Not Divorced from the Future
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Fareed Zakaria. The Future of Freedom. Illiberal Democracy at
Home and Abroad.
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2003. 286

Throughout the centuries, which are often difficult and
unpredictable, people have introduced many ideas that are aimed not
so much at improving the world, as to convince themselves that
changing it for the better is possible and even unavoidable.
Theories arguing in favor of such possibilities have always
remained above the most unbiased scientific criticism. However,
their only uncompromising critic, history, never ceased to expose
the utopia of a bright future for humankind.

Over the past centuries the idea of a just society built on
democratic principles has been winning an increasing number of
adherents. The intensity and prevalence of the belief that
democracy does make things better seems to make it a perfect match
for world religions. But why is democracy endowed with nearly
extraordinary qualities? Farid Zakaria, one of the most original
political analysts of modern-day America, Editor-in-Chief of
Newsweek magazine and the author of several best-selling books,
raises this timely and difficult question in his latest book.

In no uncertain terms does Zakaria state that democracy is a
mere shape assumed by the political process and not its essence.
This claim deserves a thorough examination since the need to
enlarge a zone of democracy in the world underpins almost every
U.S. foreign policy initiative. Still more impressive are the
author’s arguments and conclusions.

Zakaria does not share the view that democratic rule by itself
is a fair form of governance (pp. 18-19); democratic procedures, on
their own, aren’t enough to secure liberal order and guarantee
civil rights (pp. 25-26). Some thriving countries, such as
Singapore and Hong-Kong, are not democracies in the strictest
sense, yet they meet the criteria of a rule-of-law state that
possesses a liberal system of government (p. 86). Conversely, the
formal observance of democratic principles did not prevent
Yugoslavia from sliding into an autocratic regime imposed by their
former President Slobodan Milosevic, ethnic cleansing and finally
civil war (pp. 113-114). The various ways democracy is presented in
the world leads the author to conclude that the basic solution to
its problems lies not in a democratic system of government per se,
but in a Kantian-style republican system with its “separation of
powers, checks and balances, the rule of law, protection of
individual rights, and some level of representation in government
(though nothing close to universal suffrage)” (p. 116). The values
of the West, writes Zakaria, do not stem from the Greek tradition
in which “democracy often meant… the subjection of the individual
to the authority of the community”, but from the Roman principles,
the foremost of which proclaimed “that all citizens were to be
treated equally under the law” (p. 32). “The Roman Republic,”
continues the author, “with its divided government, election of
officials to limited terms, and emphasis on equality under law has
been a model for governments ever since, most consciously in the
founding of the American Republic”  (p. 32).

Zakaria discerns two opposing types of democracy: liberal
democracy, which is a most welcome phenomenon, and illiberal
democracy, which impedes the development of a republican political
system up to modern standards. The term ‘illiberal democracy’
doesn’t stress its hostility toward liberal democracy, be it an
institution or a custom (otherwise, ‘non-liberal democracy’ would
be a more appropriate term), but rather its immaturity in terms of
assimilated liberal values (adding connotations cognate with those
of the adjective ‘illiterate’). At first sight, the author seems to
suggest that the replication of the democratic model in countries
with no previous extensive experience in it provides, in most
cases, a breeding ground for illiberal democracy (Zakaria
immediately cites two examples—China and Russia; pp. 89-96). But
his actual views are broad enough to acknowledge that an already
existing liberal democracy is not immune from the danger of
degenerating into an illiberal democracy.

According to Zakaria, at the beginning of the 21st century
traditions of democracy and freedom “interwoven in the Western
political fabric, are coming apart across the globe” (p. 17).
Surprisingly, the lack of democracy is not necessarily something
deplorable, just as its surplus is not necessarily laudable. The
author shows that the democratic process in Yugoslavia led to a
civil war, while Russia’s democratically elected president clamps
down on press freedom while promoting an authoritarian, if
moderate, rule (p. 92). He attributes the fact that a number of
African and Asian countries lag in terms of societal development
behind many states recognized as “less democratic” not to the lack
of democracy in those countries but to the ineffectiveness of their
government (see p. 98). Zakaria believes that the democratization
of the Arab world is presently fraught with an extreme danger. He
argues that if democratic elections were held there today, they
could possibly provide a boost to the Islamic forces, thus wiping
out the sparse signs of progress initiated by the advent of Western
culture (pp. 136-140). Finally, the author strongly dismisses all
speculation about the European Union’s anti-democratic nature,
noting that the success of European integration was made possible,
in large measure, by the EU institutions. These have been free from
populist interests when adopting rationalist decisions (pp.

For decades liberal thinkers have viewed democracy as a value in
itself, while every problem associated with it was put down to its
insufficient development. “The cure for the ailments of democracy,”
wrote in 1927 the famous American philosopher George Dewey, whom
Zakaria quotes in his book, “is more democracy” (p. 240). In the
author’s opinion, our recent history tells us that this formula is
wrong. The spread of democracy, American-style, which he aptly
compares to the franchising process so common to American
corporations (ibid.), plays into the hands of illiberal democracy.
But “in general, outside Europe, illiberal democracy has not proved
to be an effective path to liberal democracy” (p. 100). Therefore,
illiberal democracies are much less progressive than the regimes
which, if not quite democratically, still are capable of advancing
the principles of civil society (Zakaria describes them as
“liberalizing autocracies” (p. 56).

