackled from great power rivalry, history since 1990 has accelerated crazily, and often calamitously derailed, instead of coming to rest in the terminus of universal democracy.
Even in countries with routine elections and peaceful transfers of power, such as India, uneven economic growth and high inequality have corroded the few democratic norms that existed.
In 2014, a demagogue rose to power in classic fashion by blaming minorities and immigrants; he is now busy boosting a new people, the apparently neglected Hindu majority, while relegating many Muslims to second-class citizenship.
Likewise, the politics of xenophobia in the United States and Britain against a background of stagnant wages and growing inequality has exposed a democratic deficit long covered up by Cold War moralizing and posturing.
It is clear now that, with governments shrinking social welfare and marketizing public goods, and moneyed special-interests entrenched in legislatures, many citizens became militantly disaffected with their political representatives and institutions, and vulnerable to demagoguery.
Bewildered by their punitive mood, democracy-mongers seek fresh self-validation and moral high ground, this time by counterposing democracy to “authoritarian populism” at home rather than totalitarian communism abroad.
This reheating of the Cold War’s moral oppositions and belated lamentations about “democratic recession” won’t do. The so-called populists, whether you like them or not, have been empowered through democratic processes. They represent, albeit in grossly distorted form, long suppressed and fundamentally democratic aspirations for freedom, equality, and dignity.
And they serve to remind us that democracy remains a radically destabilizing force, not a magical formula that, for all its repeated failures, keeps its vendors in stable employment.