History Is So Not Over

It's time for a dose of realism when we think about how to build new democracies.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Twenty-five years ago, just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Francis Fukuyama published what became one of the most widely discussed and cited articles of the late 20th century. In "The End of History?" (the title lost its concluding question mark when it was published as a book in 1992), Fukuyama celebrated the global triumph of democracy and capitalism, a thesis he reiterated recently in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. "Liberal democracy," he proclaimed, "still has no real competitors."

Fukuyama’s reassertion of his original optimism is particularly striking given just how beleaguered democracy now appears.

Yes, there has been a fundamental transformation in the nature of political regimes throughout the world. Most countries today are formal electoral democracies, accounting for two-thirds of the global population. And yes, virtually every country now holds elections — and there are more women in national parliaments today than ever before.

But far from coming to an end, history seems to be surging back with a vengeance. Despite these momentous shifts in formal political structures, only a small number of the democracies that have emerged over the past three decades have become deeply rooted. Instead, many of them have become mired in transition, occupying a precarious gray zone between outright authoritarianism and fully-fledged democracy. (Russia under Putin is but an especially vivid example.)

According to Freedom House, global freedom has declined each year since 2005, while democratic institutions often remain hollow, shallow, and weak. Recent events in Egypt and Libya show that it is easier to oust a dictator than to establish a functioning democracy. Building liberal institutions turns out to be a daunting and protracted challenge that is likely to entail considerable turbulence and contestation. The outcome can never be assured. (The photo above shows pro-democracy demonstrators earlier this year in Hong Kong, where activists are fighting to establish universal suffrage against resistance from the Chinese government in Beijing.)

Highlighting continuing turmoil from Ukraine to Gaza to Syria, a recent publication from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace asked whether the world is falling apart. Such pessimism is more reminiscent of the gloomy conclusions drawn by the late economic historian and sociologist Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, his classic analysis of the social, political, and economic dislocation that resulted from the collapse of nineteenth-century civilization, than of Fukuyama’s ushering of a post-ideological world.

So what has gone wrong with the dream of democracy’s transformational potential?

What stands out is a generalized disillusionment with the ability of democracy to provide public goods, the key functions that people expect of their governments.

While state capacity remains persistently weak, especially in new or emerging democracies, more and more citizens expect better services and enhanced ability to respond to their needs and demands. As our recent research here at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) shows, people tend to value political freedoms and democracy mostly in instrumental terms: How well do democracies perform? Do they successfully provide expected levels of economic growth, health care, or education? The inability of many democracies to "deliver the goods" has put them under considerable strain.

When Fukuyama first wrote in 1989, a credible alternative to liberal democracy was not in sight. But that has changed. The extraordinary rise of China has turned it into a competing model of development. In Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda have also emerged as showcases for the perceived superiority of authoritarian governments and hegemonic party systems in generating economic growth.

Yet the apologists for autocracy tend to gloss over some fundamental points. It’s not self-evident that an authoritarian system will always have an interest in playing a positive role in the developmental process. History is littered with examples of predatory or "anti"-developmental authoritarian states in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the former Soviet Union. Betting on their presumed superiority is a dangerous wager: you can never tell in advance whether the ends will justify the means.

In truth, we expect too much of incipient democracies, and much too soon. The holding of elections alone does not offer a cure for the deeper political and social problems facing states in many developing countries. Elections have the potential to deepen the quality of democratic governance, but they are a relatively blunt instrument of representation, and they can have important limits. As the Economist has noted, robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote.

The strengthening of a culture where democracy is valued as a process, and not just in terms of its success in providing material benefits, is bound to take time. It is worth recalling that after Europe experienced its own "Springtime of the Peoples" in 1848, democracy needed several generations to take hold. The liberal democratic model ran into trouble again in the 1920s and 1930s, when fascism and communism became attractive alternatives to many who had become disillusioned with the workings of (democratic) political systems — with horrific consequences.

Today, democracy has lost its luster not only in the developing world, but also among the wealthy countries of the West. The shock of the financial crisis of 2007 to 2008 and growing concerns about deepening inequality are contributing to profound dissatisfaction with the quality of democratic representation — sentiments that have found expression across the political spectrum, ranging from the American Tea Party and the "Occupy" movements in various countries to the anti-Brussels populists in the European Union.

A new study that analyzes almost 2,000 government policy initiatives between 1981 and 2012 finds that the United States may have become more of an oligarchy than a democracy. And a 2012 survey of seven European countries discovered that more than half of voters have "no trust in government." This widespread alienation from the political establishment, especially among the middle classes and disaffected youth, shows that people demand more than just elections every few years. They want a say in what their governments do and, crucially, how they do it.

If anything, this shows that the forging of democracy is an unavoidably rocky road — an ongoing struggle that involves backsliding as well as progress. And democracy cannot succeed without commitment and leadership from both above and below.

But we should not conclude that the democratic model has lost its appeal. Democratic processes have opened up new opportunities for participation and the alternation of power, while also showing that they can deliver, in countries as diverse as Brazil, Ghana, and, most recently, Tunisia. Even in settings where democracy has failed to take hold, as in Egypt, the political landscape has changed irrevocably, and it will never go back to square one. Citizens now have significantly higher expectations, and even in the Middle East this is likely to entail more responsive systems over the long term. The pull of China may be strong, but its model too conceals deeper problems, with profound inequality being merely one of many.

Yet the triumph of democracy is far from assured. Higher expectations are difficult to satisfy. Clientelistic systems continue or can even intensify in newly democratic systems where accountability and checks and balances remain weak.

So we certainly haven’t reached the end of history. But most countries today concede the primacy of democratic forms, something which was by no means a given just a few decades ago. Imperfect as they might be, these emerging democracies are here to stay. Figuring out how to give them substance could well turn out to be the leading challenge of the 21st century.

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