What happened to democracy?

The new world order — born in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a superpower — was to be accompanied by an unprecedented wave of freedom and democracy across the planet.

So what happened?

The Boston Globe’s Joshua Kurlantzick today uses Thailand as an example of a receding wave. The streets of Thailand have been crammed with protesters wearing the color of the former monarchy, demanding an end to the reign of the democratically elected prime minister. Last week, they got their wish.

The events unfolding in Thailand are part of a gathering global revolt against democracy. In 2007, the number of countries with declining freedoms exceeded those with advancing freedoms by nearly four to one, according to a recent report by Freedom House, an organization that monitors global democracy trends.

How could this be? Blame the middle class, Kurlantzick says.

As a country develops a true middle class, these urban, educated citizens insist on more rights in order to protect their economic and social interests. Eventually, as the size of the middle class grows, those demands become so overwhelming that democracy is inevitable. But now, it appears, the middle class in some nations has turned into an antidemocratic force. Young democracy, with weak institutions, often brings to power, at first, elected leaders who actually don’t care that much about upholding democracy. As these demagogues tear down the very reforms the middle classes built, those same middle classes turn against the leaders, and then against the system itself, bringing democracy to collapse.

“Elected dictators” are not just a problem in Thailand, but Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Indonesia, and — the big one — Russia, the poster child for tension between pro- and anti-democracy forces.

Which leads us to the obvious question: How does the U.S. respond to this?

Asked last week if the U.S. should go to war with Russia if it invades Georgia, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said, “Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help.”

How serious is the wane of democracy? Serious enough that even some of the most conservative Republicans are willing to ignore it… and the consequences of battling it. “If the Russians are ready to go to war on its borders — and they are — and the United States is not prepared to wage war on their borders — and we’re not — we ought to just stay out of it,” commentator Ben Stein said this morning on the CBS program, Sunday Morning.

With fewer than 50 days until the presidential election, how to respond to the end of the democratic wave might be worth talking about.

  • Matthew Hall

    I agree with you on the threat of Putin turning Russia back to totalitarianism, however I don’t think Bolivia’s Evo Morales is a good example of an elected dictator if that’s what you are implying.

    He doesn’t have a huge amount of power, as the current unrest demonstrates – upon proposing a referendum on his socialist reforms to the gas industry (note that socialist does not mean anti-democratic! Pushing for a referendum is PRO-democratic) the eastern departments’ “prefectos” have pretty much stopped him in his tracks before voting can take place. He has only been in office a few years, but when the time for a general election comes, he would not have the power to rig them even if he was that way inclined!

    I know he’s had a bit of a tantrum and kicked out your ambassador whilst snuggling up to Chavez, but that does not make him a power crazed dictator. He’s just puting on a show of might to feed off the anti-US sentiment that’s widespread accross the continent.

    Apologies, rant over!

  • GregS

    Bob, your comments about Thailand are inaccurate. The crowds, I assume are wearing yellow the color of the CURRENT monarch. The royal family is highly esteemed there – primarily because of the King’s diplomacy and committment to democracy.

    The king did a remarkable job of guiding the nation through the Thaksin crisis without partisanship or invoking any authority……it is a text-book case in the power of the bully pulpit.

  • Doug

    Yes, democracy works only where a country has a large, well-educated middle class and the freedom to debate national issues.

    I don’t know what’s happened in this country but it seems we are “dumbing down” by having our debates being led by the “talking heads” on the various cable stations (who reads papers anymore?). We’re down to “lipstick, lapel pins, hairdo’s”. And, who do we “relate to”?

    We need to wake up! We’re electing a person to lead the most important country in the world. When we sneeze, the rest of the world catches a cold. It’s a “flat world”.

    Do voters realize the reason other countries finance our debt is because we are safe? Our system works!

    I question how the other world leaders would react if they see weakness in our leadership and the stability of our democracy. What if they stop financing us?

    Think up your own scenario. It scares the hell out of me.