The two famous comments about democracy in the last century were made, respectively, by America’s 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, and by Winston Churchill. Wilson declared as his primary diplomatic objective a desire to make the world safe for democracy. He was a more than slightly dubious advocate. After all, Wilson had backdoored us into a world war he promised to avoid and had thrown those who protested the war into prison under an unconstitutional sedition act. Differently, Churchill’s own more world-weary comment was that democracy was the worst of all political systems, except for all the others.
After World War I, Wilson seemed to be getting his way, at least in Europe. (He was less eager to foster democracy in the Americas, where Nicaragua was occupied throughout his term of office and during which Haiti was also subjected to long-term occupation.) The German and Austrian empires both collapsed, and in addition to Germany and Austria themselves, a host of new Eastern European nations got democratic constitutions as well. By the outbreak of World War II twenty years later, however, all these fledgling democracies had collapsed.
The end of World War II and the subsequent collapse of the British and French empires brought an even larger experiment in democratic nation-building, notably in imperial Japan and India. The only alternative model on hand, at least nominally, was Communism, but with the revolutions of 1989 against Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe was again democratized, along with the former republics of the Soviet Union and the now-truncated but still massive Russian Federation itself. To be sure, China was still a totalitarian state, but it was thought that exposure to private enterprise and free markets would lead it inexorably toward democracy. One influential commentator, Francis Fukuyama, even spoke of an “end of history” in which democracy would become the global political system as capitalism had now become its dominant if not sole economic one. It was time, in short, to see how democracy would fare when, no longer the worst system except for all the others, it was now ideologically set to be the only one.
Instead, less than thirty years after democracy’s seeming triumph, it is almost everywhere in retreat. How has this happened, and why?
It must first be observed that modern democracy is a complex system, based on a well-established legal system, protection of individual rights, and a clearly defined separation of powers. In addition, it requires what Aristotle identified nearly two and a half millennia ago as the basis of any stable government: a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth such that power would not be isolated to the elites, and too much poverty in an underclass. In modern terms, we would translate that as a society based on a large and sufficiently prosperous middle class.
Protecting rights, maintaining an independent but responsible judiciary and balancing the exercise of sovereign power, are everyday challenges in a democracy. There is nothing routine about it, and the line about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty sums up the democratic dilemma as well as any. The more serious problem, though, is that the vaunted middle class has been mostly a myth throughout history. The prevailing reality has been dominated by small elites in which wealth has been concentrated through control, in Karl Marx’s still-handy phrase, of the means of production. Modern democracy took root in the newly-formed United States because of an abundance of the prime economic resource, land, and availability to those who would claim it. With the coming of industrial capitalism, free cultivation by smallholders gradually gave way to agricultural concentration — agribusiness today — and the growth of cities whose workers were only by dint of long struggle able to attain even modest standards of living and security, always subject to the catastrophic disruptions of the so-called business cycle. The so-called middle class was no more than 15 percent of the population in America (or elsewhere in the West) prior to the Great Depression, and it was only under the unique circumstances of the postwar reconstruction boom (c. 1945-70) that something like a substantial number of people began to achieve what Aristotle had in mind. Since 1970, the middle class has steadily contracted in the U.S., and only in places where social welfare systems have taken the edge off capital accumulation has its decline been somewhat less marked. These systems have been generally under attack by elites for some time, and the austerity policies generally pursued in the West since the financial collapse of 2008 have substantially undermined them.
The results of this have lately been seen both in America and Europe. The erosion of middle class living standards in Rust Belt states made possible the election as president of a pseudo-populist demagogue, Donald Trump, while in Europe, serious right-wing challenges in France and the Netherlands have been beaten back only with difficulty. In Eastern Europe, authoritarianism is on the rise or at the point of triumph in Hungary and Poland, while states such as Roumania are barely concealed kleptocracies. For Europe as a whole, moreover, there is an even more general crisis of democratic legitimation, namely the European Union itself. The E.U. was formed as an economic and monetary union, not a political one, which means that although some rudimentary political institutions exist, both political and economic decision-making is in the hands of unaccountable elites that march largely to the tune of Germany, whose economic preponderance gives it command authority over all twenty-eight current states of the Union. However if you want to describe such a system, and whatever local authority remains to its member states, it is in no sense of the word a democracy. Not since World War II has democracy suffered such a setback, and it is all the more insidious for having been borne in on the promise of open borders, free markets and enhanced personal opportunity: in short, the whole Pandora’s Box of elite neoliberalism.
What this means is that, apart from a few outliers such as Norway and perhaps Britain (if it ever does effectively win its independence from the E.U.), the whole of Europe has ceased to be democratic in the ways that really count. This was not yet certain in 1989 but it is clearly the case today. Democracy in Europe, if it is to have a future, must mean dismantling the E.U. in its present form, and going back, at least for the foreseeable future, to a continent of ethnically divided nation states — the arrangement that brought it to two world wars in a generation. That, in turn, raises the question of whether modern democracy is so rooted in the nation state — the soil from which it sprang — that it cannot easily accommodate the kind of transnational cooperation on which the future of the planet may depend.
While European democracy has, in effect, betrayed itself, its great global bulwark finds itself in crisis. Without U.S. intervention — as Winston Churchill well recognized — democracy in Europe, including Britain, would have been eclipsed by the Nazis, or perhaps by a Nazi-Soviet condominium. America saved democracy then, but now finds itself in the hands of a would-be strongman who has little understanding of or interest in the rule of law and who has seriously shaken the comity on which a democratic society depends. After more than two centuries, America at the moment no longer represents the citadel of democracy, but its teardown.
Around the rest of the world, the democratic prospect is in no better condition. Endemic corruption has brought Brazilian democracy to its knees; a sectarian ruler threatens it in India and another has undone it in Turkey. Russia and most of the former Soviet republics quickly reverted to authoritarianism after 1989. Even the one apparent success story of democracy in the past generation, South Africa, has now regressed, while the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, insofar as they were interpreted (largely in the West) as an aspiration for democracy, have been uniformly a disaster. And China, of course, has not budged an inch from the guns of Tiananmen Square.
These might be viewed as temporary setbacks; democracy has had them before. But a democratic socialism has never taken firm root; historically, modern democracy has proceeded from and remains wedded to capitalism, and capitalism is a formula for maximizing inequality, the condition that contradicts democratic society as such. Democracy is certainly not the only issue at stake as we face planetary ecological crisis and the horrific political scenarios it may entail. But, as democracy has been capitalism’s stepchild, so it may also be one of its ultimate casualties.