WSJ February 9, 2019
The Long, Hard Road to Democracy
Those worried about today’s setbacks should look to European history, which shows that democratic development always proceeds in fits and starts.
By Sheri Berman | 1264 words
It is easy to be depressed today about democracy’s prospects. Promising new democracies in Hungary, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere have slid toward authoritarianism, and longstanding democracies in the West are being rattled by populists who often show little regard for democratic rules and individual rights. A generation ago, the collapse of communism led pundits to celebrate the approaching triumph of liberal democracy; today many commentators are concerned that the democratic cause is in decline. When Freedom House, a nonprofit group that tracks the global state of democracy, released its annual report on Tuesday, it entitled it “Democracy in Retreat.”
Such cycles of optimism and pessimism are hardly new, however. They also accompanied the previous waves of democratic expansion and subsequent backsliding, from 19th-century revolutions for liberty to the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989. It’s instructive to recall how hard it was to develop democracy in the past, not least as an antidote to excessive gloom about its fate today.
Successful democracies are unusual and generally emerge only at the end of a long, arduous process, with missteps and often failures along the way. Historically, toppling dictatorships has always been easier than building durable democracies—particularly liberal democracies that protect citizens’ rights, enshrine the rule of law, check executive power and protect civil society.
Consider Europe, where the modern struggle for democracy began with the French Revolution. Like the fall of communism and the 2011 Arab Spring, the collapse of the French monarchy in 1789 was greeted with jubilation. William Wordsworth remembered it as a time when “all Europe was thrilled with joy.” But grave disappointment followed: Soon after the republic was declared in 1793, Europe’s first modern democracy descended into a Reign of Terror. By 1799, an exhausted France submitted to a coup by Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte.
Political instability racked France throughout the 19th century. In 1848, another transition to democracy occurred, but within a year, the populist authoritarian Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte (the previous Napoleon’s nephew) had seized power and begun gutting democratic institutions. His regime collapsed in 1870, giving way to another tumultuous democratic transition. (Given the continuing upheaval, a longstanding joke held that France’s National Library kept its copies of the constitution in the periodicals section.) France’s third try at democracy was more successful than the previous two, but many citizens neither accepted its legitimacy nor played by democratic “rules of the game.
The Third Republic grew weaker throughout the interwar years, making it easy prey for the 1940 Nazi invasion and the collaborationist Vichy regime that followed. When World War II ended, France again became a democracy, but hardly a stable one: It had 21 governments between 1946 and 1958. When war broke out in France’s prized colony of Algeria in 1958 and a section of the army rebelled, Charles de Gaulle stepped in, the Fourth Republic collapsed, and a Fifth Republic emerged.
Other West European countries also struggled to achieve democracy. A unified Italy emerged in the 1860s, but its governments were corrupt and inefficient, contributing to the rise of extremism on both the left and the right. After World War I, Italy’s young democracy was plagued by disorder and violence and collapsed into fascism in 1922. Only after World War II did a relatively well-functioning democracy emerge in Italy.
Germany’s story is even more chastening. The country emerged in 1871 under a semi-authoritarian regime and democratized only following World War I. From its birth, the Weimar Republic was plagued by extremism, rebellion and violence; it collapsed into Nazi dictatorship in 1933. After World War II, Germany became an impressive liberal democracy—but only in its western half, as its east languished for decades under communist dictatorship.
Spain too followed a long road to liberal democracy, undergoing numerous political transitions, military interventions and civil wars during the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a failed democratic experiment in the 1930s, a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and decades of dictatorship, Spain made a durable transition to democracy only in the mid-1970s.
The lesson of all this European history is that successful democracy rarely comes easily or quickly. Even the U.K., which is often held up as a model of easy democratization, had a turbulent back story, including the disorder and bloodshed leading up to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Whether one starts with 1688 or 1832 (the first expansion of voting rights), it took hundreds of years until Britain achieved full democracy during the early 20th century.
Seen in this light, today’s democratic troubles don’t seem so profound. After all, more democracies exist today than at any previous point in history: There were 11 in 1900, 20 in 1920, 32 in 1970, 77 in 2000 and 116 in 2018, as Freedom House and others have noted. And recent reversals have been relatively modest: Democracies have suffered less backsliding in recent years than after the previous waves of democratization that began in 1848, 1918 and 1945.
None of this is to deny that new and old democracies now face real problems. But successful democracies take time to consolidate and need constant effort to thrive; it’s never a simple narrative of linear progress.
Liberal democracy became the norm in Western Europe only after 1945—more than 150 years after the French Revolution. In the period after Europe’s first democratic experiment, many other countries tried—and most failed. Democracy’s postwar success in Western Europe required the creation of new domestic, regional and international orders, from social-democratic welfare states to NATO to the European Union, and the erosion of these orders helps to explain democracy’s problems today.
Americans often think that their country was always basically democratic, but the U.S. didn’t become a true liberal democracy until the second half of the 20th century. Before 1861, the South was a tyrannical oligarchy, and it took the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history to overthrow that regime. It took another century before the federal government was ready to ensure that all citizens, including African-Americans, could claim their rights. Since the 1960s and the civil-rights movement, the bitter legacies of that undemocratic system—racial inequalities, deep geographical divides and more—have continued to roil our politics.
As for today’s younger democracies, whose transitions have begun in recent memory, we should not be surprised by their fragility. Breaking down the institutions and political norms built up under long years of dictatorship is slow, difficult work. Constructing new, liberal democratic ones is even harder.
Recognizing that real democratic reform is often slow and imperfect allows us to see today’s news through a different lens. Many have rightly lamented the moves by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to tighten control over the country’s courts, central bank and media outlets, as well as the attempts by Poland’s populist government to purge its Supreme Court and weaken constitutional checks and balances. But these efforts have been met by spirited, ongoing public protests against both countries’ governments, and neither Mr. Orban nor Poland’s nationalist rulers would dare to cast aside elections, as their interwar and communist predecessors did.
In these and other young democracies, more citizens are organizing and demonstrating to protect their rights than in the past. Elections, even when flawed, still provide opposition groups with opportunities to mobilize: Witness the Venezuelans now standing up to Nicolás Maduro’s autocratic regime.
Today’s pessimism about democracy is both historically unwarranted and self-defeating; it undermines the optimism necessary to sustain the struggle ahead. Democracy’s advocates must take a longer view, recognizing that setbacks are an inevitable part of the effort to build the foundations for durable, enlightened rule by the people.
Dr. Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day”(Oxford University Press), from which this essay is adapted.■