The last time democracy nearly died


The last time democracy nearly died all over the world and almost all at once, Americans argued about it, and then they tried to fix it, notes Jill Lepore,  a professor of history at Harvard University and author of “These Truths: A History of the United States.”

In the nineteen-thirties, you could count on the Yankees winning the World Series, dust storms plaguing the prairies, evangelicals preaching on the radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt residing in the White House, people lining up for blocks to get scraps of food, and democracies dying, from the Andes to the Urals and the Alps, she writes for The New Yorker

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson’s Administration had promised that winning the Great War would “make the world safe for democracy.” The peace carved nearly a dozen new states out of the former Russian, Ottoman, and Austrian empires. The number of democracies in the world rose; the spread of liberal-democratic governance began to appear inevitable. But this was no more than a reverie. Infant democracies grew, toddled, wobbled, and fell: Hungary, Albania, Poland, Lithuania, Yugoslavia. …It had taken a century and a half for European monarchs who ruled by divine right and brute force to be replaced by constitutional democracies and the rule of law. Now Fascism and Communism toppled these governments in a matter of months, even before the stock-market crash of 1929 and the misery that ensued.

“Epitaphs for democracy are the fashion of the day,” the soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote, dismally, in 1930, Lepore adds in a contribution to a new series on The Future of Democracy.

In celebration of the Journal of Democracy’s 30th anniversary issue, editors and contributors gathered last week (below) for reflections and discussion on authoritarianism and the global state of democracy.

4:004:40 PM: “Reflections on the Journal of Democracy,” with founding coeditors Marc F. Plattner (who is retiring) and Larry Diamond. Incoming coeditor William J. Dobson moderates.

4:405:20 PM: “The Global State of Democracy,” with Sheri Berman, Thomas Carothers, Steven Levitsky, and Yascha Mounk. Shanthi Kalathil moderates.

5:206:00 PM: “Authoritarianism: Resurgence and Vulnerabilities,” with Ladan Boroumand, Michele Dunne, Minxin Pei, and Lucan Way. Christopher Walker moderates.

Learn more about this event and speakers here

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