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The Crisis of Contemporary Democracy: The Hrant Dink Memorial Lecture

The Crisis of Contemporary Democracy:  The Fate of an Experiment in the Age of Nationalism, Populism, and Neo-Liberalism

Author – Ronald Grigor Suny, director of the Eisenberg Institute for Historical Studies

The Hrant Dink Memorial Lecture, Boğaziçi University, Istanbul, January 20, 2017

In English there are two words that we use to mark a past event.  One is “commemorate,” the other “celebrate.”  Today is undoubtedly a commemoration, for a terrible act of murder, a sacrifice of a life, occurred ten years ago.  But for us it is also a celebration, a celebration of that life, what it meant and has come to mean.  Hrant Dink has become something more than even he imagined himself to be in life, and we celebrate that.  I was privileged to know him, to witness his encompassing integrity.  His sincerity and courage, simplicity and inner power, was evident from our first meeting here in Istanbul in the office of the Armenian Patriarch. To those who knew him better, more intimately, he was, of course, a man, a human being, a fallible being with the whole collection of flaws, fears, along with those indelible qualities of generosity and courage that mark the best of us.  He was also a hero, a special kind of human being that today is needed more than ever.  He was a sincere democrat and believed that democracy was supremely valuable.  With true democracy, he believed, a structure can be built and a path laid out that makes possible the solution to the myriad problems and conflicts that exist in any society.  Today I want to talk about something that troubled Hrant and should trouble us as well:  the fragility of democracy and the ever present need for the struggle to preserve, enhance, indeed, recreate it.

In the gloom after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the richest and most powerful nation in history, a Turkish journalist wryly remarked to an American colleague, “Welcome to my country.”  That fellow could have as easily been a Russian journalist or a Hungarian or Polish one, forecasting the turn away from democratic norms, protections of minorities, freedom of expression, and tolerance of differences and toward greater executive power, popular authoritarianism sanctioned by populist revulsion toward the old ruling elites, the rise of chauvinistic nationalism, fundamentalist religion, and a coarsening of political language.  The evident recession in the progress of democracy, along with one of its most important components, the rule of law, in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and now the United States has alarmed many journalists, scholars, and ordinary citizens, and reminded historians of another slow entry into dark times almost a century ago.

Roland Grigor Suny

Democracy in my view is an experiment that might, if we are lucky, celebrate its third century of evolution sometime soon.  It has traveled a rocky past since the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century.  And even rockier one in the last twenty-five years.  Think about what most of you here tonight have witnessed since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.  After living through the triumphant optimism that marked the collapse of Communist-led regimes, many states in Europe and the Middle East have experienced relatively rapid political transitions, first from authoritarianism to democracy and later back again to some form of authoritarianism.  Those heady, optimistic days at the turn of the millennium have given way to a shared pessimism about the longevity and stability of democracy, doubts about the possibility of achieving real, lasting, liberal democracy.

A shift in the progress toward democracy occurred sometime in the mid-2000s, about ten years ago, and many states that had experienced partial democratization, among them notably Russia and Turkey, turned away from true representative government, protection of minorities, and constitutional restraints on executive power.  Among other states most immediately affected by the recession of democracy are Hungary, Poland, Egypt, Israel, the states of Central Asia, and Armenia.  In many of these countries leaders and elites have chosen to amplify executive power to the determinant of legislatures and an independent judiciary.  In ohers they have promoted nativist and nationalist exclusion of minorities and migrants.  Demogogic politicians, like the man being sworn in as president of my country today, exploit the economic distress of working people and their evident rejection of what for them were the empty promises of globalized capitalism. Fear is a powerful political emotion, and ambitious men are prepared to appeal to the fears of the population, whether prompted by terrorism or refugees or economic distress.  Simple, stark messages have become the language of politics; slogans triumph over careful argument.   Populist language deploys anti-elitist and anti-intellectual rhetoric, creating a suspicion of experts and even of science.

