In an interesting article, TNR’s Joshua Kurlantzick notes that, despite the ongoing existence of vibrant democracies in places like India and South Korea, Asian democracy in general seems to be on the decline. Perhaps someone could make the contrary case, highlighting democratic advances in Asia and explaining Kurlantzick’s examples as exceptions or slight and temporary deviations from the “path” to democracy. If Kurlantzick is broadly correct about the downward trend of democracy in Asia, however, it’s an important observation.
I’d reverse the order and emphasis of Kurlantzick’s explanations for democratic weakening, putting the influence of American foreign policy last, and highlighting factors internal to various Asian countries as the central issue. As Kurlantzick notes, politicians in many Asian countries “tend to view democracy as merely elections.” The result is that, in the absence of a genuinely liberal democratic culture, elections become mere excuses for one party to seize the “spoils of the state” and distribute them through patronage networks. These networks, like social organization itself in many Asian countries, are deeply hierarchical, and subordinate the individual to the group.
India and Japan show that countries with hierarchical and group-oriented cultures can become democracies. Yet in cases like this, there seem to be specific cultural or historical reasons for democratic development. India had a long democratic tutelage under the British, and Hindu traditions of non-violent protest (which Gandhi drew upon) almost certainly helped as well. Japan has historically been eager to adapt institutions from other cultures, and the disinterested bureaucratic ethos of its samurai heritage helped stimulate democratic development. So it’s not impossible to build democracy in Asian states where the underlying culture emphasizes group, rather than individual, identity. But it is difficult.
As apolitical peasant publics in traditionally hierarchical cultures are activated by spreading education and globalized communications, it’s seems every bit as likely that they will tend toward authoritarian rule as democratic. In this respect, the Muslim world may be less an isolated exception to the spread of democracy than a leading indicator of a broader shift away from superficial, elections-based democracy across many culturally “group-oriented” societies. Instead of political trail-blazer for the world, the individualist West could turn out to be the great democratic exception. Obviously, it’s too early to tell. But Kurlantzick’s piece raises intriguing (and disturbing) possibilities. Whatever the final outcome, we need to start taking culture more seriously as both a barrier to, and a facilitator of, the spread of democracy.