Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
The protesters who ousted Ukraine’s president last month claimed to be taking a stand against a corrupt and autocratic government. But they also pushed out a democratically elected leader. From Ukraine to Egypt to Venezuela, some see a recurring and distressing global pattern of popular protest movements failing to live up to their espoused democratic ideals. We consider whether democracy as a political idea is losing its luster around the world.
- Adrian Wooldridge Management editor and Schumpeter columnist, The Economist
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher, of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the hour, the debate over sourcing seafood. But first, John Adams, America's second President, once declared that Democracy is fleeting. It wastes, exhausts and murders itself, Adams said. Those pessimistic words from a founding father may seem jarring to many Americans today, but for those struggling against their own governments in countries such as Ukraine, Venezuela and Egypt, Adams' words may not sound so off base.
MR. MARC FISHERIndeed, as protest movements recently have forced out Democratically elected leaders in some countries, the most successful political idea of the 20th century has been shaken. From the Middle East to Eastern Europe, free and fair elections have repeatedly ushered in autocratic rule followed by unrest and upheaval. It's a pattern that some say has led to a global democracy crisis. Has democracy really lost its luster? And what can be done to revive it? Joining us from London at the studios of The Economist, columnist Adrian Wooldridge, who writes the Schumpeter column for The Economist, has an essay in the current issue, asking what's gone wrong with democracy. Welcome to the program.
MR. ADRIAN WOOLDRIDGEThank you very much.
FISHERSo, Egypt, Ukraine and Venezuela have shown us in the past few months that democracy is anything but tidy. The leaders of these countries were all democratically elected, but now they're part of a pattern we're seeing where popular upheaval leads to an ouster, a new government, and then a few years later, the pattern seems to repeat itself. What's going on there?
WOOLDRIDGEWell, I think it's very easy to want a democracy, very easy to protest about a democracy, in favor of a democracy. It's much more difficult to establish a democracy, or a sustainable democracy. And what we're seeing in the Ukraine and Egypt is systems that have really run out of steam in different ways. In Egypt, you had a democracy that collapsed because it was badly administered. In the Ukraine, you've had a sort of pseudo democracy collapsing in the face of protests and then those protests, in turn, being crushed by the Russians.
WOOLDRIDGEBut everywhere, we're seeing that the transition from autocracy to democracy is really very difficult.
FISHERAnd is that a factor of -- is there something about democracy that is a mismatch for the way the world works today? Globalization, the changes in the structures of economies. Or is there also a change in the pace of life? The expectations that popular movements may have because of the growth of social media and institutions that can't keep up with the pace of the peoples' expectations on the streets.
WOOLDRIDGEI think what we're seeing at the moment is a democracy recession, not a democracy terminal decline. I think democracy is, as it were, the wave of the future. I think democracy is the way that people want to be governed. We live in a world in which people have choices about most things that affect their lives. They certainly won't willingly be deprived of a choice over their political future. But what we're learning is that it's much more difficult to have a functioning, successful democracy.
WOOLDRIDGEWhat we're seeing in the west, in both Europe and the United States, is successful democracies becoming sort of tired, lazy and losing the enthusiasm of the people. What we're seeing in much of the emerging world is the recognition that the transition to a successful democratic system is very difficult. And what we're seeing, also, is big forces, such as globalization, such as the Twittersphere and the internet changing the way that people think about decision making.
WOOLDRIDGESo, a sense that many of our democratic institutions are a bit old fashioned and need to be updated. So, all sorts of pressures, very different pressures leading to a general democracy recession.
FISHERYou can join our conversation with Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist by calling 1-800-433-8850. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And Adrian Wooldridge, there have, nonetheless, been some successes in terms of democracies that have risen from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eastern Europe -- we see Poland, the Baltics, the Czech Republic. They got past their start up problems and established reasonable democracies. So, the process of moving to democracy is not without success.
WOOLDRIDGEOh, absolutely not. I think that democracy was the great idea of the, and the great success of the second half of the 20th century. And there were huge moves towards democracy in Eastern Europe. Poland, you point to. You could also list, of course, South Africa, which is an amazing success, in many ways. A country that had been torn apart by apartheid has a peaceful transition to democracy. So, we do see success stories, but what we have learned is it's not an automatic thing.
WOOLDRIDGEAnd we certainly saw with Russia, which was the great hope. We always thought that, with the end of the Cold War, one side would win. Our side. And that the other side would be converted to our values, democracy and liberal capitalism. And that's not happened. And also, we've seen this extraordinary thing happening with the rise of China. We always used to think that democracy and economic progress and prosperity and rapid growth were intimately linked, and China has sort of created a system which is successful, economically, but autocratic.
