Why Democracy Is So Hard to Build


Today’s pessimism about democracy is both historically unwarranted and self-defeating; it undermines the optimism necessary to sustain the struggle ahead, argues Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College. Democracy’s advocates must take a longer view, recognizing that setbacks are an inevitable part of the effort to build the foundations for durable, enlightened rule by the people, she writes for the Wall Street Journal:

A generation ago, the collapse of communism led pundits to celebrate the approaching triumph of liberal democracy; today many commentators are concerned that the democratic cause is in decline. ….Such cycles of optimism and pessimism are hardly new, however. They also accompanied the previous waves of democratic expansion and subsequent backsliding, from 19th-century revolutions for liberty to the fall of the Soviet empire in 1989.

Seen in this light, today’s democratic troubles don’t seem so profound, adds Berman, the author of “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day” and a contributor to the NED’s Journal of Democracy:

After all, more democracies exist today than at any previous point in history: There were 11 in 1900, 20 in 1920, 32 in 1970, 77 in 2000 and 116 in 2018, as Freedom House and others have noted. And recent reversals have been relatively modest: Democracies have suffered less backsliding in recent years than after the previous waves of democratization that began in 1848, 1918 and 1945.

“None of this is to deny that new and old democracies now face real problems. But successful democracies take time to consolidate and need constant effort to thrive; it’s never a simple narrative of linear progress,” she concludes.


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