The dismay at what is happening in the Middle East is legitimate, but the general analysis of its causes and implications is hogwash…This is what political development in the real world actually looks like, and anybody who expected smooth, quick, linear progress from tyranny to liberal democracy was naïve or foolish.
So far, so good. As I wrote here nearly two years ago, most attempts at democratization everywhere have eventually led back to authoritarian rule, and there is no reason to expect countries in the Middle East and North Africa to fare differently.
I’m also with her 100 percent on the deep causes of that turbulence in the democratization process.
The fundamental mistake most commentators on the Arab Spring make is underestimating the scale, scope, and perniciousness of authoritarianism. Tyranny is more than a type of political order; it is an economic and social system as well, one that permeates most aspects of a country’s life and has deep roots in a vast array of formal and informal institutions. Achieving liberal democracy is thus not simply a matter of changing some lines on a political wiring diagram but, rather, of eliminating authoritarian legacies in the society, economy, and culture as well. This is almost always an incredibly difficult, exhausting, and protracted process.
What had me shaking my head at the end, though, was the teleology implicit in her long-term outlook.
What is going on in the Middle East today is not a bug in political development but a feature of it. History shows that illiberal democracy is often a precursor to liberal democracy. What has happened time and again is that a country begins with a nondemocratic regime, proceeds through a phase (or several phases) of minimal or illiberal democratic experience, and eventually emerges with a consolidated liberal democracy.
As a grossly simplified description of the democratization trajectories followed by the United States and much of Western Europe, I think this works. As a road map that the rest of the world will eventually follow, however, I’m not so sure. In historical terms, the period during which the U.S. and Europe could confidently be described as “consolidated liberal” democracies has been relatively brief, and some thoughtful observers argue that that era has already passed. What’s more, the geopolitical, economic, demographic, and environmental context in which political development is now occurring differs sharply from the context in which those earlier arcs unfurled, and the pace of change in that context seems to be accelerating still.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still optimistic that global politics in the twenty-first century will continue to evolve in a more democratic direction. The tumult occurring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other corners of the Arab world is just the latest evidence that it’s getting harder and harder to sustain the kind of full-blown, paternalistic authoritarian rule that was the prevailing form of national politics around the globe throughout the twentieth century. I’m just not as certain as Berman seems to be about exactly what institutional forms that tumult will eventually produce.