WOOLDRIDGEAnd that's really changed a lot of peoples' thinking, a lot of peoples' calculations.
FISHERYou can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Does the United States need to rethink how it promotes democracy? What have we learned from democracy building efforts in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan? And does American style democracy work elsewhere? Give us your thoughts. Adrian Wooldridge, you mentioned China, and obviously, not a democratic country, but a recent Pugh study that you cited says that 85 percent of the Chinese people are very satisfied with their country's direction. And in the same survey, only 31 percent of Americans say the same thing.
FISHERIs that a commentary on the difficulty of being in a democracy or have we so dumbed down our politics in western democracies that the people are as disenchanted as that survey indicates?
WOOLDRIDGEWell, it's a commentary, above all, on very, very rapid growth. People who were, in living memory, very poor, have become relatively rich. And they're happy about that, and for them, the lack of democracy is less important than the fact that they're getting materially richer. So, they're very optimistic about the future. And I do also think that the low numbers in the United States, to do with the fact that we're in the aftermath, you're in the aftermath of an economic crisis, and that economic crisis has led to the stagnation of the living standards, or the reduction of the living standards of large numbers of people.
WOOLDRIDGEAnd also created a lot of uncertainty. I also do think that the way that democracy is working in the United States, at the moment, with a high degree of partisanship, a refusal to tackle big structural entitlement problems, a lot of endless bickering, the awful shouting matches that you see on MSNBC and Fox and the rest of it, which passes for a sort of serious news coverage. All of those things have created a terrible sense of frustration, disillusionment and despair, really, amongst the -- large numbers of people in the United States, So democracy is not working well, in America, at the moment.
FISHERAnd do you think that that is a reflection of simply the politics of the moment, or are there deeper structural issues within western democracy and how it has been -- how it structured in our county, that have led us to that stage?
WOOLDRIDGEWell, I distinguish quite sharply between the United States and the European Union. I think the United States is an example of a good system that's sort of gone a bit bad, a bit off, for all sorts of reasons to do with hyper-partisanship, to do with the fact that the best way to raise funds is to shout the loudest, to do with the gerrymandering of constituencies, which mean that you have to appeal to the far extreme of your parties. And to do with the fact that you have all sorts of ways in which interest groups and individual Senators or Congressmen can sort of gum up an already pretty gummed up system.
WOOLDRIDGESo I think, you know, you can reform -- many of those things are subject to reform. Some of those reforms, such as making it more difficult for Senators to put endless holes on legislation. Some of those are in the works, and also some of the anti-gerrymandering things are in the works. So, America is this sort of democratic system that's sort of gone a bit off. In the European Union, you have a much more complicated system, which is that you have really technocratic, unelected specialists overruling democratic elections. Or, at least, not putting many fundamental decisions to the test of democracy.
WOOLDRIDGEThe biggest decision that the Europeans collectively made, really, in the last couple of decades, was the introduction of a common currency. And there wasn't really much democratic participation in that. People weren't really asked whether they wanted to do it. And many of the people, when they were asked, most of them said they didn't want to do it. So, there's a lot of top down decision making, which is leading to a lot of disillusionment with politics. And what you're gonna see in the next month or so is a European election for the European Parliament, which is gonna see some very unsavory parties winning a great many seats in a sort of general protest.
WOOLDRIDGESo, different sorts of things, but all of them producing a general disillusionment with the political class.
FISHERIn your discussion of the United States in this piece, "What's Gone Wrong With Democracy," you talk about George W. Bush undermining democracy by leading wars that were ostensibly aimed at spreading freedom and democracy around the world, and that these were perceived abroad as acts of American imperialism. But, if that's the case, why hasn't President Obama's retreat from those wars sent the opposite message?
WOOLDRIDGEWell, I think it has, to some extent. I would say it sends a message of confusion or infirmity about American foreign policy, and many people who are sort of Democrats and who want to see democracy taking root in their country, in Ukraine and elsewhere, feel as though America is a very unsteady friend. So, it sent the opposite message of Bush's message. Bush's message was that we will impose democracy on the rest of the world. And people said, you're either lying or you're imposing western values on us.
WOOLDRIDGEAnd that's, I think, that undermined the message. Then you shift to a very different message, which is that we're gonna be much more cautious. And that also creates disillusionment with American foreign policy, so I think it's the shift from one strategy to another strategy that leaves people very confused.
FISHERLet's hear from some of our listeners. Here's Lisa in Stephens City, Virginia. Lisa, you're on the air.
