The Last Pharaoh

Cynicism about democracy has been very fashionable. Full of faults and failings, it’s said to be in retreat. Authoritarianism, we’re told, is in history’s vanguard, with China proving how to achieve economic dynamism despite – or thanks to – undemocratic rule. And of course supposedly democracy is a mere “Western” value unsuited to some cultures, which some people don’t even want. This trope has been invoked to explain why Arab nations in particular have seemed unreceptive to democracy.

The mistake is to view democracy narrowly as meaning just elections. But a democratic society entails far more. It means government accountability, rule of rule, free expression, pluralism, dispersal of power, and a public consensus supporting all this. Such truly democratic societies are better for people to live in than autocracies like China. Even if it did mean less economic growth. Economics is not everything, and people have shown a willingness to pay a price if necessary to have a free society. But I believe in the long run such societies are more materially prosperous as well. Across the world the world it’s the freer societies that tend to be the richer ones.

Cairo -- AP Photo

Francis Fukuyama, in his 1992 book The End of History and The Last Man, explained the rise of democracy as fulfillment of humanity’s age-old quest. He used the Greek word thymos – the human dignity of feeling that one matters, one’s life counts for something. This is seen today in the streets of Cairo. What those Egyptians really are doing is asserting their thymos, which can no longer be denied.

And, as David Brooks explains in his (typically) superb column today, it’s also wrong to see authoritarian regimes as somehow representing “stability.” A system that denies a population’s human aspirations – their thirst for thymos – can never be stable, any more than a dormant volcano is stable. Something is being bottled up, and will inevitably explode.

The Obama administration must stop shilly-shallying, and get on the right side of history — fast — by more forcefully disowning Mubarak and pushing him toward the exit.

How often we hear that this country or that one is not capable of democracy because it’s never been free. We forget that just a few decades ago, only a handful of nations were democratic. Yet one after another has made the leap. Latin America, for instance, used to be practically all military dictatorships. Now it’s practically all democracies. And India, with no democratic experience whatsoever, made the leap in 1947 and has remained (with one minor interruption) a quite successful democracy ever since.

It’s true that democracy has seen some setbacks lately – notably Venezuela. But don’t start dancing on democracy’s grave. Nothing in human events is ever neatly linear. Recent democratic reversals are mere perturbations in what has really been a stupendous historical tidal wave. As Brooks notes, over 100 nations have seen democratic uprisings in recent decades; more than 85 authoritarian regimes have fallen; and over 60 of those countries have become more or less democratic.

It’s always a concern that a revolution like Egypt’s will go awry, and bad guys will get power. We remember Khomeini (and Lenin). But we must not let our fears trump our hopes. Nowhere do autocracies serve America’s true long-term national interest. A world in which everyone is free will be a better world for America to live in. And I remain hopeful that I will live to see that world.

(Note, a fuller expression of these ideas can be found in my book, The Case for Rational Optimism; the relevant chapter can be read in full here.)

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3 Responses to “The Last Pharaoh”

  1. Pat Says:

    President Obama would be on the right side of history if he used his Constitutional training to reocgnize that any President has limited effect upon other nations, and that his job is to govern America, not other countries.

    The best Obama can do is show Egypt the way to democracy by hosting a conference on how Egypt may obtain an environment which can lead to a democracy appropriate for Egypt including the many facets of what constitutes a reality-based, legitimate democracy, not an imperial dictatorship disguised as democracy.

    Leaders teach; they do not command and mandate except in emergencies. They also know how to judge what is an emergency and what isn’t, and use freely the power to determine the difference. They are not led around like puppets, nor are they envisioned as kings. As Congress did, Obama needs to go back and read the Constitution again, as does the Supreme Court.

  2. Steve G. Says:

    Excellent post, and thanks for pointing it out to me. We will now experience a time when parties will be jockeying for positions of power in the new regime and here is well the future will hang in the balance. Whether new, democratic institutions will receive enough support to grow and prosper will prove the key. Also, I agree that Fukuyama raised a key point in his discussion of thymos as a key attribute in human motivation and the need for democracy.

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