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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

In the U.S. we needed the Civil War to get rid of slavery, and then another hundred years for the government to actually be able to bring democratic rights to all of its citizens. And in England, it took the 17th century Civil Wars and Glorious Revolution to get the country a constitutional monarchy and then another 230 years to make a transition to full democracy in the 20th century.

A second lesson, democratic backsliding doesn’t preclude later democratic success. I imagine there are a lot of entrepreneurs in this room, you know that failure today does not mean that success is out of the question later. With the benefit of history and hindsight we can see that a lot of the failures of democracy in the past, in fact, ended up building up some of the habits, norms, and institutions that could later be used for successful democracy.

And so, I’ll end by saying that I think, with benefit of historical perspective, we can see that, many of the problems facing new democracies today are not unique, that they probably, again, have less to do with the particular histories, cultures or religions of these countries and more to do with the fact that it’s just very, very difficult to get stable, well-functioning democracy. Thank you very much.

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