Democracy in Decline

The broad, sneering European-elite response to the plucky Irish vote to oppose the further centralization of governmental power in the European Union and the emerging opinion in China suggest that from Brussels to Shanghai, democracy may be losing its appeal.
Democracy, broadly understood as government by the people being governed, has been the upward aspiration of Western civilization for about 1,000 years — and of the rest of the world for about 100 years. Certainly since the Magna Carta in 1215; arguably going back another millennium to when the Germanic tribes selected their chiefs through a more-or-less popular rather than hereditary method. The pace quickened in our Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789, advanced further with Woodrow Wilson’s call for the self-determination of nations after World War I. The democratic urge gained further rhetorical support in the post-World War II United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21:

“(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

“(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

“(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.”

Arguably, the aspiration for and expectation of democracy reached its zenith with the fall of the Soviet Union and the prediction that the end of history had been reached in the form of liberal democratic capitalism as practiced in the last decade of the 20th century.

But events and experiences I have had in the past week reinforce a growing sense I have had for a few years that the ideal and practice of robust democracy may be seen in history as a quirk of the 18th-20th centuries. I can imagine students 500 years from now studying democracy the way we study medieval history: its rise, its high period, causes of its decline.

Admittedly, the rise and aspiration for democracy has not been a line steadily upward. In the 1930s, many in the West thought that both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s fascisms seemed to work better than Depression-era democracy. For others at the time, the Russian effort at communism seemed the better alternative.

But for those of us born in the middle of last century, in the afterglow of democracy’s WWII triumph (with, admittedly, a huge assist from Soviet Russia’s overwhelming military sacrifices and triumphs on the eastern front), democracy seemed the objective of the entire world. Even the Soviet-controlled nations put the phrase “democratic republic” in their names. And post-colonial governments in Africa all at least talked in terms of democracy.

It first hit me with force that democracy may not be a universal goal when I was in Russia in 2005 to discuss my book on radical Islam. Almost everyone I met — from leading academics, to my driver, to radio talk show hosts, to all sorts of people I met in bars — loved Putin and were contemptuous of democracy and capitalism. Every Russian I met wanted a strong government, thought democracy is inherently corrupt and useless, and that capitalism is another word for theft.

Last week, I was in China and had an opportunity to talk with several Chinese businesspeople — some top executives, some shopkeepers and, once again, several middle-class people in bars (a small sample out of 1.3 billion Chinese). Each was perfectly content to let the unelected Communist Party run the government, as long as economic growth continued. A point made by several of them (admittedly, all the people I talked with are doing well economically) and also made by a local academic expert is that the rest of Asia is noticing that the Chinese Communist Party-managed economic method is working better than the American democratic capitalism method.

I find it melancholy to consider that perhaps people aspire to self-government not because it is the natural and dignified condition of man to be free and self-governing, but merely only if it is likely to turn a quick economic profit.

Which brings me to the Irish vote. After a similar vote was lost in 2005 in France and in the Netherlands, the decision of the European elite was to redecide the matter by going around the people and deciding through parliaments (where the fix was in) rather than by plebiscite. Only the Irish insisted on a vote of the people before turning over sovereign power to Brussels bureaucrats. And they voted it down 53-47 percent — against the loud voices of all the political parties and national leaders. God bless the Irish people.

Almost the entire business, political and cultural elite of Europe argue for centralizing EU power in Brussels because it will be good for business (and give Europe a more coherent voice and action in the world). The price for that is to reduce the role of democratically elected government officials and to give more power to unelected governing forces.

Is that why partisans risked their lives sniping at Nazi soldiers and throwing homemade bombs at German panzer tanks a mere half-century ago? Is the world getting ready to give up its birthright to self-govern for a mess of pottage?

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