Thursday, February 17, 2011

History of Democracy Question

Jamais Cascio seems to have suddenly returned to the blogosphere, and has a post worrying about various possible signs and indicators of decay in American democracy.  I've also been thinking a lot about democracy in light of events in the Middle East.  In particular, I have the impression that once democracy is well entrenched in a culture, it's actually very difficult to dislodge, and that US democracy will prove much more robust than Jamais worries.

Clearly, some autocratic countries become democratic briefly, and then lapse back into some form of autocracy.  The Weimar republic lasted from 1919 to 1933, for example, before Hitler effectively abrogated the constitution.  However, I can't think of any case, in the modern era, of a multi-generational democracy that has ever reverted back.  For example, Britain managed to lose an entire empire without ever any serious threat to its status as a democratic country.  Britain and the US made it through two world wars and a great depression without losing their democratic status.  Indeed the US managed to fight a civil war with itself, without either side actually giving up on the democratic form of governance.

So my question is this: what is the longest period that a country has been a democracy, and then reverted to some non-democratic form of government?  Let's confine it to the post-industrial revolution era.

Right now, the longest case I've found is Chile - if I'm understanding the history correctly, Chile was a democracy from 1932 to 1973 - 41 years - before the government was overthrown in a military coup.  Are there any cases more pronounced than that?


Prakash said...

I'm cheating a little here, but the imposition of emergency in India happened in 1975, which is 28 years after independence.

Also, the middle class is getting really restive in India right now. I won't be surprised if some kind of a coup by the military would enjoy popular support.

Mike Aucott said...

It seems to me the risk to democracy in the U.S. is not that there will be an official changeover to a dictatorship, junta, or monarchy. Instead, we could see an erosion towards a defacto oligarchy where the citizens vote, but their choices are limited to a ruling class whose agenda includes enhancing their priveleged status. The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of relatively few in the U.S. argues that a slide towards oligarchy is already underway.

Paul said...

I have to agree with Mike Aucott above. We ARE giving up democratic form of governance. Just not in a dramatic way.

Note what is happening during the current economic downturn. The Wall Street Banker part of our ruling elite act like a crime syndicate and seriously mess up the works. What happens? Wall Street gets bailed out! Huge bonuses flow unabated into the pockets of Blankfein, Dimon, and other financial grifters. Now who actually gets raked over the coals? Public employees who make in a year what some of the members of our elite make in a few hours.

In a true democracy this would not have occurred. What we have is a Potemkin Democracy where the non-democratic reality of our political system is hidden by a facade of enfranchisement. The reality consists of a non-responsive entrenched oligarchy who (1) buy legislation and, lately, rulings from the judiciary and (2) employ a propaganda system which prevents -- partially through mislabeling, demonization, ahistoricism, and distraction -- any real critiques of the status quo from becoming 'mainstream'.

If you want to get your blood boiling along these lines, check out:

Billy said...

Stuart is not getting any answers. But let me chime in anyway.

The US is not a democracy. Money and media determine who runs. Any true outsider has zero chance of participating in political discussion.

So holding an election does not mean democracy. Not in the US, Russia, or Iran.

Bytesmiths said...

I agree with Mike, Paul, and Billy.

If you define "democracy" as "letting people choose from two of the same," then yea, I guess the US qualifies.

But I don't call either of the George W (s)elections democratic.

The people with the money pick the candidates that will support them. Then the rest of the people get to pick from those carefully selected candidates.

Australian paediatrician Helen Caldicott said, "America is a one-party system with two right wings." Democracy in the US differs from that of the former Soviet Union only in that the US has one more pre-selected, status-quo candidate available. Big deal.

The US is a corporatocracy. Do you prefer the Big Oil candidate, or the Big Bank candidate? We had eight years under the Big Oil Party, and now we're enduring Big Bank Party. Any other choice (like Ralph Nader) is trivialized as "throwing your vote away."

So Stuart, I do not accept your major premise.

jaggedben said...

Saying that the US is not a democracy is a bit too much of an insult to those who live in countries where their right to vote and their personal freedom are quite a bit more limited.

It's not that critiques of the hollowness of the two party system in the US aren't apt (although it's amazing how much people are ready to blame the situation as if it were something outside them, rather than take responsibility for it and organize politically). It's just that this issue is only one among many that determine whether a country is a 'democracy'. America has many meaningful elections at the local and state level, including direct democracy in many places. Other equally important issues include basic personal freedoms, particularly the right not to be disappeared, and such things as the right to a fair trial. For the most part the US has these things (at least if you're white or live in a liberal metropolis), certainly much better than many places. Comparing the US to Iran is simply unreasonable.

Beyond that, quibbles about the last few elections (and I agree that Bush stole them, but he only could because they were close enough) are rather meaningless from historical perspective that Stuart is asking us to consider.

Stuart, I think Chile is probably the pick. I think from a historical standpoint, you're premise is basically on target. Once people get used to certain types of freedoms, it's much harder to take them away. The only thing I somewhat disagree with is limiting the discussion to the industrial period of history.