Let’s face it: This century, this millennium, has not been good for democracy. From this bizarre American election campaign to the pulverized wreckage of a pro-democracy movement in Syria; from the increasingly bloated jails in Egypt to the disappearing free press in Turkey; from the remnants of a demoralized opposition in Russia to the never ending re-election of some African presidents, there is ample evidence of the tough times this much-vaunted system of government is facing.
Of course, the notion that democracy — letting the people choose the leaders who govern them — is the best way, the only legitimate way, to ensure the well-being of a country, remains a source of inspiration for millions around the world. But the sad truth is that its march of late has proven erratic, halting. And in too many cases, it has ended up crushed in a pool of blood. Indeed, a decade that began with the promise of an “Arab Spring” has ended up spawning tyranny and massacres. The march of freedom seems in some places to have gone into reverse.
Here in the United States an election that is at times admittedly entertaining is simply the latest chapter in the global story of frustration, disappointment and even tragedy for those who believe that democracy is the only acceptable form of government. It is now up to American voters to offer proof to the world that democracy is, indeed, the best form of government by resisting the seduction of a demagogue.
In his speech warning Republicans about the dangers of Donald Trump’s rise, former Republican Party candidate Mitt Romney quoted a famously intriguing line from John Adams, America’s second president. “Remember, democracy never lasts long,” Adams wrote. “There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”
Of course, Adams’ assertion remains highly questionable. But it is hard to ignore such warnings when confronted with the litany of outrageous remarks, proposals and spectacles presented this campaign season.
Or take the words of Winston Churchill, who famously declared, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.” If ever evidence was needed that Churchill was right, one need only look at this year’s presidential race, which has already seen Trump — the current GOP front-runner for the post of most powerful world leader — reassuring voters about the size of his genitals in response to a veiled allusion on the subject from rival Marco Rubio.
Trump’s comments were just one of the mind-boggling moments from a single evening in an election season marked by the rise of a candidate who, among other problems, seems to have little regard for the truth (something that apparently does not trouble his backers, a fact that is even more disturbing).
Unfortunately, as this campaign has demonstrated, democracy can seem like an open invitation to demagoguery, and to manipulation of the electorate, something that has happened many times in history.
In theory, the wisest voices are supposed to be able to persuade the broader electorate and the principle of one man, one vote — regardless of education, experience or intelligence — is supposed to work in the end because those with greater abilities can use their talents to show the way. In the end, democracy gives people the right to choose their own leaders, and it is hoped that their choice will, by and large, produce good results.
But the debacle in the Republican Party is testing this theory to the limit. The party establishment, including the previous two GOP nominees, appears to be lining up to try to stop Trump, even as Republican primary voters continue to support him. It is a challenge of historic proportions. In addition, former CIA Director Michael Hayden said the military might disobey orders from a president like Trump, who vows to issue directives that violate international law.
Meanwhile, Cleveland, which will host the nominating convention, is reportedly ordering thousands of sets of riot gear in expectation of what may prove to be a very ugly event.
All this suggests that if Trump were to become president, America’s democratic structure would be put to the test, including the checks and balances necessary to prevent a politician like Trump from dismantling some of this country’s basic democratic principles, as he appears to be considering.
Autocrats around the world watching America will no doubt find some comfort in the turmoil. And they will probably exploit the examples of the recent experiences in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere as a sign that their system is better. But that’s not the moral of this story. Quite the opposite.
Consider the second part of Churchill’s maxim. What’s the alternative? What’s a better system? In the short term, there may be an occasional autocrat who serves his country well, but dictatorships do not end well for the countries they oversee.
As the philosopher Karl Popper wrote, “Anybody who has ever lived under another form of government — that is, under a dictatorship which cannot be removed without bloodshed — will know that democracy, imperfect though it is, is worth fighting for.” That, of course, means real democracy, not the phony, make believe concoctions that tyrants use these days to gain and hold power.
The good news is that no system is better suited for correcting the twists and turns of politics than a real democracy. Popper himself advocated a two-party system precisely because he believed it is the one most likely to engender self-examination, reflection and reforms. The one certainty in the current U.S. election is that Republicans will engage in deep introspection when this disastrous intra-party war reaches its conclusion, whatever it may be. This election likely marks a turning point in American politics, and U.S. democracy is unlikely to commit suicide.
For the rest of the world, the path forward is more difficult. We already know that freedom has stopped making progress across the globe, while thousands of democracy activists have been dying and going to jail. It has been a tough century so far for democracy.
But this is by no means to suggest that the battle is over, because the fact remains that however high the hurdles in the path of democracy, we have yet to find a better way.