Democracy’s Dog Days

We all want democracy to thrive and flourish, but can it?

The Obama administration was quite pleased that the anti-democratic Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood had come to power through a single plebiscite. That confidence required a great deal of moral blindness, both of the present and past.

Like other once-elected authoritarians who believe that democracy is similar to a bus route -- in the words of Mr. Erdogan of Turkey, once you get to your stop, you get off -- Morsi had no intention of fostering the sort of consensual institutions so necessary for republican government. Almost immediately he gave a de facto green light to cleanse the government of his opponents, to Islamicize a once largely secular society, and to persecute religious minorities.

Like a Hitler, Mussolini, Mugabe, or Hugo Chavez, Morsi was counting on the legitimacy from a once-in-a-lifetime largely free election, and then the use of state power, if not terror, to institutionalize his authoritarian rule. Morsi’s legacy is that he was both a beneficiary of the Arab Spring in Egypt and almost singlehandedly ended it.

Unfortunately, there seem to be no signs of democracy’s revival elsewhere in the Arab world or, for that matter, all that many recent vibrant examples in the world at large these days.

In contrast, after the end of the Cold War there was a giddy “end of history” moment. By the new millennium, “democratic” government and free market capitalism were accepted as the natural -- indeed, the foreordained -- final stage in civilization’s evolution. And why not? The Soviet Union was in shambles. Eastern Europe was democratizing. Latin American democracies were starting to crowd out both communist and right-wing dictatorships. The European Union was ushering in the euro to self-congratulatory proclamations of a new social democratic heaven on Earth. The betting was when, not if, a newly capitalist China democratized. Bill Clinton, under duress, had moved America to the democratic center, and was helping to balance budgets.

Only the Islamic Middle East resisted the supposedly inevitable democratic urge. As the world’s regional holdout, the region was seen as well overdue for its turn at majority rule. Democratization, we Americans argued, might force the Muslim world to emulate those consensual systems with far better records of stable governance and widespread prosperity. With freedom and affluence, the age-old Middle East pathologies -- misogyny, religious intolerance, tribalism, fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, and statism -- would fade along with terrorist-driven violence. Or so it was thought.

Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, democracy is not just having a rough time, but failing in a way that its harsh critics so often predicted, from Plato to Nietzsche and Spengler.

Often the recent world confused plebiscites with democracy, as if the two were synonymous.

But does anyone think the once-elected Mr. Morsi in Egypt was a true democrat? Are the Iranian elections reflections of a free society? Were the austerity packages imposed on southern Europe part of a constitutional process? Is a Germany or Netherlands encouraged to hold elections about the fate of their participation in the EU? Does a Mr. Erdogan or Mr. Ortega -- or did the late Hugo Chavez -- operate within transparent and lawful protocols?