LISAHi. Thanks. I just wanted to mention the role of a free press in democracy, and that I think in the west, or in the US, we take, for granted, that system. It's a very integral part of the system, and in other countries trying to develop democracy, they don't necessarily have a good, robust free press to weed out corruption and work on other aspects that are necessary.
WOOLDRIDGEI couldn't agree more. It's absolutely vital. And countries that have made this successful transition from autocracy of some sort to democracy tend to be those that have free presses. South Africa, I point to, is a very good example of a country that's actually had the ANC in charge ever since, you know, you've had elections. But nevertheless, the ruling party's being very much held accountable, and its corruption has been exposed by the fact that they have a free and vigorous press.
WOOLDRIDGEDemocracy is not just about elections, absolutely not just about elections. It's about a whole set of institutions, of which a free press is absolutely vital.
FISHERAnd here's Ralph in the District. Ralph, you're on the air.
RALPHHi. Thank you for the author being on. I've never heard of this before, but I'll tell you my personal belief about what's going on in the United States. We have a failed democracy, in my humble opinion. We have the NSA, who has, essentially, torn up the Bill of Rights. Not only are they spying on us, but they're also sending the raw data to Israel, so they can spy on us. Then you have unlimited funding of elections. We, you know, you can spend billions of dollars on -- you don't even have to disclose who you are and who you're buying.
RALPHThen we have Colby, the ex-CIA guy who apparently drowned himself or something. He comes out and says there's not one person in the press that we do not own.
RALPHOf any significance in the press, and then we got five...
FISHERAdrian Wooldridge, what does this -- do the actions of the NSA, does this sense that people have, that they're being watched, does this undermine democracy?
WOOLDRIDGEI'm extremely concerned about the amount of information that is being gathered on all of us, all the time, by the NSA and various other organizations. And I would hope that we would put a constraint on that. I'm also very concerned about -- as the listener said, about the way that money is infiltrating itself into American politics in all sorts of ways. And I know that the Supreme Court has made a judgment on this. And I know that the politicians will say, well it doesn't affect me if I take this money or if I listen to this lobbying advice. It's just one consideration amongst many.
WOOLDRIDGEBut I do think it creates an impression of corruption. It creates a correction that certain people have access to the political process that other people don't have. And I really wish that we could find some way of making it harder to fund -- to infiltrate all this money into the political process. I think it creates a very bad impression abroad. And it makes America's attempt to spread democracy abroad very much more questionable.
FISHERLela in Washington has an interesting point about the dilemma of political freedom versus economic prosperity. Lela, you're on the air.
LELAThank you for taking my call. Thank you so much. This is an important discussion I've had on my mind. I come from Rwanda. And over the 20 years that I have been coming back and forth from the country, I have seen, like your guest has mentioned, a growing sense of having to choose between political freedom or economic prosperity. And it's a very hard question to kind of take for granted or to pose when you find something -- came from nothing, never have opportunity. And now we can go to the university, can look for a job.
LELAAnd then you ask them, you know, would you rather have that or the free speech to choose your democracy. And it becomes a very different conversation. And my concern is, in creating that kind of institution where there isn't political freedom, where people don't learn how to talk to each other, how to have divergent opinions and to still create (word?) society, how are future generations going to be able to assimilate to "democratic ideals," or is that going to, you know...
LELA...is that a trend that we're facing, yeah...
FISHERAdrian Wooldridge, is there necessarily a binary choice between economic prosperity and political freedom?
WOOLDRIDGENo, not at all. It used to be the case, I think, that we assumed that democracy and prosperity went hand in hand. If you've got democracy you got more prosperous. If you're prosperous you chose democracy. And Rwanda is an extremely interesting example here. Rwanda really is a country that is looking to the Chinese model. And we'll say that the best way to modernize is through a sort of autocratic system which imposes control from the top.
WOOLDRIDGEThey have done a great deal more than many other African countries to combat the scourge of corruption. They've done a great deal to improve their economy recently. And also the (word?) autocracy is actually, you know, prevented or come in the wake of a lot of ethnic cleansing. In some countries you can have -- democracy can mean one ethnic group seizing power and imposing its will over another ethnic group, particularly in many Asian countries. So democracy is not something that is necessarily as good as we used to think it was.
FISHERWell, we'll have to leave it there. Adrian Wooldridge, management editor and contributing columnist at The Economist. Thanks so much for joining us today.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, we'll talk about food, about seafood in particular and what it really means when a label says that food is from a particular place. That's after a short break on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher.
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