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

In fact, by this time, there had been so many political transitions in France, that a current joke had that the French National Library kept its copies of the constitution in the periodical section. Now, this third republic, this third transition to democracy actually lasts for quite a while. Now, part of the reason for this is that the previous transitions, — even though they had not been successful — had left some very important legacies: French society had changed dramatically, France’s economy had changed dramatically, many of the institutions necessary to make democracy work — political parties, civil society — had grown up over the years, even if they hadn’t, again, been able to fully stick.

But, of course, it’s only with the Fifth Republic, under de Gaulle, that you actually get stable, consolidated democracy in France. So, for those of you who are not counting or maybe don’t remember your history very well, that’s about 165 years between France’s first transition to democracy, to the time when it actually gets stable, consolidated democracy. So, that’s quite a long time.

And France is not the exception, in fact, France is the norm, if we look at other European countries. So take Italy, for example. Italy’s first try with democracy was a total mess, right? The country during its short democratic experiment was plagued by extremism, localized violence, all kinds of other problems including corruption and political instability and very quickly, of course, we know this democratic experiment collapses and gives us Mussolini and his Fascists. The German lessons are, of course, even more tragic. Germany becomes a unified country in 1871, and its first democratic experiment, which comes into being after 1918, is a total mess.

Also, almost from the day of its inception, it’s played by violent uprisings, extremism, political instability, and political assassinations, actually, across the political spectrum. If we look at the support in Germany for democratic and anti-democratic parties, we can see that even before the Weimar Republic comes for an end, the vast majority of German citizens have already abandoned democracy. That is to say they are no longer supporting parties that favor a continuation of the democratic experiment.

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And if we broaden our reach again, and we look at the inter-war period more generally, we can see, again, many, many democratic collapses during these years. If you look at the category of casualties, almost all of the countries that fell — almost all of the democratic experiments that fell during the anti-war years — were those that had made transitions for the first time, that is to say, first attempts at democracy tended to fail disproportionally during the anti-war years.

And so, of course, it’s only after 1945 — we must remember — that you actually get stable, consolidated democracy in Europe, and a whole lot of things had to change after 1945 to make this possible. We had the Second World War, of course, which had the perverse effect of doing things like eliminating right-wing extremism from the political spectrum in Europe, we had, of course, a huge change in the role of the United States, which not only occupied for a very long time the continent’s most problematic country, Germany, right? And also put in place a large number of international institutions — NATO, Bretton Woods — that were explicitly designed to stabilize democracy in Western Europe.

And, of course, the Western Europeans themselves actually learned a lot from their failed democratic experiments, when they rebuilt their constitutions, and their political economies, and their international relations after 1945. They did so very conscious of the fact that they had to be rebuilt in a very different way than they had before if in fact democracy was going to work this time.

And also important, is after 1945, they did not have to start from scratch. Again, many of the institutions necessary to make democracy work, political parties, civil society, local and regional governments; all of those things had existed before. They had to be rebuilt in better ways, but they didn’t have to bring them up from scratch.

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And again, if we now go from Western Europe to Southern Europe, the patterns continues, right? Here, in Southern and Eastern Europe we don’t get democracy until the end of the 20th century, and again, after many transitions, after many attempts.

Here, of course, is Spain, where we get a transition after Franco dies in 1975, and this sets off a huge wave, the Third Wave of democratization across Europe, Soviet Union, Latin America and elsewhere. And so, if we don’t want to be too Europe centric and we now look at some of the countries that made transitions in the Third Wave outside of Europe, that have been very successful, again, we can see many, many similarities: South Korea, for example, one of the great democratic success stories in Asia, had a very, very difficult period since its time of independence, many political transitions, of course, including a civil war before we got to a stable, successful transition relatively late in the game.

Latin America: military coups throughout the second half of the 20th century. So here we have Pinochet, of course, who overthrows a democratic regime in Chile, in 1933; military dictatorship also overthrowing a democratic regime in Brazil. But again, as we know, by the end of the 20th century these countries had transitioned back to democracy and these democratic experiments have turned out to function very well.

What are the lessons to be learned from this quick run through our history? Well, I think the first one is that there are many paths to democracy, but very few of them are quick or easy; even the cases that we think of as classic cases like the U.S. or England, are not so easy, did not happen so quickly, if we examine them a little more carefully.

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