WSJ November 9, 2019
Liberal democracy in Eastern Europe is facing a new wave of authoritarian challengers.
By Yascha Mounk | 1057 words
My earliest political memory is of watching the Berlin Wall fall live on television. I can still picture my 7-year-old self in a spacious open-plan living room, my face up close against the screen, following in awe as hundreds of thousands sang and danced and hugged. I was too young to understand the full import of what was happening, of course. But growing up in West Germany as a child of parents who had been raised behind the Iron Curtain, I had, even then, some childish sense of the immensity of these events: People who had been told what to do and where to go for a very long time, I grasped, would now be free.
There is only one problem with my memory of the momentous night I spent glued to the television: I didn’t live in the house where that living room belongs until the fall of 1991, a good two years after the fall of the wall. On closer inspection, my memory of that day turns out to be an illusion—perhaps a product of a memorable documentary I watched a couple of years later, when the chaotic beginnings of the post-communist world were already coming into view. If my own memory of the fall of the Berlin Wall is an illusion, so is the interpretation that historians and statesmen have long given to it.
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, it was seen to symbolize a lasting triumph for liberal democracy. As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in his famous 1989 essay “The End of History,” the main competitor to the political and economic system of the West had failed. Across the Eastern bloc, people chafing under the indignities of communism had aspired to the twin values of individual freedom and collective self-determination. It was hard to imagine that they might voluntarily part with the prize that they had won with such courage and determination.
But the past few years have given strong indications that many residents of Central and Eastern Europe are less committed to these liberal values than they once seemed. From Russia to Kazakhstan, outright dictators have consolidated their power. In Poland and Hungary, voters freely elected governments that loudly declared their hostility to liberalism and quietly worked to undermine democratic institutions.
The end of history has found an unexpected ending of its own. What can account for this remarkable transformation? According to the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, the motivations behind the rebellion against communism were always more mixed than the Western triumphalist narrative suggested. Those brave protesters in the streets of Dresden and Gdansk, Budapest and Sofia, were united by a hatred of their communist regimes. But they were far less unified in their aspirations for the future. A great number did seek to realize the core values of liberal democracy.
But others primarily wanted to liberate their nations from Russian domination, to revive the influence of their ancestral religion or to give free rein to nationalism. In that light, today’s battle against liberal democracy by populists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski is not so much a betrayal of the revolution of 1989 as a civil war among its protagonists. At the moment, the antiliberal and anti-democratic faction appears to have the upper hand.
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a great number of observers from Bucharest to Washington are echoing the verdict that Vladimir Putin has recently passed down from on high: “Liberalism is obsolete.”
But this conclusion is premature. The consensus around liberal democracy has always been shallower than the triumphalist narrative implied. But there is little reason to believe that citizens of Eastern European democracies will prove any more willing to brook the new forms of oppression they now face than they were to endure communist rule. The genius of the kind of populism that has recently gained the upper hand in Central and Eastern Europe lies in weaponizing the promise of greater democracy against the institutions that are necessary for its survival.
Populists claim that they alone truly represent the people, which gives them a mandate to sweep aside all of the institutions that restrict the full expression of the people’s will. When courts constrain the actions of the government, they are enemies of the people. And when journalists criticize a populist president or prime minister for overstepping the bounds of his rightful authority, they are traitors to the nation. For a while, populists can have their cake and eat it too. The promise of greater democracy helps them win power; then they use that power to make it harder for the opposition to throw them out of office.
And when they win a second or third mandate in elections that are free but no longer fair, they point to their success at the ballot box as proof of their democratic bona fides.
But at some point, this alchemy ceases to work its magic. The popularity of the government sustains serious damage due to a crisis, such as a corruption scandal or a recession. Perhaps the opposition even overcomes the unfair odds to win an important election at the local level. Populists are then faced with the difficult choice between giving up a part of their power or baring the increasingly autocratic nature of their regime for all to see. As unpopularity begets repression, and repression unpopularity, the legitimacy of the populists—always premised on the fiction that they wish to return power to the people—enters a downward spiral.
An alternative to liberal democracy that looked formidable as long as it commanded the support of a large portion of the population now turns out to depend on brute force for its survival. It is too early to tell what new turns of history will be visited upon a region that has always been plagued by wars and revolutions. If there is one thing we should have learned from the past 30 years, it is that predictions about the future nearly always turns out to be illusory.
But announcements of the demise of liberalism in the former communist bloc—and for that matter in other parts of the world, from India to the U.S.—are almost certainly premature. There is nothing like losing their individual freedom and collective self-determination to remind people that the values of liberal democracy are still vital.
Mr. Mounk is an associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and the author of “The People Versus Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.”
[A more recent example of the liberal movement is evident in the United Kingdom last week with the Conservative wrecking ball destroying the Labor Party and reinforcing Brexit, Editor]