Over the past few months, we have worried a great deal about the fragility of democracy. From the United States and Brazil to Sweden and Italy, the system seemed to be facing real challenges. In fact, in all of these cases, elections have had the effect of taming many of the most illiberal forces, and, at least for now, the center has held. Meanwhile, we are seeing signs of deep and structural weaknesses in some of the world’s most powerful autocracies.
The most striking example is China, where an extraordinary wave of protest is confronting the powers that be. At the heart of the problem is the unwillingness of the central government to change course on covid-19 policy. This is a problem inherent in dictatorships, where decision-making is closed, hierarchical and unaccountable. Unlike autocrats, democratic leaders face persistent pressure to change policy. There is loud and noisy criticism of the government. Outside experts and observers present alternative strategies. Leaders know they face elections, so if things aren’t working out, policies have to change — or else they will be changed.
These problems have become harder in modern societies. Consider the difference between China during the student-led Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 and today. In the late 1980s, the number of college-educated, urban Chinese was probably in the few millions. Today, more than 200 million Chinese people have a college education, and they have smartphones and know how to use them. Even the legendary “great firewall” — with its army of 2 million censors — struggles to keep up with the torrent of images and messages being created on Chinese social media. In recent years, we have tended to focus on the many problems caused by social media. We have forgotten that the fundamental effect of these new technologies is to empower individuals.
In Russia we see how a similarly closed and unresponsive decision-making process can lead to disaster. As a result of President Vladimir Putin’s war, his country is becoming increasingly isolated and impoverished. Putin recently mobilized 300,000 reservists, many reluctant to fight in Ukraine. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their homeland — including many of the highly skilled and educated people whom Russia needs for its future. Democracies do go to war, even pointless and costly wars, but always amid dissent and debate. And for those who oppose the war, there remains always the reasonable hope that the policy — or the policymaker — can be changed.
In Iran, we see a theocratic autocracy determined to maintain its ideological control of the country. Iran’s ruling elites believe that their fundamentalist version of Islam must be enforced — or else they will go the way of the Soviet commissars. By contrast, liberal democracies don’t try to impose preferred ideologies on their populations. This approach has sometimes been caricatured as value-neutral, but it is not. At its core is the deep, abiding belief that human beings should have the freedom to choose their own personal form of happiness — and respect that others will have their own definitions of a good life.
Autocracies can seem impressive for a while because they can be steady, consistent and ruthless in reaching goals. But they face a fundamental challenge: They struggle to accommodate themselves to a changing society. (China was an exception for a while, having created a rare form of dictatorship that was consensus-based, technocratic and responsive, but under Xi Jinping, it has reverted to something closer to the autocratic norm.) So the autocrats’ reflexive response to change is repression, which can work for only so long.
It is astonishing to remember that when America’s Founding Fathers were constructing their experiment in government, they were virtually alone in a world of monarchies. These politicians were drawing on the writings of Enlightenment intellectuals such as Montesquieu and John Locke, studying historical examples from ancient Greece and Rome, and embracing key elements of English governance and common law. But they were mostly making it up in their heads. They had failures; their first effort, the Articles of Confederation, collapsed. In the end, however, they concocted something stunning: a system that protected individual rights, allowed for regular changes in leadership, prevented religious hegemony, and created a structure flexible enough to adapt to massive changes.
Democracy is fragile in its own way, but this is a good moment to consider its strengths. This abstract idea of government largely created by the United States, borrowed over the years by countless other nations, refined and improved in various ways, has spread across the world in countries rich and poor, European, Asian, Latin American and African. It has stood the test of time for two and a half centuries. Does anyone think that the Russian or Chinese or Iranian systems will endure as long? Winston Churchill has surely been vindicated in his belief that democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others.