Between 1974 and 1991, thirty nations around the world formed democratic governments where there were not democratic governments before. It was what we now call the third wave of democratization. The first wave started within a generation of American independence, as suffrage and liberal humanism took hold in Europe. The second wave was after World War II and the defeat of nationalist fascism in Europe and Asia. Today, planet earth is about 40%, democratic if you hold the standard of true liberal democracy without including democratic autocracies like Russia or Venezuela.
If you ask us, Americans overwhelmingly believe that democracy is the best form of government.
If you ask some more of us, some lesser percent but still the majority will tell you that democracy is the destination for the evolution of government. Nations don’t start there. But if they work hard, industrialize, create a middle class and prosper, it’s inevitable. Informed, prosperous, empowered people won’t settle for less. We believe it so much that we’ve started or fought in wars to create it. Or maintain it in places far outside our borders when without our intervention, it was likely to falter.
A say in his governance is the right of man. Or so the story goes.
Democracy is in a bit of a pickle right now though. At least the good old fashion liberal humanist democracy based on the rights of humans and the governments mandate to serve their will is. Larry Diamond, director of Stanford’s Center for Democracy calls it a democratic recession. In his 2015 article in the Journal of Democracy, Diamond counts 25 democratic failures globally since 2000. And he’s a bit worried.
To be fair, each of the first two waves of democracy were followed by roll backs too. There seems to be a pattern of explosion and then a lesser give back. Diamond thinks there’s a little more to it this time though. Because in addition to an uptick in the failure of democracies around the globe, he’s seen a weakening of the effectiveness of historically strong democracies.
The most common way that 21st century democracies fail isn’t by revolution or coup or conquering by foreign powers. The most common path is “failures by executive abuse” that “involved the more gradual suffocation of democracy by democratically elected executives.”
“Leaders who think that they can get away with it are eroding democratic checks and balances, hollowing out institutions of accountability, overriding term limits and normative restraints, and accumulating power and wealth for themselves and their families, cronies, clients, and parties…In the process, they demonize, intimidate, and victimize opponents who get in their way.”
You can take this moment to call out Diamond’s Silicon Valley, academic elite bias poke at President Trump here. Or you can pause and realize that he wrote this before Trump declared his candidacy. Because these aren’t Trump things. These are autocratic things. Trump just does them. Diminishing the power of or even dissolving institutions that have taken centuries to develop that are required to govern a people effectively isn’t a Republican principle. Conservative use of government resources is. Destroying or delegitimizing institutions is a “strong man” game.
You can drain the swamp all you want. But if you replace it with yourself or your cronies, don’t look now, but you’re an autocrat.
I’ll spare you the hand wringing “we’re not safe from him” catastrophizing though. Because that’s really not my primary concern. I don’t think Donald Trump is the end of democracy in America. It’s too ingrained. I’m more worried that we’re just not good at it any more. And he’s the result.
With that in mind, this is what really keeps me up at night.
By the year 2030, China will have a larger economy than we do. Which means they will have more money, more people, more resources and if we’re not careful, more influence. You can choose to look at China one of two ways:
1-China is a developing country, with vast resources that is fast following America to economic prosperity and well on their way to growing an effective middle class. At some point, that middle class will develop a taste for Western democratic liberalism and eventually, some form of democratic, free market society. And then, the glorious American, Chinese friendship, built on trade and shared values, will hit full swing.
2-China is a nation with an uninterrupted 5,000-year history. They’ve been one unified government since before the birth of Christ. They have had a complex, centralized bureaucratic system since the days before ancient Greece and Rome. Though they’ve been conquered multiple times, their culture and education system has always absorbed the conquerors. Because even though their armies may have lost from time to time over thousands of years, their government and society didn’t.
Communism wasn’t the birth of the Chinese government. It was an innovation on the economic system of their existing one. The way that controlled free market capitalism is an innovation on that system. They have never been democratic. And they’re not going to be democratic, unless it suits them.
China has been as strong and advanced as any other country in the world for thousands of years save the two centuries after the industrial revolution, a time in which the Chinese refer to European and Japanese treatment of them as “a century of humiliation”. Edward Luce notes in his most recent book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, that the two proudest moments in recent Chinese history are the detonation of the hydrogen bomb in 1964 and the reclaiming of Hong Kong from the British in 1997.
If you’re wondering, I’m in camp 2.
Like it or not, our relative standing to China is likely to matter more over the next fifty years than any other aspect of our foreign policy. It’s immaterial if you think that our system of government is better than China’s. I believe it is. But it doesn’t matter. What matters to our future relevance and prosperity is that we be better at our system of government than they are at theirs. And right now, we’re not. It’s not close. And we’re not going to be under present leadership brought to us by the crippling identity based politics we’ve reduced ourselves to.
Guess which identity based politics China plays? China on one side, America and western liberal democracy on the other. And they can’t get enough of the shit show that is us right now.
“It is hard to overstate how important the vitality and self-confidence of U.S. democracy has been to the global expansion of democracy during the third wave. While each democratizing country made its own transition, pressure and solidarity from the United State and Europe often generated a significant and even crucial enabling environment that helped to tip finely balanced situations toward democratic change, and then in some cases gradually toward democratic consolidation. If this solidarity is now greatly diminished, so will be the near-term global prospects for reviving and sustaining democratic progress.”
That ride off into the sunset with our new best friend the democratic free market Chinese of the latter half of the 21st century is not particularly likely.
On our current trajectory, we’ve got about 15 years before we’re participating in the global socio-economic community at the leisure of the Chinese and not the other way around. You think we have a deep state? Take a look how deep you can dig when you’ve had 5,000 years and a billion shovels.
And we’re going to shut down our government to fund a wall. Maybe we should ask China. Though I doubt they’d remember. They got out of that business 2,300 years ago.