The most popular late 20th century political myth was that the world was headed irreversibly to ‘democracy’. Francis Fukuyama gave it iconic expression in his 1989 article ‘The End of History’. Democracy, argued Fukuyama, was the ‘end point of history’, and most of the world was already ‘post-historical’. Fewer share his confidence today. China and Russia, the two major post-Communist powers, have been surprisingly slow to ‘catch up’ politically; and the prospect of Islamic ‘democracy’ fills the secular west with horror.
Today’s optimists comfort themselves with such small advances as the start of village elections in China. In Russia, next year’s presumed solution to the problem of succession –Putin as Prime Minister, Zubkov as President –can be interpreted as a small step to pluralism.
In fact, the case for treating democracy as any kind of historical end point has always been flimsy.
In the first place, what do we mean by democracy? It lacks any clear or unambiguous definition. At its minimum it means rule by popular consent. In this sense, it is difficult to imagine any era which was not democratic. Consent was always something rulers sought, and if they failed to get it they paid a heavy price. The history of political society is punctuated by riots, rebellions, revolutions; the murder of incapable rulers, the reversal of unpopular policies. ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ was as true in Shakespeare’s time as it is in any contemporary democracy.
Western democracy evolved as a particular –and civilised – method of securing consent which avoided the arbitrary and bloody methods of the past, or at least relegated them to an ancillary role. Its rather unexpected virtue is its robustness. Democratic governments are usually strong because they know how much support they have. Autocracies are often weak, and subject to violent popular explosions, because they are ‘blind’ to movements of public opinion. But democracy is not all of a piece: the democratic principle may be embodied in different kinds of constitutions, (presidential v parliamentary), voting system (including weighted voting), decision-making rules (eg concerning use of referenda), and varying degrees of media freedom. Democracy may be a predominant element in a constitution or a subordinate one. It is absurd to think that the standard western model today is the end point of history.
Nor is the conventional view that the growth of a middle class is bound to lead to democracy historically well-based. This is historically shaky. Middle class revolts against autocracy have sailed under the banner of democracy. But once middle class demands have been conceded they tend to combine with the (weakened) ruling power in resisting further democratic inroads. This was the pattern of bourgeois Europe from 1848 to 1918. In the end the autocracies were overthrown by military defeat, not by popular demands.
What the middle class typically want is stability and constitutionalism, and often more the first than the second. We should never forget that General Pinochet received 44 per cent of the vote when he stood for President in Chile in 1988 After eleven years of military dictatorship.
Classical representative democracy is probably on the wane in its European and American homelands. In all the main countries personal rule has been strengthened. History would have recognised leaders like Bush and Blair as elected Caesars, puffed up by the media, thinly controlled by parliaments, cabinets, judges. Political parties have withered as the great social fault lines which gave rise to them have disappeared. Their place has been largely usurped by the media and civil society groups. Western democracy is not dead, but it is dying. This makes it all the more surprising that we want to force it on the rest of the world.