Democracy & Its Discontents

February 23, 2010 Topics: Democracy Regions: Americas

Democracy & Its Discontents

Mini Teaser: The inevitability of republicanism as the answer to infinite governmental woes seemed clear. Yet the belief that the world abhors an ideological vacuum was mistaken.

by Author(s): John Dunn

John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 992 pp., $35.00.

John Kampfner, Freedom for  Sale: Why the World Is Trading Democracy for Security (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 304 pp., $27.95.


FEW CONTRIBUTIONS to The National Interest can have matched the impact of Francis Fukuyama's 1989 proclamation of "The End of History." In that trenchant essay he captured a historical moment and launched a stellar career. Rather less gratifying in the longer run, he also did much to set his stamp on America's national agenda abroad for the next decade and a half. His was a deft inversion of John Locke's distant vision: "in the beginning all the world was America." In the End, with the Cold War no more and the dream of socialism vanishing swiftly over the horizon, the world was at last ready to recognize that it had no other eligible destination or option but to do its faltering best to become America. It had to reconcile itself to embracing, on pain of inanition, chaos or barbarism, not America's distinctive culture and self-assurance or its widely envied levels of material comfort, but its hallowed form of government, and above all, its cherished and endlessly honed diagnosis of the special merits of that form.

It was never clear that this was quite the lesson which Fukuyama himself intended his readers to draw. Its lengthier rendition as a book three years later, The End of History and the Last Man , was a more ambitious, more archaic and less incisive conception, with a distinctly less resolute denouement. But the moral drawn by his audience, both by admirers and open foes, remained simple and triumphalist. America had inherited the earth and done so in the last instance because, through its economic, cultural and eventually military victories, it uniquely deserved to do so. A peculiar and blessed historical privilege had become the inheritance of mankind.


THIS WAS plainly a misjudgment, but it rested on two compelling apprehensions, one central to the argument of article and book alike, and the other implicit in each and widely shared by their American audiences. The first was that the protracted struggle to build a society which preserved all the achievements of capitalism while categorically rejecting the forms of ownership which had made these possible had failed definitively. The second was the intimate historical relationship between the progress of democracy as a political idea on the world stage and the history of the United States as an independent nation-state.

[amazon 0465015395 full] John Kampfner's Freedom for Sale and John Keane's far larger and more adventurous volume The Life and Death of Democracy have markedly different purposes, but each is also an attempt to cut Fukuyama's vision down to size and take the measure of the perturbing decades in between. Amongst their many other sources, each takes the precaution of recording an interview with their renowned predecessor and target. Kampfner's is a hastier affair. It makes appreciably fewer demands on the reader but offers less to think about in return. Kampfner himself is a successful print and television journalist who can write sharply as well as vividly. A relatively effective editor of the fading London left-wing political weekly the New Statesman , now some decades past its heyday, he can draw on friends and willing interlocutors in every ranking world capital, with enviable access to the powerful as well as the clever and entertaining. His travels here cover Singapore, China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Italy (inevitably Berlusconi), Britain (predominantly surveillance cameras but with plenty of dispraise for New Labour's insouciance about civil liberties) and the United States. His principal thesis is simple: most people in most places, when offered the choice, will sacrifice most of their own liberty (and virtually all of other people's) with very little hesitation in return for gratifying levels of personal consumption. Put tersely, this mildly defamatory characterization of the species is plausible enough; but it does little to illuminate the equation of political forces anywhere in particular. If you wish to find a common formula for why most of the British who have even noticed the recent proliferation of CCTV cameras have passively accepted this turn of events, or why most of the Chinese population appears still resigned to the continued rule of the Communist Party, this seems as good a candidate as any. It casts very little light on the circumstances or grounds which might prompt either group, sooner or later, to change its mind. Freedom for Sale is an easy and enjoyable read. It has little to contribute to political judgment.

[amazon 0393058352 full] The Life and Death of Democracy has far grander ambitions and takes itself (and a great deal else) altogether more seriously. Over ten years in the making, it concludes with warm acknowledgements to over two hundred scholars, journalists and political figures, many very eminent, and to libraries, museums, think tanks, universities and funding agencies in over a dozen countries, from Iran and Venezuela to the United States, Germany and Portugal. It has a plethora of theses which come round again and again, like luggage on a carousel, in varying degrees of repair. Its strongest claim, which also gives it its main focus, is to tell, effectively for the first time, the history of democracy as a single, connected global experience with unmistakably global implications. In announcing "The End of History," Fukuyama very prudently made no attempt to tell any of it, but he did commit himself to peering forward into the future. Keane by contrast is eager to do belated justice to democracy's long history, and confidently and resolutely extends its conventionally conceived boundaries a very long way in time and space. He is deeply convinced of its continuing weight and value in the present, but has no coherent idea of how to measure that weight, still less to judge what it implies for humanity in the decades to come.


ALAS, WE have made disconcertingly little headway in gauging democracy's grip on the future, and the citizens of the United States have found it painfully difficult to distinguish its honored role in defining their historical identity from its altogether more elusive bearing on their national interests across the globe. Democracy in America is a long and often exhilarating story of aspiration and achievement, with a remarkable capacity to renew itself across the generations. In the far and often starkly alien abroad, it has frequently proved a distressing hostage to fortune. In ringing the death knell of socialism (and its not-too-distant and far-more-often-implemented cousin, communism) as a world-conquering ideology, Fukuyama was surely right, whether or not his expectations of the political futures of Russia or China were fuzzy or overoptimistic at the time. But there are other-and on the whole, more insistent-means for conquest besides ideology. As Kampfner helpfully underlines, the vector of any durable dominion is a balance between threat and reward. The barrel of a gun is clearly a more comprehensible and compelling signal than ideology. Ideology is at best an expressive medium for some of the threats ("You're a kulak, or a Jew, or a Tutsi") and a modest amplifier of such reward as proves available ("You're an Aryan, or a card-carrying proletarian, or a very poor peasant, or a Hutu, and so have every reason to be proud of it and behave accordingly"). The view that an American understanding of democracy was destined to conquer the world in communism's place was inherently strained. Conquest by any means breeds resentment far faster and more insistently than it fosters loyalty or appreciation. It is a serious mistake to suppose that the globe abhors an ideological vacuum. Look at Afghanistan. Look at Somalia. Look at the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ideology is better seen as a precariously constructed imaginative order, permanently dissipating under the weight of its own implausibilities. The question we now face is whether democracy can and will sustain its monopolistic claim to rule legitimately across the world.

Pullquote: The question we now face is whether democracy can and will sustain its monopolistic claim to rule legitimately across the world.Essay Types: Book Review