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Welcome, democracy! (goodbye, liberalism?)

December 12, 2011

There are two seemingly unrelated trends in European politics that have caught American attention lately – one is the rise of the far right, especially in Hungary, and the other is the persistence of Russian protests over United Russia’s vote-rigging in the recent Duma elections. The first story is couched in the narrative of the economic crisis, as Paul Krugman put it, and tells the story of oligarchic tendencies in Western democracies giving way to fascism with a new face. The other, commentators portray as part of the popular uprisings which swept post-Soviet states and the Middle East to demand more accountability.

These are not opposing trends. In both cases, they are reactions to the failure of a status quo, which justified itself, in part, on supposedly technocratic reformism (this is why Putin invokes Stolypin) which, under the stress of crisis, revealed corruption and mismanagement. None of this is to equate Budapest with Moscow, but there are still important lessons.

In Russia, the supposed optimistic case, the portents for liberalism are actually rather dismal. Of the two liberal parties participating in the election, Right Cause and Yabloko, together they garnered about four percent in the elections, as Paul J. Saunders noted. The next most palatable party, as far as Western interests are concerned, would probably be Just Russia, which is a left wing social democratic party, albeit one with a relatively nationalist bent on foreign policy, to the extent it makes noise about foreign policy at all. Actually, it’s important to note that A Just Russia, like the liberal Right Cause, is a Kremlin-endorsed creation designed to siphon votes from the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (a pack of rabid nationalists).

Some optimists have said that the Kremlin routinely overplays the power of nationalists to govern in order to stifle real reforms. This is true, but the Kremlin is also largely correct. While no Russian opposition party is as well-organized as say, the Muslim Brotherhood is in Egypt, there is no question that the nationalists and Communists are better organized and have a broader potential base of support than the liberals. It should also be noted that some of the truly extreme elements, such as the truly disturbing National Bolshevist parties, were not even allowed to participate in the elections.

Even if the Kremlin were to undertake serious reforms, it is ludicrous to imagine that concessions to liberals would serve its interests better than support to nationalists and populists. The raw numbers make it very clear that there is virtually no governing coalition possible in Russia without the support of either Putin’s United Russia, left-nationalists, Communists, or extreme nationalists. Nor, as Saunders notes, is America’s support for the protests likely to change this essential reality.

In Hungary, the rise of Jobbik, and the silent undermining of democracy there (a trend which parallels events in Nicaragua, South Africa, and other recently democratized states) reflects a different threat to relatively liberal democratic principles. Even where it is the status quo, the forces of crisis rarely propel people straightforwardly to the forces of moderate, liberal democracy.  Governments which justify themselves on a technocratic basis, whether they are democratic or authoritarian in nature, encounter crisis and friction, after which nationalism is often a necessary glue for a resilient political coalition.

It is obvious to many historians and historical thinkers that today’s age is part of “democratic age” – but democracy does not inevitably result in liberalism. Indeed, many liberals were extremely skeptical of democracy and the democratic spirit. Nationalism and democracy, on the other hand, have always been bedfellows, and the revival of both in modern Western political thought is much more closely linked than liberalism and democracy ever was.

Since the close of the Cold War we have seen the culmination of an American universal order, the expansion of a supranational, European Union, and under the auspices of both the expansion of liberal and pluralistic democracy. The first two developments are now under serious duress. As democracy expands beyond the reach of prevailing liberal ideals, we should be not be surprised if its supposedly vital liberal moorings prove less potent than the nationalist forces democracy unleashes.

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