This mélange of causes and responses has fed in many countries a strengthening of the state and a recourse to repression.  Right-wing, anti-immigrant movements have affected even consolidated democracies like Denmark, Holland, France, and Germany among others.  The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election in 2016 appears to involve many of the same ingredients – alienation of dispossessed classes, fear of foreigners, attacks on journalism and science, and populist appeals.  This global erosion of democracy and the rise of popular demands for stronger executive power appear to be transnational, even global, rather than culturally or regionally specific.

How is this shift away from more liberal democracy to more populist, nationalist, and authoritarian regimes (often maintaining democratic forms and proclaiming that they are democracies) to be explained?  In this talk I will begin with both a history and a definition of what I understand to be the contemporary form of democracy — what might be called “actually existing democracy” or – the term I prefer — “bourgeois democracy,” the latter concept emphasizing the increased role of property, personal and corporate wealth as a factor undermining democratic choices.  I want to explore how discourses of politics and the language, practices, and images of leaders have managed to exploit the failures of democratic governments to deal with the colossal problems of income inequality, political polarization, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of lower and middle class people, and the fear of cultural loss posed by migration, the perceived threat from radical Islam, and more fundamentally the rapidity of change inherent in modernity.

My provisional hypothesis is that democracies have worked best – as in Scandinavia — –when combined with some form of state welfare and protection of the most vulnerable, a degree of social equality and access to impartial justice, and either relative homogeneity of the population or serious efforts to tolerate, include, and even promote diversity.  The shredding of social safety nets that has taken place with globalization have left more and more people exposed to the vagaries of neo-liberal capitalism.  Growing social and economic inequality threatens democratic choice.  Voters who fear the future and foreigners have turned to more conservative, nationalist, and radical right alternatives to liberal and social democratic parties, as is evident even in Western Europe and now the United States.

Democracies do worse in societies like Russia where unfettered capitalism reigns or where the wealthy and the politically powerful work together to enrich themselves and neglect public goods.  Democracies function best when effective institutions, impersonal relationships, and the rule of law control and limit personal ambition, corruption, nepotism, and patron-client relationships.  Authoritarian systems, on the other hand, are characterized by corruption, nepotism, and favors from patrons to clients that circumvent the law.

Too often an easy explanation for why democratic transitions have failed has placed the blame on ordinary people.  It has been asserted that Russians like authoritarian leaders or that Turks are blighted by the heritage of Islam.  My own investigations, along with many political scientists, focus primarily on the actions and ambitions of political elites.  The collapse of democracy begins from the top.  Democracy requires democrats, and if political elites opt for authoritarian or corrupt paths to power, ordinary people are often left defenseless.  While the social, political, economic, and international factors that contribute to the effectiveness of their appeals are fundamental to comprehending the current anti-democratic moment, the motivations, actions, and popular successes of leaders like Donald Trump, Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin, and others are central to any explanation of the current recession of democracy.

With the fall of the wall, the self-styled “socialist” world was de-socialized; shock therapy dismantled the statist economy, impoverished the majority of the people, and enriched the few who used political connections to become the new capitalists.  Borders opened; people now could travel; drugs and Aids flowed into the post-Soviet space; and a globalized circulation of educated, mobile women became a new source of sex trafficking. In some countries the market system was accompanied by democratic reforms, but in others a new kind of authoritarian capitalism or state capitalism became the norm.  With the end of the Cold War the whole world was integrated into a single accelerating global capitalism with the United States as the sole global economic and military superpower.  While people around the globe could not vote in American elections, whatever American voters in their own understanding and self-interest decided, especially in presidential and congressional elections, would have profound effects that reached even the most remote parts of the world.

The neo-liberal regime fostered by the United States and the major international financial and economic institutions usually denigrated the role of the state and touted the market as the provider of all relevant information and the most efficient means toward prosperity.  Government was not the solution, as Ronald Reagan said; it was the problem.  In reality the neo-liberals talked about rolling back the state, but their actual policies shrewdly, even cynically, used the state to reward the rich and punish the poor – through tax breaks for the rich, elimination of the welfare system, and the assault on organized labor.  This hypocrisy is nicely caught in the title of Dean Brown’s book, The Conservative Nanny State:  How the Wealthy Use the State to Get Rich and Stay Richer (Washington, DC, 2006).

