Why Democracies Fail – And Why That’s Okay: Sheri Berman at TEDxNewYork (Transcript)

Sheri Berman – Author

As you heard, I’m going to talk about democracies and there’s lots of new democracies in the world today, but a lot of them are not looking very good. And so what I’d like to talk to you about today is how to think about those democracies and more generally about how democracies actually develop.

Now, again this is particularly relevant, I think, because a lot of people are trying to understand what happened to the Arab Spring, and how it turned into what we are now calling the Arab Winter. It was only a few years ago that we had uprisings all across the Middle East in places like Egypt, and Tunisia and Libya and very soon after, a lot of these transitions seemed to flounder; many of them, in fact, collapsed very quickly back into dictatorships as in Egypt, under General Sisi.

But it’s not just in the Middle East, of course, that we’ve seen a lot of problems with democracy in the last couple of years. There’s in fact been a significant amount of democratic backsliding in Europe as well. So, in Hungary, for example, which was one of the early success stories of the Third Wave, we’ve seen the erosion of civil liberties, the collapse of political freedoms and the rise of a neo-Nazi party called the Jobbik Party.

In Russia, of course, despite elections, we now know that what we really have is a semi-authoritarian regime; and, of course, in Ukraine we have widespread political turmoil. Now, the reaction of many people to events like these is to think: “Well, maybe these countries are not suited for democracy, maybe there’s something wrong with their history, or their culture or their religion.” And I’m going to try to convince you in the ten minutes that I have that this pessimism is unfounded, that, in fact, the troubles new democracies face have less to do with their specific histories, or cultures or religion and have a lot more to do with their inherent difficulties of actually building stable democratic regimes.

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And I think the best way to kind of illustrate this is by looking at the history of how stable democracies actually came into being. So, when we look back in history, what do we see? The first modern democracy in history came about in France, during the French Revolution as I’m sure most of you know from your high school or college History classes, and, in fact, the French Revolution was greeted across the globe at the time as the kind of dawn of the new era. It toppled the world’s most powerful dictatorship, and it was seen by many as a sign that a new era of political freedom was about to take hold in Europe.

But, in fact, this is not what happened, again despite the expectations of many. What happens, of course, in Europe is that very quickly people in France — and in the rest of the continent realized — that it is a lot more difficult to build new democratic regimes than it is to overthrow old ones. Almost as soon as the old regime collapses in France, the country is engulfed by chaos and violence, and, in fact, within a year of the transition to democracy in France, what you see is the transition to yet another regime, which comes to be known as the Reign of Terror, which you might imagine was a pretty terrible regime, so terrible, in fact, that its major symbol became the one that you see here, which is the guillotine, which is probably not the way you want your political regime to be known.

Within a space of less than a year about 20 to 40,000 Frenchmen had lost their lives at this guillotine. And this is actually only a very small fraction of the number of people who lost their lives during the revolutionary era, more generally, which ranged up to the hundreds of thousands.

Now, this was not, in fact, what most people in France had hoped for when the Ancien Régime collapsed, and so within a space of ten years you had a reaction that led back to dictatorship, although this time of a very new type, under Napoleon Bonaparte, who’s come down to us, of course, as the original man on horseback, as the famous picture paints him. Napoleon, despite his great expertise and his wonderful qualities, was not able to stabilize France, political instability continues in France throughout the 19th century. There’s another transition in 1830 — by the way, if you notice the pictures, you can see that very few of these transitions were peaceful; most of them were accompanied by a lot of bloodshed as the great pictures of the era reveal.

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The next transition comes in 1848, and this transition is particularly important historically because the transition in France then sets off a wave of transitions throughout Europe. In fact, within about a year, – and this is again in an era without Twitter or social media – within a year you have transitions all across Europe, dictatorships fall all over the place. But, what’s interesting about this set of transitions is that they also soon collapse very, very quickly.

In fact, so broad was the reach of these political transitions that the year, 1848, comes to be known as Springtime of the Peoples — an echo, of course, we can see in the way many people refer to the Arab Spring today — and it was called Springtime of the Peoples because again it was a time when so many peoples rose up to demand self-determination. But again, within literally months almost all of these transitions had been reversed and dictatorships were back in power all over Europe. This still doesn’t stop the French pattern, we have another transition in 1870. This one also chaotic and violent, in fact, accompanied by civil war, tens of thousands of French people again lose their lives.

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