These last few weeks, democracy and the right to self-determination have seen great hope give way to despair.
In Burkina Faso, what began as a popular uprising against a 27-year ruler became a military coup as Lt. Col. Isaac Zida suspended elections until 2015. In Hong Kong, a democratic protest by the respectful masses has all but faded into tacit capitulation in the face of China’s effective ban on elections. And in Libya, the nation’s highest court bent to the will of Tripoli’s Islamists as it declared Libya’s elected House of Representatives unconstitutional.
Traditionally, two distinct strains of thinkers have argued over what such events signal for the global state of democracy.
The first sort — call her a declinist — seeks to characterize these acute attacks on the right to vote as symptoms of democracy’s fall from global grace. She points to a rising China, an increasingly authoritarian Russia and a surging ISIS as examples of democracy’s future doom. The declinist might even quip that it won’t be long before America too has lost its place as the global hegemon, if it has not already.
The second sort — call her an optimist — would reject the notion that democracy is faltering. Perhaps a Fukuyama apostate, she would label these events as hiccups on a long but inevitable road to liberalization, a small bump at the end of history. The optimist might ask rhetorically, as Prof. Michael McFaul did this week at Stanford’s CEMEX Auditorium, does the world really want to live under a Chinese-style government?
This dichotomy between the declinist and optimist was likely useful when capitalism and Communism’s cold tug-of-war defined much of the world’s governmental changes. However, in the post-Soviet era, we must make room for a third sort of thinker, an idealistic skeptic of sorts.
This idealist believes deeply in the universal appeal of democracy. But, looking at a world in which a powerful China throws its economic might behind alternative forms of governance, she seriously questions the extent to which its proliferation is natural and independent of American power.
The idealist recognizes that democracy comes in many forms, from secular to religious and liberal to illiberal, but knows that these forms are not all equal. Looking at the election of Hamas, an increasingly Islamist Istanbul and elections in Donetsk, the skeptic in her worries that democracy may be increasingly used as a tool for despots and fanatics to shroud their beliefs in the legitimacy of the people.
Nonetheless, she points out that there is great reason for optimism. In the last half-century, many questioned democracy’s prospects against a growing sea of red. But this year alone, large nations that once aggressively flirted with communism, like India and Brazil, had relatively fair and safe elections. Nigeria, home of Africa’s largest city and a nation whose history is shrouded in coups and civil war, will soon vote as well despite the threat posed by Boko Haram. Most indications suggest it will be messy, as all democracies are, but also peaceful.
Democracy in the United States too has peacefully passed from party to party yet again. Voter ID laws and gerrymandering — not the threat of violence or communist takeover — are the most commonly cited fears to the success of the most recent election. America’s democracy faces challenges of its own, but few seriously question its longevity.
The state of the vote is strong, but this prospect is not guaranteed. We must do more than pledge to keep it that way, through proactive support for those who seek to determine their own leaders. In response to those who seek to undermine democracy, we must counter with preventative support from Burma to the Midan.
Luckily we have the means to keep the idea of the ballot alive and well. Do we have the resolve?
Aaron Zelinger, a junior studying symbolic systems, is the international editor of Stanford Political Journal.