Apparently democracy is always fragile, even in countries where it is assumed to be an established system. This may seem like nothing new, but Russia’s recent military aggression against Ukraine has made several experts suggest that democracy is deeply endangered — a battle between authoritarianism and democracy. This does not seem entirely convincing, given the geopolitical interests that seem to be at stake.
Beyond the condemnation of the invasion and the mess that exists four months into the situation, the truth is that there was clear interest from those who research history — long before the conflict — to explain and document authoritarianism and its observable trends in the regimes of Russia, China, Turkey and other countries. In the eyes of these experts, they constitute potential regressions in the progress toward global democracy.
This is debatable. One might suggest that, in reality, these countries have never been characterized as having democratic regimes — with China and Russia, not only during the period of real communism that once prevailed but even before and after their proletarian revolutions. As for Turkey, its modernization has taken other paths, more related to centuries of Ottoman history and the collapse of the empire at the beginning of the 20th century with the end of World War I.
At present we take for granted that things are the way they are, and that they could not have been otherwise. We tend to forget that the construction of democracy has to do with historical processes, of long and contradictory decantation, and in many cases with uncertain advances and setbacks, which — at the time — might well have suggested that authoritarianism was in fact the tendency that would prevail.
It was only with the arrival of Alexis de Tocqueville that the analysis of modern political history came to be characterized as a permanent struggle for equality. Paradoxically, some of the most dramatic contemporary cases, at least during the interwar period, date back to the debacle of the German, Spanish and Italian democratic systems in the first half of the last century when, faced with the overwhelming development of fascism and totalitarianism in those countries, democracy was practically extinguished.
Even earlier, in the middle of the 19th century, it was not clear to scholars of politics and history that such a system could work. For example, in European countries now considered to be solid democracies, laws, geography or even climatic conditions contributed to certain environments more or less favorable to the flourishing of democracy.
In 1831, de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, concerned about the future of France and wanting to get away from the chaos of their country, decided to travel to the United States under the pretext of studying its penal system. In reality they were motivated by something more essential: to understand the functioning of American democracy. They had a somewhat naive idea that its political system functioned better when compared to others, especially the French — essentially because they were European emigrants who had left behind the burden of their past of revolutions and counter-revolutions, absolutisms, monarchies and revolts.
Returning from their trip a few years later, they would end up writing separate books. Beaumont, more interested in the subject of slavery, wrote a critical novel about the brutality of racism in that country. But de Tocqueville, on the other hand, devoted himself to writing what could be called a treatise on democracy in America and proposed, in effect, that modern history is characterized by a permanent struggle between political liberty and social equality.
He described the United States as a country that had achieved an adequate balance between these two concepts. Certainly, at some point in his analysis, he dismissed the idea that the proper functioning of American democracy is due to a mere question of laws. And he noted, to exemplify this assertion, that by that time Mexico had already copied the U.S. Constitution, translated it into Spanish and adopted it as its own, without it being possible to prove that Mexican democracy existed.
Less striking in this international perspective on the tensions between democracy and authoritarianism are the trends that have been occurring in the established democracies of Europe and the United States, the modern democratic paradigms. Particularly interesting is the process being followed in the U.S. Congress as it attempts to clarify the events of January 2021 and the seizure of the Capitol, following the presidential election of November 2020, the results of which Donald Trump’s supporters refused to accept.
Is this democracy at risk?
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