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?

Instead, southern Europe is reeling, the result of the proverbial people voting themselves entitlements and perks that the state could not pay for. In the fashion of the fourth century Athenian dêmos, pensioners, the subsidized, and public employees blame almost everyone and everything else for their own self-inflicted miseries.

The European Union avoids national referenda in fear that democratic and open elections would lead the EU to unravel. Instead, the EU in large part is reduced to appealing to German war guilt, to German mercantile self-interest, and to German philanthropy to subsidize much of a failed Mediterranean Europe.

Westernized democratic societies -- Europe in particular -- are shrinking. The bounty of free market capitalism, the emancipation of women, technological advances, and the non-judgmentalism of egalitarian democracy have all emphasized enjoying the good life rather than the sacrifices of child-raising. The result is a demographic time bomb of a dwindling and aging population.

Here in the United States, we are engaged in a great struggle to save constitutional democracy as we once knew it. President Obama seems intent -- by ignoring enforcement of existing statutes, by piling up record debt, by vastly enlarging the size of the federal government, by expanding the money supply, by enabling unprecedented numbers of Americans to enroll in food stamp, disability, unemployment, and various entitlement programs, and by politicizing federal institutions from the Justice Department to the IRS -- on creating an “equality of result” society. The aim of making everyone about the same is seen as justifying the illiberal means necessary to achieve them.

“Liberty” is now a word that earns an IRS audit. “Fairness” is proof of one’s patriotism. It is as if the failed and violent French Revolution, not the successful American alternative, is now the inspirational model.

In short, democracy’s culture worldwide is in crisis. It cannot pay its bills. It chafes at constitutional protections of individual rights and expression. It seems to encourage rather than to mitigate racial and class tensions. It offers more entitlements to a growing aging cohort and less opportunity for a shrinking younger population to pay for them. It appears unable to offer non-democratic societies moral and ethical models.

Most cannot decide whether the democracies are plagued with a particularly poor generation of demagogic leaders, or whether we are suffering the inevitable wages of rule by plebiscite that eats away at constitutional law and prefers executive fiat. What Jefferson and Tocqueville thought might save us from the mob-rule of ancient Athens -- the independent agrarian and small autonomous businessperson anchoring checks and balances to 51% majority rule and demagogues -- is no longer our ideal.

I offer a modest suggestion amidst our current angst. Let us put a moratorium on the use of the word “democracy” altogether in our lectures about the Arab Spring and promoting Western values. Cease using it, given that the word has lost all currency and has regressed to its root Hellenic demagogic meaning of “people power.”

Most people simply do not appreciate the complex constitutional system that democracy’s modern incarnation is supposed to represent, and prefer to equate democracy with what on any given day the majority is said to want -- which is almost always a state-mandated equality and a redistribution of wealth -- or a way to implement authoritarianism. In the Middle East, an election without a ratified constitution and the rule of law is a prescription for tyranny.

Instead, let us speak of “consensual government” or “constitutional government,” and emphasize “republicanism.” Our goal, to the degree we wish to offer advice abroad to reformers abroad, would be to encourage illiberal states to form “representative” or “constitutional republics,” where the will of the people is expressed through representatives who themselves are subject to constitutional law.

Limited or consensual government should be our sloganeering overseas and at home. The great lesson of the Obama administration is that the abuses of democratic plebiscites abroad are not contrasted, but amplified by the increasingly lawless American model, when it uses the IRS and the Justice Department to go after political opponents, allows senior officials to lie under oath to the Congress, and fails to execute faithfully those laws passed by the legislative branch. If we are to offer America as a model, then there must be some honesty and transparency about the Benghazi, Associated Press, IRS, and NSA scandals.

In the latter 20th century, we got our wish and saw much of the world adopt Western democratic trajectories. It is now our challenge in the early 21st century to ensure that they were not given a bill of goods.