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

Sheri Berman

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.

ALSO READ:   Revisiting Her Side of the Story: Esmé Patterson at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

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.

ALSO READ:   Get What You Want Without Threats: Tali Sharot at TEDxCambridge (Transcript)

Pages: First |1 | ... | | Last | View Full Transcript

Scroll to Top