It's been quite a week for the abuse of democratic principles by putatively democratic leaders. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used riot police to clear Istanbul's Taksim Square of peaceful demonstrators, whom he has denounced as "a few looters" and "a few bums." Egypt's upper house passed a law restricting the operation of non-government organizations which Egyptian civil society groups assert "lays the foundation for a new police state" by the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest practically everything -- though there the government has professed bafflement rather than outrage.
What the events in Egypt and Turkey have in common is a particular kind of perversion of democracy -- electoral authoritarianism. Both Erdogan and Morsy treat their followers -- who probably do not in either case constitute an absolute majority of the country -- as "the people" in whose name they rule, while treating their opponents as enemies, flotsam, non-citizens beholden to foreign ideas or foreign sponsors. And they are hardly alone. Russia's Vladimir Putin has installed a dictatorship on behalf of his nationalistic electoral base, as did Venezuela's Hugo Chávez before his death. The difference is that no one mistakes Russia or Venezuela for democracies; the tumult in Turkey and Egypt threatens something precious, or at least hopeful.
Neither Erdogan nor Morsy have gone remotely as far as Putin or Chávez, though Morsy came close when he issued an edict last November exempting his own decisions from judicial review, and thus temporarily combining all executive, legislative, and judicial power in his own hands. (He was forced to backtrack the following month.) But both men seem sincerely persuaded that they, and they alone, incarnate the will of the people. "[They say] Tayyip Erdogan is a dictator," the Turkish prime minister said of himself in the third person in a televised speech. "If they call one who serves the people a dictator, I cannot say anything." Playing with populist fire -- but very adroitly -- Erdogan provoked pro-regime demonstrations even bigger than the ones in Taksim Square where opponents assailed him as a budding autocrat.
Erdogan and Morsy, Chávez and Putin -- all are megalomaniacs who cannot or will not distinguish between "the people's will" and their own. But this is also a disease of young democracies, where the stakes are so high that both ruler and opposition often see compromise as a betrayal of the national interest. This was true even in the first decades of the American republic. John Adams's rivals accused him of trying to restore monarchic rule; and when Adams's son, John Quincy Adams, served as president, both his great rival, Andrew Jackson, and Vice President John C. Calhoun insisted that he was planning to subvert the Constitution and impose dictatorial rule. Adams and his allies were convinced with almost equal certainty that Jackson, if elected, would destroy the Union. The concept of legitimate difference of opinion was very slow to take hold.
Nations lucky enough to have a Nelson Mandela or a George Washington receive a lasting lesson in the democratic uses of power. And when, as in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracies emerge from a series of bargains between reformers and the ruling elite, everyone gets the chance to learn the arts of compromise. But when power must be seized through revolutionary action, as in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, the one rule people know is that the winner takes all. How, then, do leaders learn to represent a whole people rather than just the faction that elected them?
They don't, naturally -- but voters can teach them a lesson. Serbs united in 2000 to defeat the authoritarian populist Slobodan Milosevic, who had forged a political majority out of virulent nationalism. But this requires a united and purposeful opposition, which cannot be said either of Turkey's old-line pro-Ataturk Republican People's Party or the deeply fragmented opposition to Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood. It's not just the ruling party, but the entire political culture, of new democracies which often enables electoral authoritarianism.