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.
But a couple of other points should be taken into account before this cavalcade of gloom rolls much farther: Undemocratic countries aren’t doing very well either. No one is really pointing even to China, let alone dismal political burlesques such as Iran or North Korea, with envy or even respect, such as Bernard Shaw and Nancy Astor expressed in their pilgrimages to Stalin, or Oswald Mosley and Ezra Pound did of the fascists, in the Thirties. And appalling, vulgar, and broken-down though much of our societies are, they are not irreparable. What we seem to have is an economic problem compounded by a cultural problem. The economic system is less responsive and inspires more doubts about its sustainability than at any time since the Thirties. And it is hard to banish the suspicion, because it may well be true, that the level of public entertainment, the quality of the principal informational media, the effectiveness of the public education systems, and the reliability of the legal and judicial and correctional systems, despite immense increases in funding and endless calls for reform and radical improvement, are greatly worse than they were 20 or 40 or even 60 years ago.
All these woes are very serious and widely demoralizing, but they don’t so much impugn democracy as the long-entrenched and psychologically very necessary notion of progress. No sane person who is now audible proposes a better system of government; it is just that what we have isn’t working as well as we came to expect when democracy had rivals. We are now in the midst of an often absurd and generally debilitating effort to talk ourselves into an economic recovery. It is obvious that there is really no recovery in any traditionally recognizable terms. The best that can be said is that perhaps the rise in taxation and the python-like encroachment of the coils of red tape have caused large parts of the economy to cease to report. This happens when a free people is labored in the name of redistribution of wealth from those who have earned the money to those who have not, beyond what can be reasonably justified (and in implicit exchange for the votes of the self-interested, pseudo-conscientious majority).
Apart from Germany and its bloc of adjoining kindred states on the Baltic; the Czechs, Dutch, and Austrians; the strongest resource economies, such as Canada and Australia; and a few smaller states such as Norway and Singapore, the world is a bubble, economically. There is no real recovery because the economy is not being encouraged toward recovering lost manufacturing, and toward reducing redundant service occupations that are a taxation on added economic value (in, e.g., the financial industry, with its exaggerated emphasis on the velocity of money, and its shuffling of resources in indifferent deals between smart and less smart — or at least unlucky — investors); and because there is endless tinkering, especially mutated Keynesian inflation, to deal with the deflationary impact of decades of debt-financed consumption of instant pleasure and non-durable assets.
And there is crony capitalism, as in the green-energy industry, which is largely bogus, since there is no evidence that man influences climate change or that that change is actually warming. This involves not just boondoggles like Solyndra, but General Electric and other serious companies’ making windmill blades and the like. It extends to the fiasco of the Keystone pipeline, where an obvious advance in the oil-supply network has been deferred to the benefit of the railways, in particular the Burlington Northern, owned by that most ostentatious of all Obamans, Warren Buffett, the administration’s wealthiest and most reliable (and most self-serving) corporate parrot. There are other examples, including the reshaped banking industry, which still has thousands of vulnerable little banks, but is now dominated by four giants (CitiGroup, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo); and the mortgage industry, which has been largely nationalized through the bankrupt Fannie and Freddie and has subsidized not the struggling homeowner, but the crooked building trades, the speculator in tanked sub-prime mortgages, the buyer of bunches of speculative residential units at minimal down payments and mortgage rates, and the recklessly stupid banks. Another manifestation of crony capitalism is Obamacare, ardently supported by managed-care companies, which gain from it.
All this is in a society that is now far out ahead of the Europeans and Japanese in permanently diluting the currency: All downward or stagnant economic fluctuations will be addressed by more frantic priming of the money spigot. The debasement of the Western currencies which began with World War I (an act of civilizational suicide), accelerated with the abandonment of the domestic gold standard in 1933, and crested with Nixon’s demonetization of gold internationally in 1971, has now eliminated almost every hard currency in the world. This confession of moral, and possibly financial, bankruptcy, cannot be much longer deferred. Everyone except the rich is now strapped in the U.S., and this manifests itself everywhere, from the organ harvester hustling the next of kin of the deceased in hospital waiting rooms, to brokers and hucksters selling everything that isn’t nailed down, to politicians selling out to every interest group and doing its bidding. Democracy has been subsumed into the sleaziest version of the pecuniary society.
It will all end, at least on its present scale of almost universal aeration of values, and with a bang as well as a whimper, but it will be a reaffirmation of democracy, not its downfall. The people never asked for or knowingly acquiesced in this. It isn’t democracy that has had its day; it is the perversion of democracy.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and the recently published A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected].