The Tyranny of the Majority

How John Quincy Adams explains the protests in Turkey and Brazil.

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.

Culture matters; and so do rules. In Patterns of Democracy, political scientist Arend Lijphart argues that democratic governments come in two basic models: majoritarian, like the British, with strong single-party cabinets dominating decision-making, or "consensual," with power exercised through coalitions. Lijphart observes that while in homogeneous societies all citizens can feel reasonably represented in a majoritarian system, the same model in nations deeply divided by class or identity "spells majoritarian dictatorship and civil strife." He argues for electoral rules which guarantee a measure of proportional representation, coalition governments, an empowered and truly bicameral legislature, decentralization. Lijphart claims that the consensual model maximizes democratic legitimacy without sacrificing effectiveness.

Electoral rules help explain the difference between the way Turkey and Brazil, two dynamic young democracies, have reacted to mass street protest. While Erdogan has demonized his foes, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil has praised protestors for waking the country to its shortcomings. Brazil, too, faces a crisis, but not a crisis of representation, as Turkey does. Larry Diamond, a leading democracy scholar at Stanford, points out that both Rousseff and her Erdogan-like predecessor, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, had to do far more political bargaining than Erdogan because they rule through coalitions while Erdogan controls a parliamentary majority. And the reason for this, in turn, is that Turkish law excludes parties from parliament which do not win more than 10 percent of the national vote. The Turkish system enables Erdogan's worst impulses. Working with rival parties might force him to learn a few hard lessons.

Democracies become consolidated through some combination of good rules and good habits -- constitutions and culture. But they often fail before they reach that point, and a whole subset of the academic literature anatomizes cases of backsliding. (Mali would be the most recent example.) It's hardly impossible to imagine a scenario in Egypt in which the army re-takes command after the non-stop conflict between Morsy, the secular opposition, and the judiciary provokes even more chaos, violence, and economic paralysis than it already has. In effect, everyone's high-handed behavior licenses everyone else's high-handed behavior, democracy fails and Egypt's returns to a new version of the status quo ante -- as Pakistan, for example, has done several times.

But that's not the likeliest scenario in Egypt, and certainly not in Turkey. The era in which citizens will accept a return to autocracy, much less clamor for it, is drawing to a close. What we really see in the mass demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil and elsewhere is an unwillingness to accept an implicit compact in which democratic citizenship is limited to voting -- and a paralyzed political class which does not know how to respond to these demands. "Every four years we hold elections and this nation makes it choice," Erdogan lectured his people. Wrong. Electoral authoritarianism won't work the way it used to because too many people won't accept that transaction. The dictatorship of the majority, or the hypothetical majority, will continue in a few places, like Russia. But its days are numbered in Venezuela, and I can't see it happening in Turkey.

The real problem is that unresponsive democracies will provoke more protest, which will provoke more reaction, and the sense of hopefulness and common purpose in nations like Brazil and Turkey will give way to rancor and division, leading to a drop in investment and productivity, and thus more rancor and division. In the Arab world, only Tunisia seems to be bridging the divides among groups to forge a workable new order; Egypt and Libya are heading for different forms of democratic dysfunction. These countries need time to learn new habits, and to devise better rules. The political thinker Samuel Huntington observed that democracy in the United States wasn't fully consolidated until the Republican Adams lost to the Democrat Jackson, after which the Jacksonians in turn gave way to the Whigs. Change of regime is tonic for a democracy. And that, we hope, is where Erdogan and Morsy will prove that they are not Putin or Chávez.


Terms of Engagement

Is Doing Something in Syria Better than Nothing?

Why Obama’s small plan to send small arms to the Syrian rebels might fail on all counts.

This week, President Barack Obama finally reached the point where he had to decide between something and nothing on Syria -- between diplomacy which had reached a dead end and lethal assistance to the rebels which he had steadfastly refused to offer.

Apparently, he could not bring himself to choose nothing in the face of a savage campaign of violence which has claimed the lives of almost 100,000 people, and perhaps many more. But his choice of something is so modest that it's unlikely to change the increasingly one-sided battle between the Syrian regime and the rebels.

I happened to speak to a senior administration official who has been involved in the discussions of Syria policy a few hours before the White House announcement. He made a point of saying that "there's nothing that we can do in the next week or two that will tip the balance." But he also noted that the announcement that "help is on the way" could "change the emotional balance" by giving the rebels hope and making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fear that his opposition will become a more formidable force. It's clear that the White House was contemplating much tougher measures, including a "stand-off" assault on Syrian aerial assets carried out by American ships and planes located beyond Syria's borders. But the course that Obama adopted -- supplying the rebels with small arms and possibly anti-tank weaponry -- might shift the emotional balance in the opposite direction, by convincing both sides that the United States would rather see the rebels lose than take the risks involved with more robust support.

Secretary of State John Kerry has long spoken of the need to "change Assad's calculus," but this is not the announced goal of the new policy. Rather, Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor, explained that once intelligence analysts concluded that Syria had crossed the "red line" against the use of chemical weapons, the president felt bound to act. That's almost certainly not the actual rationale for the decision: administration officials have been holding urgent discussions on Syria policy since last week, when Assad's forces, along with perhaps 2,000 troops from Hezbollah, ousted the rebels from the strategic crossroads town of Al Qusayr. The regime is now organizing a much larger, and potentially far more devastating assault on Aleppo, Syria's largest city. The "now or never" moment for the administration had suddenly and unexpectedly arrived -- the Syrian equivalent of the moment in Libya when only foreign intervention could prevent a murderous government attack on civilians in Benghazi. But the public explanation matters: If the professed goal is to preserve the president's credibility, rather than to change the balance of power, then Obama has succeeded simply by doing something rather than nothing.

I don't think Obama is that kind of cynic, but I do think he has persuaded himself that, whatever may be good for Syria, getting involved with the rebels is bad for the United States, and bad for him politically. Bill Clinton, who knows a thing or two about ignoring atrocities for fear of the political consequences of action, put the matter bluntly earlier this week when he said, "If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity," you can't excuse yourself later by saying, "Oh my god, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it."

Syria is of course a much tougher case than Rwanda, for all the reasons we know: Syria is a modern state with a modern army; what began as a civil war is rapidly expanding into a region-wide sectarian war; and the rebels the United States proposes to help include a sizeable and growing number of jihadists affiliated with al Qaeda. Obama has had innumerable good reasons to hesitate. But it is worth recalling that this is a president who devoted his Nobel Peace Prize speech to the theory of just war, and who has established an Atrocities Prevention Board. And the mass killing in Syria constitutes the gravest atrocities the world has seen since the ethnic cleansing in Darfur a decade ago. No, it's not Rwanda; but it is comparable to the violence in the Balkans, which Clinton did finally move to stop -- and succeeded.

It has become almost unseemly to use the explicitly moral language of "the responsibility to protect." I have been struck by the rising tide of world-weary realism which has governed public debate on Syria. Last week, my friend Martin Burcharth, U.S. correspondent for the Danish daily Information, asked me to contribute to a what-to-do-about-Syria survey of American pundits. When I argued for arming the rebels and degrading the Syrian Air Force with missile strikes, Martin told me that I was more "daring" -- i.e., reckless -- than any of his other correspondents. There has been a growing consensus among American pundits that Syria is a loser, a hopeless cause to which the United States should give the widest possible berth. I was talking about Syria with two foreign policy experts just before the White House announcement; both agreed that Syria was bound to fracture into ethnic cantons, that the United States could do nothing to halt the dynamic, and that Obama had been wise to steer clear of any military engagement in that woebegone country.

They may be right; and yet we have passed very suddenly from the argument that the United States need not intervene because the rebels are bound to win, to the argument that the United States should not intervene because the rebel cause is doomed. Had Obama agreed to arm the rebels last year, when senior officials including Hillary Clinton urged him to do so, he had a real chance of forcing Assad to "change his calculus." The bar is much higher today: Hezbollah's decision to throw its resources fully into the war has enormously emboldened Assad and demoralized the opposition. Critics who have long thought Washington has no dog in the Syrian fight now make the very plausible claim that nothing the administration is prepared to do could blunt Assad's growing military power.

Of course, if that's true, a Balkanized Syria might be a best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that Syrian forces would overrun rebel strongholds everywhere save a few pockets in the north, and exact a terrible vengeance on helpless civilians. In the face of such a possibility, helping right the balance between the two sides would itself constitute a humanitarian act. And Obama could have done that if he chose. He would not have needed to declare a no-fly-zone, as John McCain and Lindsey Graham have demanded, though doing so would certainly save the lives of thousands of civilians. Jeffrey White, a military analyst who spent his career with the Defense Intelligence Agency, told me that even in the absence of such a campaign, arming the rebels with 120 mm. mortars and surface-to-air missiles could help them weaken, if not neutralize, Assad's vast advantage in armor and aircraft.

Obama has now crossed a line that he had hoped not to cross. Those who wish he had not done even that much will say that a slippery slope leads to U.S. boots on Syrian soil. That's not a serious argument; this is a president who is focused on reducing American troop deployments, not finding new pretexts for combat. The real question is how much the United States and other outside actors can do to stop the killings, to force Assad to reconsider, to stabilize a region now facing the threat of sectarian war. You can't help feeling that Obama is trying to simultaneously satisfy incompatible moral and strategic calculations. There's a very real danger that he will fail on both counts.