Democratic political systems are an audacious rebellion against history. They survive only rarely. Since time immemorial, autocracy has been the preferred form of government. People’s attraction to mass movements and forceful leaders is far more visceral than their attachment to abstract principles like freedom and democracy.
So it is no surprise that today, country after country is returning to some form of strongman rule. Nor should it be shocking that substantial numbers of Americans, as evidenced this week, also long for that kind of rule.
Some interpreted the end of the Cold War as the “end of history” and predicted that all countries, except perhaps for a few outliers, would soon adopt American-style democratic capitalism. Things haven’t worked out that way. In the years after the Berlin Wall fell, I watched three very different countries — Nicaragua, India, and Turkey — surge toward democracy. All three have stumbled and fallen back into autocracy. Their stories are not exceptions but just three recent examples of how fragile and vulnerable democracy always is. They are full of meaning for Americans at a moment when our own institutions are being severely tested.
Many in Washington cheered when a pro-American candidate, Violeta Chamorro, won the presidency of Nicaragua in 1990. The defiant Sandinista incumbent, Daniel Ortega, proclaimed that he and his followers would “govern from below.” They obstructed government projects both politically and on the streets. Meanwhile, the United States pushed Chamorro’s “democratic” government to cut subsidies for the poor and fire thousands of public employees. Not surprisingly, many Nicaraguans decided they didn’t like democracy. In 2007 they put Ortega back into office. Once there, he corrupted Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Electoral Tribunal. They obligingly gave him the “legal” right to remain in office indefinitely.
Nicaragua’s experience teaches three lessons. First, democracy can be subverted by a president who loses an election but then sets out to destabilize the country instead of accepting the result. Second, democratic governments lose legitimacy when they ignore people’s needs. Third, courts and other institutions may seem to function normally even after they have been drained of their true democratic character.
In 1998 I was in India to witness what was supposed to be another milestone on the world’s march toward democracy. In front of a great throng, Sonia Gandhi, scion of the country’s most famous political family, announced that she was entering politics and was ready to “step forward” toward national leadership. A few years and a few defeats later, she was gone. India’s future turned out not to belong to her moribund Congress Party, which had for generations been seen as a foundation of Indian democracy, but to an electrifying new movement driven by Hindu nationalism. A party that wants to restrict Muslim rights has swept away a party that supported equal rights for all. This is not an aberration peculiar to India. It is another example of the age-old truth that people are easily mobilized against a minority. Only if Americans recognize this innate human trait can we work to assure that it does not infect our own politics.
Turkey’s decline from a promising democracy to sultanic kleptocracy is another sobering story. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told me in an interview after he was elected in 2003 that he was determined to be “the president of all 80 million Turks, not just those who voted for me.” In foreign policy, he proclaimed that Turkey would henceforth have “zero problems with neighbors.” Once securely in power, he broke both of those promises. Turkey is now aggressively confronting Greece in the Mediterranean and has, by Erdogan’s own account, sent troops or proxies to “many places from Syria to Libya, from Somalia to Kosovo, from Afghanistan to Qatar.” Erdogan rouses audiences by promising to lead Turkey back to its former Ottoman glory. Thousands who oppose his rule have been dismissed from their jobs or jailed.
Turkish politicians win votes by extolling their country’s greatness and promising to crush enemies at home and abroad. So do their counterparts in the United States and other countries. They succeed because many voters instinctively prefer flag-wavers and breast-beaters to candidates who preach peace and conciliation. Demagogues rouse passions by appealing to emotion. Defenders of democracy appeal mainly to reason, which is not nearly as potent a force in shaping human behavior.
The novelist Stefan Zweig wrote that Germans embraced militarist dictatorship in the 20th century because they “did not know what to do with their freedom, and eagerly supported those who would take it away from them.” That example, along with the more recent collapses in Nicaragua, India, and Turkey, shows how weak the fabric of democracy can be.
In the United States, that fabric is fraying. A super-rich elite has accumulated political power by using its wealth to shape Congress. The Supreme Court has become a partisan battleground. Voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the Electoral College distort popular will. Politicians blame minority groups or foreign countries for our problems. Many ordinary people believe that our political system is not working for them.
Free societies are not bound to fail. Failure, however, is the likely end for those that do not actively defend themselves. This week’s storming of the US Capitol suggests the scope of the danger. American democracy is under more stress today than ever before in our lifetimes. If we do not repair it, the fate of other formerly free countries may one day be ours.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.