If in the period up to the mid-1970s democracy and capitalism had been accompanied by greater social and economic equality, after the 1970s bourgeois democracy and neo-liberal capitalism were marked by greater economic inequality, stagnating social mobility, and a sense of loss of social standing.  Between 1988 and 2011 the richest tenth of the world’s population appropriated 46 percent of the global income growth.  While what we used to call “actually existing socialism” (that is, the regimes of the Soviet Bloc) essentially achieved a rough social and economic equality but crushed democracy, bourgeois democracy has maintained democratic procedures but crushed the essence of democracy by permitting “obscene levels of inequality” (to quote Bernie Sanders).[1]

After the economic bust hit Europe, the Right became the major beneficiary of the downturn.  In 2010 Orban won 53 percent of the vote and two-thirds of the seats in parliament, thus empowering Fidesz to make constitutional changes.  The first areas to suffer were the independence of the courts and freedom of the press.  Kim Schepple calls this the building of a “Frankenstate,” a combination of the worst features of government. Putin won his third election as president of Russia in 2012 and remained extraordinarily popular, with an approval rating above 80 percent, because people can see no alternative.  Jarosław Kaczyński’s party came to power in Poland in 2015 with a commitment to move Poland away from multiculturalism and liberalism.  A new illiberal orthodoxy was emerging:  democracy was not necessary for economic growth, it was proclaimed:  look at Singapore and China.  Liberalism was dividing society and undermining national traditions; a new holistic approach preserving national uniqueness was needed.

There are many reasons why it is rational at the moment to be worried about democracy’s political future.  Across established, consolidated democracies, recent research shows, citizens in North America, Russia, and Western Europe “have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.”[2]  The fall in faith in democracy and the rise in support for military rule or authoritarian leadership has most dramatically risen among wealthy people.[3]  To many working and middle class Americans liberalism and socialism are associated with redistribution of wealth and services to the lower classes, to undeserving minorities, and the better off resist with all their might such transfers.

Stalking Europe nowadays is not Communism but active illiberal parties that “see society as riven by a single cleavage between the vast majority and some ‘establishment’; they encourage polarization and reject compromise; and their belief that they represent the greater and best part of ‘the people’ makes them prone to intolerance of minorities, impatient with institutional legalities, and inclined toward raw majoritarianism.”[4] Trotsky once characterized Stalinism as “the syphilis of socialism.”  We might think of populism as the syphilis of democracy.  Populism is a particularly noxious form of democracy, a movement that is ostensibly democratic but uses democracy to appeal to the nationalist, nativist and illiberal voters and deploys flamboyant rhetoric with little regard for careful argumentation or even the truth.[5]  The danger comes if they win enough votes.  At that point their anti-liberalism and hostility toward governing elites may be much stronger than their belief in representative democracy.

Functioning democracy requires a different logic from the logics of warfare or of business.  Democracy involves not only negotiation and compromise, of accepting defeat in the anticipation that you might win later, but also that argumentation is effective, that reasoned discussion and logical persuasion can change minds.  We have lost something extraordinarily precious when fake news and conspiracy theories take over the public sphere.  The triumphant Trumpists believe that we live in a world in which facts don’t matter and lies can be effective, propagated through the mass and social media, and then denied that you had ever said them.  They understand, as we must, that lies are potent weapons against progress, science, and democracy.  They operate from what I will call a “business logic” – what sells is worthwhile, what is popular is valuable.  It is sales that matter, not the product.  This is a logic that is distinct and dangerous when it replaces the different logics of serious science, scholarship, and democratic politics.[6]

That business logic is nakedly personified in the larger-than-life figure of Donald Trump.  It would be wrong to conclude that Trump is not intelligent.  He is very intelligent in a particular way that has made him extraordinarily successful.  He is cunning, he is calculating, he is about what serves him, his Family, his Enterprises best, at any cost to others that is sustainable and within the law or what he can get away with. The current problem may be Trump and his cronies in the White House, but the fundamental problem of capitalist democracy long preceded Trump.  He is only the clearest, most naked manifestation of that deeper problem:  the overwhelming and growing power of men of greater wealth and property in and over government and the mass media; and the penetration of the business logic, the calculation of profit and individual and corporate gain over any sense of the common good.  That logic will be dominant in the next four years in a more extreme way that it has been in the last thirty or forty.

