I recently had the chance to watch an inspiring documentary film. It's called A Whisper to a Roar, and it tells the stories of pro-democracy campaigners in five authoritarian countries (Egypt, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe). The movie offers some vivid stories of courageous political struggles. I especially liked the interviews with female Egyptian activist Esraa Abdel Fattah and the Venezuelan student campaigner Roberto Patiño -- both remarkable people who clearly have an interesting future ahead. It's the self-sacrifice and idealism of figures such as these that give the story its lift.
The producers of A Whisper to a Roar clearly wanted to deliver a message of hope to those of us who would like to see more freedom in the world. According to the film's website, "the core message of the work is that the thirst for freedom and accountable government is universal and that democracy is not just a Western concept." On balance, that's a statement that I'm inclined to accept (even if I find it a bit too vague for my taste). But if that's what the film was supposed to prove to me, it hasn't succeeded. The film would like us to believe, essentially, that the good guys will always win in the end, since that's what all of us want. It's not just clear that reality is ever quite so straightforward.
It's striking is that none of the countries so optimistically profiled in the film has yet to embrace full-blown democracy. The vicious Robert Mugabe is still president of Zimbabwe today (even though, as the film shows, he was pushed into a power-sharing arrangement with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai). The authoritarian regime in Malaysia remains in place (though it could be facing a strong electoral challenge from Anwar Ibrahim in an impending general election there). President Hugo Chávez is still in power in Venezuela. Viktor Yanukovych, the authoritarian leader humiliatingly defeated by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 Orange Revolution, is now president of Ukraine.
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In Egypt, demonstrators are locked in a battle with the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government -- a democratically elected administration that, many Egyptians worry, is now on its way to curtailing some of their recently acquired freedoms via a new constitution drafted largely by Islamists and rejected by secular democrats. (The movie ends in the summer of 2012, so it touches upon some of these developments. Its take on Egypt is accordingly colored by the euphoria following the fall of Mubarak, and not yet compromised by the Brotherhood's power grab this autumn.)
In at least three cases, it should be noted, the leaders in question won power in competitive elections. The Brotherhood moved into power with the blessing of Egyptian voters. Yanukovych, who capitalized on the corruption and internal divisions of the democratic coalition that defeated him five years earlier, trounced his opponent in 2010. Chávez also convincingly won reelection in his latest presidential poll two months ago, fending off the strongest opposition challenge in recent memory.
Democracy, it would seem, is not inevitable. Sometimes people even vote against it.
Yet it's surprising how many people out there (especially in the United States) seem to share the Whiggish belief that history is progressing in a smooth, straight line toward liberal democracy, the only form of political organization that makes sense to consenting adults. There are still plenty of people around who argue that "democracy is inevitable" (a phrase coined by sociologist Warren Bennis, who contended that democratic forms of decision-making were inherently more "efficient" than others).
You can hear a lot of similar views from tech mavens who argue that the possibilities for community action enabled by the decentralized Internet are the natural accelerants of democracy. Elites are doomed, and hierarchies will fall, we are told. Facebook and Twitter undermine censorship and undermine authoritarianism. Technology thus invariably smoothes the path toward participatory action.
There's just one catch to all of this: We're talking about people here, and whatever humans do rarely follows straight lines. Democracy is not the only ideal of action that inspires intense passion and engagement. So, too, do nationalism and religion -- forces that sometimes complement democracy, sometimes operate against it. Nor should one underestimate the deep human desire for predictability and good governance, which can sometimes trump the longing for transparency and agency. (The classic case here is Singapore, whose wealthy, hyper-educated citizenry has traditionally evinced little interest in the politics of opposition.)
Don't get me wrong: Democracy is what we should be striving for. But I think we make an enormous mistake when we try to lull ourselves into the conviction that we're "on the right side of history" by supporting liberal institutions and values. This sounds to me suspiciously like the naïve progressivism of the Victorians and their heirs, whose optimistic faith in the civilizing influence of modern technology crashed and burned in the inferno of the First World War. I don't think that history has an end to which everything necessarily tends. History is the sum of our actions. It's whatever we decide to make of it. Nothing is inevitable. To assume otherwise is to undermine the very sense of agency that lies at the basis of democracy.
What's more, working under the assumption that Providence favors your case can be outright dangerous, since it can cripple your powers of analysis. If you believe you're favored by the gods, you run a much greater risk of blundering into the traps set by devils. Lately I've been hearing lots of people here in Washington repeating that Vladimir Putin's regime has been enormously "weakened" or "undermined" by the protests in Russia's big cities last year. Putin's regime appeared so corrupt, so obviously stagnant, that his downfall seemed to be just around the corner (at least to some).
Yet the most recent protest in Moscow drew modest numbers, oil prices are holding, and Putin's term has another six years to go. Meanwhile, the Russian opposition movement has no clear leaders, no clear organization, and no guiding issues that can appeal to people outside of the educated, urban middle class. As a result, the folks who claimed, not too long ago, that the protests had transformed Russia's political culture are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I know that it is much more comforting to talk about how Putin or Xi Jinping or some other despot is facing impending doom. But the fact remains that many autocrats in the world retain a firm grip on power (sometimes even with American help), and most of them bear little resemblance to the caricature of the knuckle-dragging thug just waiting to be unseated by a couple of college kids conspiring on Facebook. The highly adaptable Hugo Chávez, to name but one, has shown that Twitter makes an excellent tool for populist mobilization. In Iran, the ayatollahs have long since figured out that the Internet is a great tool for organizing their illiberally minded followers. (The Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently just launched his own Facebook page.)
The obstacles facing democrats around the world are hard, but not insurmountable. We have every reason to be optimistic about their success. But I suspect we can do a much better job of supporting them if we stay realistic about the challenges they face.