The author considers the situation of a liberal and “not quite
democratic” society optimal for many countries of the contemporary
world. Speaking of its advantages, he refers not only to the
historical experience of the Western democracies, which evolved out
of aristocratic rule, but also to that of “third-world” countries
of which only former British colonies have been consistent in
maintaining democratic principles (p. 57). Zakaria defines
constitutional liberalism as a form of government based on
democratic procedures and yet steering clear of illiberal
democracy: “For much of modern history, what characterized
governments in Europe and North America, and differentiated them
from those around the world, was not democracy but constitutional
liberalism” (p. 20). In the early 1830s, a mere 1.8 percent of the
British population had the right to vote in the election to the
House of Commons. The 1832 electoral legislation, perceived as
revolutionary in those days, raised this fraction to 2.7 percent.
In 1884 it rose to 12.1 percent; it finally gave way to universal
suffrage in only 1930. Although this figure for the U.S. was
slightly higher – 5 percent of the country’s adult population was
entitled to vote in the presidential election of 1824 — it didn’t
signify a dramatic change in the situation (pp. 20, 50). In the
author’s view, the consistency in law enforcement and observance,
rather than democratic plebiscites, has been a prerogative for
striking the right balance between the Western constitutional
system and complementing its democracy.

Zakaria warns against an uncritical attitude toward democracy,
which could pose a major threat to the West; this is all the more
serious as it comes from within its societies and is not paid the
due attention. Today, most Westerners seem unprepared to admit that
inside their countries “democracy is flourishing; liberty is not”
(p. 17). They should pay heed to Goethe’s more than ever topical
observation: he who believes himself to be free labors under
delusion, while being subjected to the cruelest slavery.

The author believes that the decline of freedom, which is
running parallel to the strengthening of democracy, is becoming
particularly noticeable in the U.S. To illustrate this point he
provides various examples. Thus, reputable banks with a solid
record are being taken over by newly established ones that are
proficient in standardized banking products targeting mass
clientele (p. 200). More lawyers tend to become businessmen today,
and their activities are more likely to inspire contempt for the
law than respect (p. 232). Those who hold political offices very
quickly lose interest in anything but their own re-election (see p.
172). Political platforms of different parties, which were at one
time clear and understandable, have become indistinct and
confusing, while parties evolve into mere appendages of their
leadership (p. 181). Even major churches have given way to dozens
of sects and religious movements, which are primarily concerned
with increasing their flock (pp. 205-206, 214-215).

Zakaria believes that this decline takes its root from the lack
of regard for individual achievement on the part of society,
resulting in the “suicide of elites.” This point is of such great
importance that it deserves to be given undue attention. No matter
how egalitarian America may declare itself, it has always had
elites and continues to have them, begins the author. But “the old
elites were a closed circle, based on bloodlines, birth, and
ethnicity. The new system is more democratic, with people rising to
the top because of money, brains, or celebrity – all in all, a much
better and more open process of selection. Another great
difference, however, is that the old elites were more socially
responsible in part because they were utterly secure in their
status. The new ones operate in a far more open and competitive
world… Their interests are not wide-ranging but narrow, their
horizon not long-term but tomorrow. In sum, they do not think or
act like elites, which is unfortunate, because they still are” (p.

We can only add here that the majority’s control over the
powers-that-be, and setting definite limits to any actions it may
perceive as illegitimate, presents democracy’s greatest strength.
While its greatest weakness consists in equating illegitimate
actions with incorrect ones, and endowing the majority with the
legal authority to discriminate between right and wrong. This dealt
a setback: the slide in the values and aspirations upheld by the
upper classes has gone so far that the distinction between them and
the lower classes have become blurred; thinking patterns grew
rather simplistic while answers to questions, no matter how
challenging, became too easy and straightforward.

A citizen of the U.S., Zakaria levels criticism against his own
state for emasculating democratic principles. He draws on the
example of India, his historical homeland. This country gained its
independence under Mahatma Gandhi, the famous humanist and one of
the most prominent political figures of the 20th century. He was
succeeded by Javaharlal Neru, the first prime minister of India,
who ruled the country for 15 years. A graduate of Harrow and Oxford
with a major in English History and Literature, he referred to
himself, with the least hesitation as the “last Englishman to rule
India.” It was in his era that the groundwork for the world’s
largest democracy, with voter turnouts surpassing those of the U.S.
by 3.5 times, was laid. But what’s the point of it? One in three
ministers in the government of India’s largest state,
Uttar-Pradesh, have undergone criminal prosecution, while one in
five have been charged with or even convicted of premeditated
homicide. By the same token, the state boasts the highest voter
turnouts in the country (incidentally, Neru and his daughter Indira
Gandhi have been returned to parliament from this state (for more
details see pp. 105-113). Of course, such a state of affairs seems
impossible in the U.S. But we should not be too premature in our
judgements of the things to come.

What are the main conclusions of the book? In our opinion, there
are primarily two. First, promoting democracy in the developing
world does not call for immediate “democratization” in its
traditional sense. The author draws a peculiar parallel between
political democratization and economic modernization; in the past,
countries leaning toward authoritarian rule have achieved a much
greater economic progress than those countries that placed
political reform ahead of the other concerns. Perhaps this book’s
highlight is that autocratic regimes maintaining law and order open
up broader vistas to their peoples than do the illiberal
democracies today.

Secondly, the U.S. drive toward spreading democracy is a serious
destabilizing factor. American democracy swiftly degenerates into
illiberal democracy of some special kind. So presently Americans
have nothing to teach the outside world because in the U.S. “what
we need in politics today is not more democracy but less” (p. 248).
Furthermore, Zakaria identifies a fundamental gap between the
beginning and the end of the 20th century, reflected in the
inverted motto…from “to make the world safer for democracy” to “to
make democracy safe for the world” (p. 256).

Will the West deal well with this challenge? Even if it does, it
will not be the U.S. that will preside over its resolution. And
even if more countries should take on democracy as a model, they’d
better look to the European original, rather than the American
copy. The aggressive peddling of the latter should not mislead
anyone: copies are cheap as they are easy to churn out.

Vladislav Inozemtsev