In January 2010, Via Meadia suggested that
traditional structures of authority will everywhere be stressed; without embracing (and indeed while rejecting) the ideals of western democratic liberalism, people around the world will be ‘small d’ democrats who insist on a greater say in what matters to them.
In the light of the Arab Spring, I’d say we deserve to pat ourselves on the back.While the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the end of the Great Loon of Libya, and the ongoing instability in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria would have been difficult to predict exactly, the mechanism by which this change came about was clear enough at the dawn of the decade. Dictatorships and other authoritarian regimes often rely on the political passivity of their subjects for their survival—a passivity maintained by the government’s monopoly on information. Once the internet plugged the citizens of the most oppressive regimes into independent sources of information, unrest was inevitable.
We here at Via Meadia believe that freedom and liberty are on balance a very good thing, and continue to be moved, along with the rest of the world, by the bravery of protesters from Tunis to Tahrir, from Sana’a to Dara’a. But that Western-style liberals are not ascendant in the wake of retreating autocracy should come as no surprise. Small ‘d’ democracy is an expression of an oppressed people who yearn to have their voices heard. The unpleasant truth is that these voices will often call for policies we can’t support. We should expect many of the governments emerging from the Arab Spring to be hostile to Israel and wary of the United States, at least in the short- and medium-term.Small ‘d’ democrats may not be very good economists, either. Just because an economic policy or idea is popular does not make it wise. It takes time and experience for populist countries to learn how to manage an economy, especially when local traditions and beliefs are far removed from those of the west.Finally, small ‘d’ democrats do not always believe in what we think of as the basic pillars of democratic order: limited government, rule of law, regular changes of government in response to free elections. Hugo Chavez came to power in a populist surge; there are “one man, one vote, one time” believers among some Islamist groups as well. Ever since the French Revolution it has been clear that not all popular risings and democratic surges lead to stable democratic orders; Napoleon is not the only charismatic dictator to rise from the chaos of revolutionary turbulence.Problematic as populist revolutions can be, turning back the clock to a time of reliable client strongmen isn’t a choice anymore. Something can be messy, inconvenient and fraught with danger — and still be inevitable.The Arab Spring has not exhausted the power of this trend, and small ‘d’ democratization does not, in any case, always end in revolution. The pressure on governments to respond to the demand of billions of people for more grassroots power, and the decline of deference to traditional authorities and arbitrary states is here to stay. Expect a bumpy ride.