PRIOR TO THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP, and the current season of hand- wringing about democracy’s prospects for survival in the United States and Europe, Western social scientists tended to think of democracy as something “we” had achieved and “they”—that is, the peoples of the so-called developing world—had yet to grasp. The hypothesized reasons for this gap between “us” and “them” were many.
One group of scholars held that the dichotomy was due to differences in education and living standards: In the West, affluent people with high degrees of literacy were less racked by the distributional conflicts that made democracy hard to sustain, and more able to take part in the reasoned debate and compromise that are at the heart of the democratic enterprise. Another group of scholars held that the reasons for the difference were cultural: The West was the beneficiary of traditions, religious and otherwise, that valorized the individual and cemented her inviolability in the face of state power; whereas elsewhere, people imbibed collectivist and theocratic belief systems that rendered democracy either inconceivable or illegitimate. These are, of course, not the only explanations offered for why “we” had democracy and “they” didn’t, but they more or less limn the boundaries of the universe of explanations on offer.
As a scholar of the Arab world—a region with 450 million people, only 10 million of whom today live in what we might call a democracy—I have always found these arguments unsatisfying at best and offensive at worst. In particular, I am troubled by claims that democracy is the natural outgrowth of values and beliefs abundant in the West and deficient in the East. After all, my experience of the Arab world has been of a region in which citizens and activists have for the past 50 years pounded a steady drumbeat of demands for freedom, dignity, and social justice. The beat has been louder at some times than at others, but it has always been present—and has always, in my view, given the lie to the notion that non-Western people somehow want democracy less or are less able to imagine it. And although most Arabs have yet to convert their democratic yearnings into genuinely democratic institutions, others outside the advanced industrialized West have done so. Indians, Indonesians, Mongolians, Namibians, Botswanans, Ghanaians, Senegalese, and South Africans have all managed to get and keep democracy.
Today, as many in the West are reeling from what they see as a daily stream of indignities visited upon their democratic values and institutions, the notion that democracy is something the West figured out seems especially quaint. As our Harvard colleagues Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt—authors of the remarkable 2018 book How Democracies Die—remind us, even “consolidated” democracies can suddenly find themselves slouching toward authoritarianism. When politicians care more about staying in power than about respecting the rules of democratic competition, and when citizens suspend their critical faculties and give themselves over to their worst tribal instincts, even the hoariest of constitutional safeguards will prove no stronger than the paper on which they are printed. One need only cast a glance at Hungary, in which a democratically elected leader seems to be dismantling a democratic edifice with remarkable efficiency, to grasp how democracies once deemed impregnable can prove eminently vulnerable.
But although the newly discovered fragility of democracy in the United States and some parts of Europe has put paid to the naive dichotomization of the world into the democratic West and the rest, it has put back on the table for scholars of democracy everywhere the question of whether democracy’s emergence and survival require that citizens and leaders possess certain values, beliefs, and skills. As has been argued by Scott Mainwaring, my former codirector of the Kennedy School’s program Democracy in Hard Places and one of the most gifted scholars of Latin America, democracy endures only to the extent that leaders value it. Only when politicians care so much about democracy that they would be willing to sacrifice their fondest policy goals in order to maintain it, can we bet on its survival. But it is not just leaders whose democratic values and virtues we need to worry about. As our colleague Archon Fung has argued, democracy is unlikely to be long for this world if citizens are unable to distinguish lies from truth, or if they lack the capacity to properly assign credit or blame for the policies that affect their lives.
For a scholar of the developing world, such claims—made routinely today by American scholars writing about America—lead to some uncomfortable places. One cannot, after all, argue that democracy in the United States is endangered by President Trump’s disregard for democratic norms and procedures, or by his supporters’ inability or unwillingness to sort the president’s fictions from facts, while refusing to entertain the possibility that similar phenomena inhibit democracy in the non-Western world. And although this means that we must once again entertain questions of whether this or that country’s democratic deficit is attributable to such things as a lack of democratic culture and liberal values and the relative sophistication of its citizens, our newfound recognition that no society has a lock on these things is likely to lead us to better and more-useful answers.
Tarek Masoud is a professor of public policy and the Sultan of Oman Professor of International Relations and the faculty chair of the Middle East Initiative. His research focuses on political development in Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries.