The Unreasonable Expectations of Democracy

There’s a few interesting comments on Arab Spring pessimism on the interwebs today. Here, writing in Foreign Affairs (stifle that yawn), Sheri Berman makes some interesting historical comparisons of political transformations, and points toward the unreasonable expectations many critics have placed on the world’s most recent democracy newborns.

In addition to blaming new democratic regimes for the sins of their authoritarian predecessors, critics also set absurdly high benchmarks for success, ones that lack any historical perspective. They interpret post-transition violence, corruption, confusion, and incompetence as signs that particular countries (or even entire regions or religions) are not ready for democracy, as if normal democratic transitions lead smoothly and directly to stable liberal outcomes and countries that stumble along the way must have something wrong with them. In fact, stable liberal democracy usually emerges only at the end of long, often violent struggles, with many twists, turns, false starts, and detours.

These troubles, moreover, are not a bug but a feature — not signs of problems with democracy but evidence of the difficult, messy process of political development through which societies purge themselves of the vestiges of dictatorship and construct new and better democratic orders. Stable liberal democracy requires more than just a shift in political forms; it also involves eliminating the antidemocratic social, cultural, and economic legacies of the old regime. Such a process takes lots of time and effort, over multiple tries. Historically, most initial transitions have been the beginning of the democratization process, not the end of it — something that the tortured histories of today’s mature liberal democracies make clear.

In a similar vein, and editorial published by The Daily Star points out that some achievements of the Arab Spring are irreversible, creating a new (but obviously not perfect) playing field upon which civic demands and public discontent are new forces to be reckoned with.

After decades of being in the shadows, Arab publics and their actual political orientations are becoming clearer and clearer. In the past, one might have spoken in vague or general terms about political, religious and sectarian divisions in a given country, but these days, this situation is becoming clearer with every passing day. (…)

People in a number of Arab states are rapidly gaining the practical experience needed to put forward their demands and declare their core principles. Political leaders have less room to maneuver because they are facing increasing pressure to respond to the public.

As people have seen in Egypt, a political party founded by invoking religion enjoys no guarantee that it can avoid criticism when it takes power. The general mood in the Arab world, thanks to the popular uprisings, is that no person or group is exempt from accountability. The wall of fear that used to exist in this part of the world is either rapidly disappearing, or has vanished entirely.

I say let’s give it another 20 years and see where we are.