Is democracy broken: a moment symposium.

Author:Cooper, Marilyn


meaning that there would be "the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." It was a heady time. The Berlin Wall was poised to fall, the Soviet Bloc was collapsing and the United States had become the world's unrivaled superpower. Fast forward to 2017; Great Britain's imminent departure from the European Union, the growing clout of authoritarian states such as Russia and China, the destabilizing exploits of ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups, and the ascendancy of a new American president dominate the headlines. The once-glowing promise of emerging democracies as diverse as Poland, Thailand and South Africa has given way to the challenges of globalization. War and chaos in the Middle East have contributed to a backlash of right-wing nationalism that is in full swing on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia.

The state of democracy is of paramount importance to world Jewry: Historically, Jews have fared better in democracies than under any other form of government. This has been especially true in the U.S. because "the central documents of the American Republic assure Jews of liberty--the founding fathers, whatever they personally thought of Jews, gave them full equality," says American historian Jonathan Sarna. "Anti-Semitism is foreign to American ideals."

Is democracy broken, and if it is, what can we do about it?

Moment asks an array of scholars, journalists and activists from the U.S. and abroad to weigh in. Their answers show that there is cause for both hope and concern.


Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Few observers would deny that democracies are in decline, but we need to remember that democracy is always difficult. From the very beginning, the classical Greek philosophers worried about the tendency of wealth inequality to transform democracy into oligarchy, and about the risk that demagogues would use the freedoms afforded by democracy to install tyranny.

It's important to understand that when we talk about democracy, we have to mean something more than a ritual wherein people go out and vote. One way that democracies are now undone is by preserving the formal appearance and procedures of democracy--the voting--while removing the checks and balances, rule of law and other essential elements of free polities. Voting at that point has no substance, but the ritual of voting remains a source of legitimacy.

It's also important to remember that democratic outcomes do not automatically preserve democratic systems. It can happen, and does happen from time to time, that governments are legally formed by leaders who were democratically elected--and who intend to destroy democracy. Hider's National Socialist party did very well in the elections of November 1932, which meant that he could be chosen to form a government. Nazi Germany is an extreme variant of how things can go wrong, but it happens fairly regularly that people come to power by legal means and then start to destroy the rule of law.

It's hard for Americans to grasp that our democracy could fail and what would happen if it did. We take certain tilings for granted as if they were the air that we breathe. Everything could change very quickly, and it is changing very quickly. And with change will come a kind of pain that we also do not know. The end of democracy will mean the total ruination of what we regard as a free and private life. If our democracy failed, you would suddenly find that nothing would work the way you want it to. You would worry about everything you say and whether someone will report you. You would think and overdrink every word you say in every conversation. All your relationships, except for the very closest ones, would go away. You would constantly wonder if you should stay in your country or move somewhere else. This would be miserable for a while, but sadly, people would get used to it. Children and grandchildren would grow up in the United States without any idea of what it means to be free. That's why you have to fight back at the very beginning.

People who want to destroy democracies try to make the situation seem vast, imponderable and overwhelming in order to win emotionally, so it's important not to feel depressed or dismayed. You need to find something you understand and care about, a spot where you believe you can make a difference. Find other people and groups who also know and care about that thing, and then work on it together. We cannot all do everything, but we can all do something. If you really believe in freedom, you have to stop yourself from automatically adjusting to the new situation. You must not obey in advance. Freedom means pausing, getting vour bearings and thinking for yourself.


Azar Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and was formerly on the faculty at the University of Tehran, She is currently the director of the Dialogue Project at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University.

I have witnessed that freedom and democracy are very fragile; you cannot take them for granted. Our democracies are in crisis. It is not simply an economic or political crisis; it is a crisis of vision, values, principles and faith. That is what I saw happen in Iran. At the beginning of the 20th century, Iran was the first country in the Middle East to have a constitutional revolution against its absolutist monarchy, and it became a secular state. At the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had very progressive laws regarding women, and women participated in all walks of life. In 1963, my own mother was among a small number of women to sit in the Iranian parliament. But by the end of the 20th century, the Ayatollah Khomeini brought back the clerical edicts and laws that had been rejected a century before. Like all authoritarian regimes, the first thing it did was target women, minorities and culture. How these three are treated is a measure of the degree to which authoritarianism is practiced; their persecution and oppression are signs that democracy and freedom are in decline.

A group of extremists took over my country and, in the name of Iran and the Islamic religion, claimed that thousands of people like me were irrelevant. They regarded us as alien because of what we believed, what we felt, how we expressed ourselves and the way we looked. Suddenly, the religion into which I had been born and the traditions I had always cherished also became alien.

Iranian women, especially the poets and writers, led the resistance. We participated in mass demonstrations, but our experiences were very different from that of American women during the recent march on Washington. The way women look in Iran has become a semiotic sign of their position on the state. Women resisted the fatwas and went to the streets not properly wearing the hijab, with colorful makeup on and publicly holding hands with their boyfriends. They shouted, "Freedom is neither Eastern nor Western; freedom is global." They were jailed, humiliated, tortured and even killed as a result. I hear the echoes of their shouts here now in Washington, DC. The repression did not work on them. They came back to the streets and did it all again.

Freedom of expression and individual rights are something that cannot be taken for granted. Great American writers and thinkers have long warned that in a democracy, people become too complacent, too selfish and greedy. The West is now threatened with atrophy of feeling and a culture of sleeping consciousness, in which religion and core American values are discussed through sound bites. I am concerned that Americans have become blind to the fragility of their freedoms.


Larry Diamond is the director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Hoover Institute. He is the author of The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World and the coeditor of Democracy in Decline?

There is a much more vigorous and clear trend toward decline than there was even two years ago. Not only is democracy now in recession in developing and post-communist countries, but liberal democracies--Europe and the United States, countries that are at the core of the global democratic system--are now in defensive positions. For the first time since the end of World War II, we see serious challenges to basic liberal democratic values such as freedom of the press, freedom of movement and tolerance for minorities. These are very worrisome trends. Simultaneously, there has been a common phenomenon of the rise of right-wing, illiberal parties with clear nativist anti-immigrant and anti-pluralist agendas.

According to studies done by groups such as Freedom House, for the past ten years more countries have been declining in freedom in a given year than have been gaining. This reverses the pattern in the post-Cold War period between 1991 and 2005, when more countries were gaining in freedom than declining. In recent years, many more countries have had their democracies fail than have been transitioning to become democracies. We are seeing an acceleration of that decline in places such as Turkey, Thailand, Nicaragua, Bangladesh and other developing and post-communist countries.

I'm concerned about the trend in the United States toward political polarization and legislative gridlock; this speaks to the functionality of American democracy and ultimately to citizens' views about the desirability of democracy. If we have a long period of time when democracy seems unable to produce viable solutions to our problems, then citizens' assessments of government will suffer.

The problem of polarization is not just a matter of the amount of legislation passed but of respect for established norms...

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