Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Liberal democracy

Karl Marx argued that class struggle would result in a classless society. Similarly, liberals have argued that capitalism and liberal democracy would eventually be so successful and popular that everyone would want to live in a liberal, capitalistic society.

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama published a book, The End of History and the Last Man asserting that "the West" was the culmination of human cultural evolution.

What happened to that idea? Will everyone end up in a liberal, capitalistic society?

Are Western Values Losing Their Sway?
THE West is suddenly suffused with self-doubt.

Centuries of superiority and global influence appeared to reach a new summit with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the countries, values and civilization of the West appeared to have won the dark, difficult battle with Communism.

That victory seemed especially sweet after the turn of China toward capitalism, which many thought presaged a slow evolution to middle-class demands for individual rights and transparent justice — toward a form of democracy. But is the embrace of Western values inevitable? Are Western values, essentially Judeo-Christian ones, truly universal?

The history of the last decade is a bracing antidote to such easy thinking. The rise of authoritarian capitalism has been a blow to assumptions, made popular by Francis Fukuyama, that liberal democracy has proved to be the most reliable and lasting political system…

But couple the tightening of Chinese authoritarianism with Russia’s turn toward revanchism and dictatorship, and then add the rise of radical Islam, and the grand victory of Western liberalism can seem hollow, its values under threat even within its own societies…

“Nineteen-eighty-nine was perceived as the victory of universalism, the end of history, but for all the others in the world it wasn’t a post-Cold War world but a post-colonial one,” said Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria…

It seemed to many in Asia and Africa to be the end of Western ideological supremacy, given that liberalism and Communism are both Western creations with universal ambitions…

Even Russia argues both for exceptionalism (“the third Rome”) and for its own more perfect representation of Western civilization, claiming that the West is self-interested, decadent and hypocritical, defending universal values but freely ignoring them when it pleases…

In its rejection of Western liberal values of sexual equality and choice, conservative Russia finds common cause with many in Africa and with the religious teachings of Islam, the Vatican, fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews.

Extreme interpretations of religion, especially in areas of great instability and insecurity, can be a comforting or inspiring response to the confusions of modern life, and can soon become an enemy to religious freedom and tolerance for others, notes Robert Cooper [a British diplomat]…

There is much confusion about democracy in any case, argued Jacques Barzun, the cultural historian, in 1986. “A permanent feature of American opinion and action in foreign policy is the wish, the hope, that other nations might turn from the error of their ways and become democracies,” he wrote. But democracies differ, he said, and asked: “What is it exactly that we want others to copy?”

The essence of democracy, he said, is popular sovereignty, implying political and social equality. Easier said than done, given the tendency of governments and elites to presume they speak for the inarticulate masses.

That is a caution echoed recently by William J. Burns, head of the Carnegie Endowment and a former deputy secretary of state…

“Our own preachiness and lecturing tendencies sometimes get in the way, but there is a core to more open democratic systems that has an enduring appeal,” he said. That core is “the broad notion of human rights, that people have the right to participate in political and economic decisions that matter to them, and the rule of law to institutionalize those rights.”

The result “doesn’t have to look like Washington, which may be for the good,” Mr. Burns said. “But a respect for law and pluralism creates more flexible societies, because otherwise it’s hard to hold together multiethnic, multireligious societies.”

That’s what the Arab world will be wrestling with for a long time as old state systems crumble, he added…

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