Electoral politics has had a bad decadeby Mark Mazower / April 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Anti-austerity protests in Greece, May 2010: the fallout from the financial crisis is putting pressure on democracies worldwide © Ais Messinis/AFP/Getty Images
Nearly a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson famously declared that the United States would enter the First World War to make the world “safe for democracy.” Yet what exactly democracy meant had no simple answer then, nor since. Was it a matter of free self-governing nations, as Wilson believed? Or was that mere bourgeois democracy, nothing more than a threadbare veil for parasites, profiteers and warmongers? And there were other versions—social, economic and Christian. Stalin offered People’s Democracy, apparently compatible with one-party rule and oversight from the Kremlin. Nazi legal theorists had their own racialised, anti-parliamentary version. These competing conceptions of democracy had one thing in common: they were really arguments about what it ought to be, trouncing actually existing democracies in the name of an ideal.
But had this ideal ever been realised? Some said it had, finding genealogies that stretched back to the dear old ancient Greeks. Americans were especially prone to this historical industriousness and from Wilson’s day onwards newly-minted “western civilisation” courses taught generations of young men (and later women) across the country that they had been entrusted with Hellenic ideals of freedom. By the time one more kind of democracy, the so-called liberal version, implanted itself in American discourse (spreading like wildfire from the 1970s onwards), it had become axiomatic that in identifying itself with spreading these values worldwide, the US was remaining true to its founding ideals.
Except that it wasn’t….