If you live long enough and pay attention, you learn the hard lesson that political solutions are provisional; they are temporary, never permanent.  Everything that the eight years of Obama’s presidency achieved can be quickly undone by the Trumpists who are coming to power today.  And we must believe that all the damage which Trumpism will create can also be undo in time, with sustained effort, good will, and determined resistance.  We must not mistake the present for the future.

Two hundred years after movements for democracy first emerged in modern times, the struggle continues.  Indeed at the moment, it needs to be intensified.  So, What is to be Done?  This talk, like the mood among liberals, democrats, progressives, and the Left more generally, is at the moment understandably dark and pessimistic.  But pessimism does not lead to movement and change.  Optimism is required; faith in the power and importance of democratic institutions and the rule of law; positive programs, even utopian thinking about possible alternatives, is needed.  Therborn in his most recent article in New Left Review wrote, “Against, or perhaps, more cautiously, alongside the sombre mood prevailing on the left, including the environmentalist left-of-centre, it can be stated that humankind today is at a historical peak of its possibilities, in the sense of its capability and resources to shape the world, and itself. Never has humankind faced its future with greater mastery of the world.”[7]  Optimism leads to action; pessimism leads to the right.[8]

The protest against business as usual in the United States did not only produce Trump but its opposite as well:  Bernie Sanders and a youth movement that was purposefully Left.  A significant number of young people seem to understand that bourgeois democracy is not enough, that a new social democracy is required.  A recent Harvard poll found that 47 percent of young adults ages 18 to 29 believe that “basic necessities, such as food and shelter, are a right that the government should provide to those unable to afford them.” Forty eight percent think “basic health insurance is a right for all people.”  A slight majority of so-called “Millennials” think positively about the idea of socialism.[9]

Movements need thinkers, organizers, leaders; they need heroes.  And one example is the man whom we have gathered to commemorate and celebrate today: Hrant Dink.  While he was vitally interested in setting the record straight on 1915, and believed that people and governments must be honest about their history, Hrant Dink was most interested in the movement for Turkish democracy.  Democracy in Turkey, he believed, would easily settle historical matters and educate people about what tragedies had befallen Armenians and others in the past.  Dink’s lack of fanaticism on this issue made him suspect to many of his compatriots abroad, though his outspokenness in the face of official sanction gave him a heroic aura.  The year before he was killed the Norwegians awarded him the Bjornson Academy Prize for protection of freedom of expression.

The paradox of Dink’s death is that he was killed in the name of a particularly narrow notion of patriotism while he was himself a fervent Turkish patriot.  His vision of his native country was of a modern democratic, tolerant state, the eastern edge of Europe, in which his own people, the Armenians, could live together with Turks, Kurds, Jews, Greeks and the other peoples who had co-existed, however uneasily, in the cosmopolitan empire out of which the Turkish Republic had emerged.  What he could not tolerate was the denial of the shared history of those peoples, a history that involved mass killing of Armenians and the continued repression of Kurds.  Dink was an active participant in the vital civil society in Turkey, key members of which have taken up the investigation of the blank spots of Turkey’s past.  Coming to terms with history is the first necessary step toward building a new democratic society.  Inclusion, not exclusion and isolation, give us the strength to imagine alternatives to the darkness that appears to be gathering around us.  Maybe for us older people our eyes are failing, so we turn to the younger among us who, inspired by a hero like Hrant Dink, can envision and struggle for a more humane, inclusive, and tolerant democratic future.

[1] I thank Lewis Siegelbaum for this point.  For recent figures on disparities of wealth in the world, see, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2017/01/16/world/europe/ap-eu-davos-inequality.html?_r=0

[2] Roberto Stean Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Democratic Discontent,” Journal of Democracy, XXVII, 3 (July 2016), p. 7.

[3] Ibid., p. 13.

