In an interview in the Wall Street Journal of April 27, eminent classicist and historian Donald Kagan suggested that democracy “has had its day.” Though apparently tossed off casually, this is a worrisome thought from a serious source. It is a commonplace to think that democracy is the only defensible form of government and difficult to make a case for an alternative one, as opposed to merely slagging off democracy for all its failings, but within the living memory of many people, including Professor Kagan, it was otherwise. In the Thirties, it was widely believed that Nazism and fascism were more “dynamic,” and that Communism was fairer and less corrupt, than democracy. Individual national dictators were widely admired, such as Mussolini before he became a lackey of Hitler, and a militaristic buffoon plunging into defenseless countries and putting on the airs of a Caesar. Hitler and Stalin had distressingly large numbers of admirers in the West. More plausibly, Kemal Ataturk remains greatly admired, in Turkey and elsewhere. Even after the war, Marshal Tito was much admired, though this was partly because he defied both Hitler and Stalin (consecutively).
There was no more democracy in the world in the more grim moments of World War II than there had been at the end of the American Revolution: the Americans, the British, some British Empire or Commonwealth peoples, the Swiss, the Finns, and the Swedes. The French, Dutch, Belgians, Danes, and Norwegians had reasonable expectations of a renascence of democracy if the Nazi occupiers were driven off, and there were democrats in Germany and Italy. But in both those countries, and even in France, democracy had been a fragile and revocable system.
Once the United States accepted that it was engaged in a worldwide struggle with the Soviet Union and international Communism, it presented the contest as one between democracy, “the Free World,” and totalitarian, Godless Communism. Never mind that the Free World included all the one-party states and juntas of Latin America, with generals and admirals who had never fired a shot in anger outside a boudoir or officers’ club but were so draped in medals and regalia they could hardly support their tunics. Nor did we much focus on the presence in our free ranks of Franco, Salazar, Syngman Rhee, the Shah, the House of Saud, and many others whose democratic credentials were dubious, to say the least. It was a masterly strategy and it worked. The combination of the end of colonialism (which caused the emergence of vast if imperfect democracies such as India), the advances of underdeveloped and often war-ravaged countries (including Spain, South Korea, and Israel), and the implosion of Communism brought democracy to scores of countries, and often very hardy and virtuous versions of it. This has been, by far, America’s greatest gift to the world, and no one, especially not the self-hating Americans who are so vocal now, should forget it.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1992, democracy had triumphed in the whole world; even if China was an authoritarian country, it was less capriciously and oppressively so than it had been, and was becoming steadily more prosperous, a trajectory that generally leads to expanded political liberty (though it did not in Bismarckian Germany). Noted academic Francis Fukuyama famously speculated that we had arrived at “the end of history,” that political development, as if by operation of the Hegelian dialectic, had produced the ultimate stage of political evolution, the ne plus ultra of political society. That was only 20 years ago, and it seems unduly pessimistic for Donald Kagan to suggest that having scaled the pinnacle, we are already slipping back down the precipice.
It is true that most of the major democracies are beleaguered, lacking substantial élan or motivation, sluggish, self-critical, and often awash in commercial tawdriness and political infantilism, backbiting, and posturing. Societies, like individual people, tend to do better when responding to a challenge, and Churchills, Roosevelts, Lincolns, Washingtons, and de Gaulles, and even Thatchers and Reagans, do not generally seek or at least gain the highest offices within the gift of their countrymen unless there are severe crises requiring courageous and inspiring leadership.