The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good time to reflect on the dimming regard for democratic government – at home and abroa
Nov. 9, 1989, the day that East Berliners scaled the wall and embraced their fellow Germans from the West, marked the zenith of global faith in democracy’s promise, shortly before the communist empire collapsed.
I was lucky enough to witness East Europe’s democratic uprisings firsthand. In November 1989, in East Germany, I watched tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Leipzig roar for a united, democratic Germany, in a series of Monday protests that helped seal East Germany’s fate.
In Czechoslovakia, I heard soon-to-be President Vaclav Havel, at Prague’s Letna Park, urge a massive crowd to strike for free elections and the right “to think freely.” I hurtled around Gdansk in a van driven by the legendary Polish labor activist-dissident Lech Walesa, who shouted out his hopes of building “the country we dreamed of.” Soon, communist systems collapsed in all three countries.
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The fall of the wall not only ended the Soviet empire in East Europe, but also led inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. Third World countries turned toward the American capitalist model in hopes it would deliver the prosperity that socialism hadn’t.
In the United States, hubris reigned as pundits decreed “the end of history” and democracy’s global triumph. “This was a period of a lot of illusions,” said the National Endowment for Democracy’s Carl Gershman at a conference called “Does Democracy (still) Matter?” cosponsored by Philadelphia’s Foreign Policy Research Institute. Twenty-five years later, democracy is on the defensive, and that question is now a matter for hot debate.
In Europe, right-wing xenophobic parties are on the rise, as a result of the continent’s ongoing economic problems. In the Muslim world, the Arab Spring uprisings that called for democratic rights have collapsed in a backlash that produced a military coup in Egypt and entrenched a bloody dictator in Syria. The American experiment with imposing democracy on Iraq produced a sectarian regime and the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. (It also made foreigners question the competence of America’s democracy.)
Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is promoting his toxic brew of ultranationalism-authoritarianism as an alternative ideology to democracy.
Never mind that Moscow can sustain this new authoritarianism only on the back of high oil prices. From the outside, Putin’s model looks attractive to some leaders – for example, in Egypt and Venezuela – who are crushing free media and political opposition. Meanwhile, China, too, hypes its brand of authoritarian rule as a better alternative for Asia than messy democracy or any political alliance with America.
Yet none of this global backlash threatens the future of democracy as much as the crisis of democracy within the United States.
After all, it was the U.S. (and European) model that attracted other countries to democracy in the first place. Over the last two decades, Americans have learned that democracy can’t easily take root in countries that lack adequate governmental and civic institutions. But would-be democrats in those countries still look to this country for inspiration and support.
Few Americans realize how tarnished the concept of democracy becomes worldwide when the world’s premier democracy no longer believes in itself.
That sour attitude was apparent in Tuesday’s congressional elections, which were as much about distrust in government as they were about dislike for President Obama. Exit polls reflected voter dissatisfaction with both political parties, with Congress, and with the direction of the country. Most young people aren’t voting.
When foreigners look at America today – and I hear this everywhere I travel – they don’t see the same country that aroused so much admiration at the time the Berlin Wall fell. They see a country where the government is paralyzed, the infrastructure shockingly poor, and inequality rising – and an education system that trails woefully behind Asia’s.
And they recognize that these problems can’t all be blamed on Obama. For starters, the economic crash, which led to a global meltdown, took place under George W. Bush. And it was tea party Republicans who shut the U.S. government down.
What bewilders folks abroad is the visceral American distrust of government. Such cynicism – encouraged by ideologues in Congress who regard pragmatists as traitors – makes government unworkable. No wonder only 24% of the general public has faith in their government, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
No wonder that the U.S. model of democracy has lost much of its global luster. Why would foreign countries want to emulate American democracy if Americans no longer believe in it themselves?
So, on the 25th anniversary of the Wall’s fall, it’s time that Americans looked inward. In Gershman’s words, they “must find a way to rebuild a sense of democratic conviction.” As Europe continues to wrestle with its economic problems, it’s more important than ever that America demonstrate the strengths of democracy, as opposed to the siren song of the new authoritarians.
But no American leader, from either party, will be able to make that case convincingly unless we renew our democracy at home.