[4] Takis S. Pappas, “Distinguishing Liberal Democracy’s Challengers,” Journal of Democracy, XXVII, 4 (October 2016), p. 31.  Some of the illiberal parties — like France’s National Front, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik (Better Hungary), Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, as well as a number of small “leftist” parties, remnants of the old Communist parties, which like the Russian Communist Party look more brown than red – openly anti-democratic as well.  To add to the mix are the most important nativist parties, which thrive in the most affluent states of Europe: the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ); the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV); the Danish People’s Party (DF); Norway’s Progress Party (FrP); the Sweden Democrats (SD); the Finns (PS, formerly known as the True Finns); the Swiss People’s Party (SVP); the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP); and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).  More moderate than the outwardly anti-democratic and nativist parties are the centrist, ostensibly democratic, but notably illiberal populist movements:  Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary, Robert Fico Smer-SD (Direction-SD) Party in Slovakia, Jaroslaw Kaczyñski’s Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland, and Racip Tayip Erdoğan’s AKP.  Left-wing populist parties, like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, are anti-capitalist but not anti-democratic.  Distinctions can be made between these parties, but they share many common features.

[5] Ibid., p. 32.  He concludes his article:  “Populism, which is the flipside and negation of political liberalism, is by far the most menacing challenger. As empirical research shows, it thrives where political institutions—especially the rule of law and safeguards for minority rights—are weak and where polarization and majoritarian tendencies are strong. In such environments, populist parties can be expected to win power via the ballot box and even to win reelection. Populism is so threatening because it has a contagious quality — the appearance and rise of a populist party will predictably push a country’s other parties in a populist direction—and because populism can lead to the decay of liberal institutions and the consolidation of illiberal polities. The ongoing success of populism in places such as Greece, Hungary, and, more recently, Poland provides a warning for all Europe.” (p. 35)

[6] This is an old struggle.  Consider the campaign of the tobacco industry in the United States, which sixty years ago formed a counter-truth to the scientific conclusion that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer.  They managed for a half century to confuse people and prevent legislation and efforts to curb smoking.  Tobacco executives perjured themselves before Congress; Vice President Mike Pence took money from those companies and declared proudly, “despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.”  Ultimately, after tens of thousands of people needlessly died and untold profits flowed into its coffers, Big Tobacco lost that battle, but others, like the sugar industry in its defense of high fructose corn syrup attacked scientists who showed the dangers of these products, or the giant oil company Exxon, which took up the cudgel against the scientific consensus that climate change is created by people and is a danger to future of life, human and otherwise, on this planet.  Climate change is a Chinese hoax, declared Donald Trump, and he confidently appointed the chairman of Exxon to become the next Secretary of State. [Ari Rabin-Havt, “Trump’s Outrageous Lies Come Straight from Big Business’ Playbook,” The Washington Post, December 16, 2016.  Rabin-Havt is the author of Lies Incorporated: The World of Post-Truth Politics (Penguin Random House, 2016).]

[7] Therborn, “An Age of Progress?”, p. 27.

[8] As David Runciman wrote, “The US is not a failed state.  How do we know? Because that’s what Trump said it was during the election campaign and he was lying. He portrayed his country as a place of failed institutions and widespread corruption, its inner cities racked with violence and its political class interested only in enriching itself. It would be a big mistake to think that he won because people believed him. Had they believed him they would hardly have voted for him: putting a man like Trump in charge really would spell the end for American democracy, because it would have left him free to do his worst. People voted for him because they didn’t believe him. They wanted change but they also had confidence in the basic durability and decency of America’s political institutions to protect them from the worst effects of that change. They wanted Trump to shake up a system that they also expected to shield them from the recklessness of a man like Trump.” [David Runciman, “Is This How Democracy Ends?” The London Review of Books, December 1, 2016, XXXVIIII, 23, pp. 5-6]

[9] The national Reason-Rupe survey revealed that 53 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds view socialism favorably, compared to only a quarter of Americans over 55. A YouGov survey in January 2016 found that 43 percent of those younger than 30 viewed socialism favorably, compared to 32 percent thinking favorably of capitalism.Emily Ekins and Joy Pullman, “Why So Many Millennials are Socialists,” The Federalist, February 15, 2016; http://thefederalist.com/2016/02/15/why-so-many-millennials-are-socialists/