The end of the Cold War marked the clear end of a political era. As the Second World War ended, it became evident there was a tension between the American and Soviet world views. The collapse of the Soviet Union represented a clear victory for the American perspective. Democracy and capitalism became central to the new global zeitgeist. European countries who were compelled to retain communist governments from the threat of military force by the Soviet Union began a process of political liberalization and European integration. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes refer to this era as the Age of Imitation.
I have read articles from Krastev and Holmes over the past few years. Their central idea has been expressed as an Imitation of Discontents which was written in the pages of The Journal of Democracy. The imitation of Eastern European states began as a natural effort to integrate into the European community which had evolved over the past forty years. The European political framework had not just consolidated their democratic institutions but internalized the values of liberalism which had previously been a political ideology of reform. Over time, liberalism became the political norm rather than the exception.
Political modernization has also influenced authoritarian forms of governance. Liberalism and democracy redefined the relationship between the government and the governed. Political modernization fundamentally believes the people have a role in the establishment of their political system. This foundation leads naturally to democracy and undermines traditional institutions like monarchy which had based their legitimacy on their hereditary birthright rather than the consent of the governed. But authoritarianism has not disappeared. It has refashioned itself as the expression of the popular will. It exposes a paradox inherent within democracy that the people may reject its liberal foundations and, ultimately, democracy itself. Indeed, Putin’s high approval ratings allow him to claim to reflect the will of the people better than American institutions.
Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas have explained how elections are rigged. But they do not limit their criticisms to authoritarian governments. They found congressional districts in the United States where elections were manipulated through gerrymandered boundaries. This recognition offers a critical insight. The forces of illiberalism which undermine democracy do not necessarily believe they are undemocratic. The liberal political order has focused on the creation of institutions which have been regarded as fundamentally democratic. But the proliferation of elections has taught scholars how institutions are liable to the corruption of undemocratic political norms. Indeed, it seems democracy depends less on its institutions than its political norms and behaviors.
Hungary is the best example where the lines between liberal political ideology and the democratic political system have become blurred. Viktor Orbán has expressed the desire to establish an illiberal democracy to the horror of Western Europe. He sincerely believes democracy allows Hungary to pursue a political agenda which challenges the ideology of liberalism. His ideas of democracy largely resemble Huntington’s notion of a competitive environment where two or more political parties compete for influence in governance. But Huntington saw public policy as distinct from the political process. He encouraged competition between parties over policies but thought participants would refrain from the manipulation of the political process out of fear of undermining the stability of democratic governance.
After Fidesz won a decisive majority in the 2010 Parliamentary elections they began to rewrite the constitution. The National Assembly was reduced from 386 seats to 199. The electoral map was redesigned to give Fidesz inherent advantages in subsequent elections. Huntington saw democracy as fostering stability through the peaceful transfer of power. But his worldview naturally emphasized the competitive aspects of democracy because he could not conceive of cooperative behavior. But excessive competition within democracy is self-destructive. Parties will use the democratic process to establish inherent advantages which are fundamentally undemocratic. Putin has consolidated his support through the elimination of political rivals and legal restrictions on free speech. Russia has retained the institutions of elections and a legislature but completely altered the norms which determine acceptable behavior within the institutional framework.
The insight Krastev and Holmes offer is a means to interpret political behavior which removes us from our Western political orientation if only momentarily. It strives to analyze the leaders of the former Communist Bloc of nations on their own terms rather than ours. But they remain reluctant to accept the intentions of Eastern Europe or Russia as democratic. Beginning with the scholarship of Robert Dahl, political scientists have hardened their definition of democracy. But it seems much of the world continues to believe the meaning of democracy remains fluid and fungible. But political scientists are not wrong. Indeed, the experience of Hungary has demonstrated how liberalism is central to democracy rather than merely descriptive.
The central concept of imitation to interpret political perspectives is brilliant. The dominance of liberalism has brought about the imitation of institutions without the necessary imitation of democratic norms or behavior. It is difficult to understand the underlying causes of the democratic recession without exposure to the theme of imitation. But Krastev and Holmes go even farther and apply the concept of imitation to the Presidency of Donald Trump and the United States in their final chapter. The behaviors and mechanisms of liberalism have been repurposed to allow for an illiberal worldview which will ultimately leave democratic institutions as morally vacuous. The necessary prescription is evident. We must move beyond the politics of imitation into the internalization of a substantive notion of democratic norms.
jmk, carmel, indiana, email@example.com
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