By Yuichi Hosoya / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunDemocratic government — or the political forms based on the idea of democracy — is facing enormous structural and unparalleled challenges around the world.
Two books focusing on the ongoing change in the world’s political landscape have been published this year. One of them is “How Democracies Die” by Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. A Japanese edition of this book has been published by Shinchosha Publishing Co. The other book, “How Democracy Ends,” was authored by Cambridge University Prof. David Runciman, with a Japanese version yet to be produced.
Both books admirably depict how the essentials of democratic government are being eroded and degraded now that President Donald Trump has come to power in the United States and the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia seek to wield greater influence on the international community. In this connection, the Harvard professors cite four warning signs “to determine a political leader is a dangerous authoritarian” — the leader “rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game,” “denies the legitimacy of opponents,” “tolerates or encourages violence” and “indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media.”
It is clear from their books that Levitsky, Ziblatt and Runciman, who are among the most respected political scientists in the United States and Britain, share a strong sense of crisis. Their common message to us is: We are right now witnessing “democratic breakdowns.”
We can readily learn news about wars, revolutions and terrorist attacks. Unlike such visible events, the change to which I refer progresses as a silent structural transformation that gives the public little chance to become aware of it. Yet, it entails a staggering impact on society.
The three authors are particularly dismayed by the fact that the United States, which has been regarded as the world’s most solid democracy with a long history of representative government, is currently in such a crisis.
Each democracy has a commendable constitution and holds elections that are freely and fairly contested. Nevertheless, government institutions and the legal system do not necessarily ensure the stability of the foundation of democratic government.
Erosion from within
Levitsky and Ziblatt write: “Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections.” Nonetheless, democracy faces its demise through a different process. The authors add, “Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves.”
With respect to the Japanese title of their book, "Minshushugi no Shinikata” (which can be translated back into English to mean “How Democracy Dies”), I would like to point out that the use of “minshushugi” for democracy is misleading. “Democracies” in the English title refers to democratic governments — not “democracy” as a political ideology.
It is hard to imagine that the ideology or thought of “democracy” will “die” or “end.” But history shows us not a few instances in which governments that had taken the form of democracy eventually failed.
In fact, the Weimar Republic, which emerged as Germany’s post-World War I democratic government, toppled in 1933, giving way to Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.
At the time, Hitler was already expanding the Nazi Party’s political foothold in Germany. But a German newspaper editorial, for example, was still optimistic about the future of democratic government in the republic. Even in the event of the rise of a “bizarre and dangerous” leader like Hitler, the newspaper maintained that the Weimar Constitution — which was considered the most advanced democratic basic law — would be good enough to prevent democratic collapse. However, the Nazi Party caused the democratic regime to be eroded from within, soon to the point of complete disintegration. This was a literal example of the “death” or “end” of a democratic regime.
That said, Runciman has a somewhat different view about how democratic government may come to an end. He says even if democratic government as it now exists finally comes to an end, “I don’t think there is much chance that we are going back to the 1930s.”
History does not simply repeat itself. What is more, the circumstances surrounding the 1930s and those pertaining to the 2010s are quite different from each other.
Following the possible end of the current form of democracy, there may emerge some new political forms we have never experienced before. Such a new political environment may bring new difficulties and challenges that will be different than those we are now faced with.
Plato a critic of democracy
Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, was the first to point to the contradictions and drawbacks associated with democratic government and its possible failure.
People are prone to corruption. Also, there may be occasions in which the masses on the majority side become so emotional over, hostile to and jealous of the rational elites on the minority side that their behavior allows destructive politics to take root. When people get used to leading lazy lives in a free society, they become apt to elect an inflammatory and forceful leader to rule their country.
In his best-known work, “The Republic,” Plato wrote, “The excess of freedom, whether in states or individuals, seems to only pass into the excess of slavery.”
Plato examined five constitutions or forms of government — aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny — and concluded that “tyranny evolves out of no other constitution than democracy” and “the most cruel and aggravated form of slavery arises out of the most extreme form of freedom.”
What Plato means is that freedom brings corruption, inviting tyranny. In other words, he argued that the best possible form of democratic government would paradoxically trigger the emergence of the worst form of tyrannical government.
In 399 B.C., the iconic Greek philosopher, Socrates — who had been Plato’s teacher — was tried and executed by his fellow Athenians. As in this case, many of the elite of late have been subjected to rejection in the United States, where the population has been proud of American democracy. This is fresh proof that democratic government allows people’s emotions and desires to prevail over rational politics.
In today’s world, as mentioned earlier, authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are seeking to expand their geopolitical and military influence. In contrast, people in the United States and certain European countries are increasingly worried that the form of democracy in their countries is in crisis. Further, the growth of artificial intelligence technology and the advancement of science and technology make our lives subject to greater state-sponsored online surveillance and information manipulation.
It is important to acknowledge that Donald Trump has not brought an end to democratic government in the United States but that he was elected when the United States was in the process of breaking with democratic government. In the 2016 election, voters in most U.S. states rejected Hillary Clinton, the candidate who was more rational and elitist than Trump, and the establishments in the Washington circle.
What is interesting is the fact that Japan and Germany, both of which experienced democratic breakdowns in the 1930s, now enjoy a relatively stable state of democracy.
In the Group of Seven forum, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are the longest-serving and second longest-serving leaders, proving that each of them has a strong political foundation at home.
After experiencing democratic collapse in the early 20th century, Japan and Germany managed to reinstate democratic government in the years after World War II. The current stability of the two countries perhaps indicates that people in Japan and Germany are more mindful of the serious consequences of democratic collapse than people in other countries.
For this particular reason, Japan should assume greater responsibility than other countries for telling the rest of the world of the importance of understanding the dread caused by the end of democratic government as well as problems related to authoritarian rule as in the case of China.
Meanwhile, we have to learn from history that a popular demand that the government excessively reflect the will of the people in its policies does not always bring them good results. Only when we squarely face what Plato recognized as the built-in self-destructive flaw in the political form of democracy, can we be in a position to — for the first time — avert the end of democratic government.
(Special to The Yomiuri Shimbun)
Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs. His latest book, “Jishu Dokuritsu towa Nanika” (What Is Self-Driven Independence?), focuses on Japan’s postwar history, including a historical narrative about the making of the Constitution.Speech