It wasn’t all that long ago it seemed democracy and justice were on the march around the world. Since 1989, when the Soviet Union fell, dramatically illustrated by the crowds dancing on the ruins of the Berlin Wall and tanks turning against the overlords in Moscow, it seemed that power really was shifting to the people. Our existential opponent, Soviet communism, was defeated; the ideology of freedom and democracy had won. There was even a popular song at the time by the band Jesus Jones with the lyrics “right here, right now, watching the world wake up from history.”
It wasn’t all hype. As one dictatorship after another fell, the new governments pledged a commitment to free and fair elections, as well as the other institutions of democracy. According to the international research organization Freedom House, the number of countries it rated as “not free” fell to an all-time low of thirty-eight in 1992. It was an exciting time.
We worried, of course, about these newer democracies. Countries such as Russia and Hungary had not yet developed the robust democratic institutions and traditions that protected American democracy. It’s one thing to write a constitution on paper, but to turn it into a living breathing document that governs society is an entirely different thing. New York Times columnist and Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman remembered a friend of his, an international relations expert, making a joke during that time: “Now that Eastern Europe is free from the alien ideology of Communism, it can return to its true historical path – fascism.”
The sad reality of hindsight is we know what happened. Once promising democracies such as Russia, Hungary, Venezuela, Turkey, and India have devolved into authoritarian dictatorships. Even though they may retain many of the institutions that symbolize democracy, those institutions have been weakened, co-opted by the powerful to keep them in power. Although the elites are always the minority, they manage to maintain their privilege through tried-and-true manipulations by giving some small benefits to one group while turning that group against others. They scare the group to whom they have shared scraps from their bountiful table by warning them that these other, lesser groups can displace them as the recipients of these benefits.
Although the elites are always the minority, they manage to maintain their privilege through tried-and-true manipulations by giving some small benefits to one group while turning that group against others
We, in the United States, tsk-tsk over the failure of these fledgling democracies. It can’t happen here, we say. After all, the United States is the world’s oldest democracy, right?
Originally, our Constitution only guaranteed the right to vote to white men who owned property. Also, it included a number of anti-democratic provisions. The electoral college is only the best known of those. Originally, for example, state legislatures chose the U.S. senators, not voters.