THR Web Features   /   March 26, 2014


Jay Tolson

The "end of history" thesis appears to have come to its final end in recent weeks. Certainly, the once-heralded spread of democracy and liberal values throughout the world is now looking far from inevitable.

Even before recent discouraging developments in—take your pick—Crimea (phony ballots and voter suppression before Anschluss), Turkey (farewell to Twitter, amid other suppressions of a free press), or Venezuela (jailed mayors and slain students), trend lines were not encouraging.  Freedom House, the reliable global monitor of such matters, reports 8 straight years of more declines in political liberties and civil rights worldwide than gains. Unfree and partly free countries now outnumber free ones 107 to 88. So much for Hegel (and Fukuyama), at least for the next half century or so.

What was so emphatically depressing about those Crimea ballots, shown above, (which allowed select voters the "choice" between joining Russia directly or joining it indirectly) was their dramatic illustration of another Freedom House finding: that "modern authoritarians" are suppressing all opposition even while maintaining the outward trappings of legality and democratic process (though quietly and insistently dismantling or dominating institutions that guarantee real pluralism, including legislatures, the judiciary, police and security forces, the media, civil society, and even the economy).

The Crimea nastiness focused the world's attention on this new form of "managed democracy" because we saw it brazenly employed in a transnational land grab that violated most widely accepted principles of international law and national sovereignty. And if it could happen in Crimea (and tomorrow in other parts of southern and eastern Ukraine), why can't our current crop of smooth autocrats use managed democracy to acquire whatever territories they set their eyes on. President Hamid Karzai, who harbors notions of bringing Pashtun regions of Pakistan into Afghanistan, has already endorsed Crimea's annexation as the valid exercise of the principle of self-determination, and he's not even thought to be an autocrat.

But if the world is turning into a bleak stage for the cynical manipulation and abuse of democratic principles for undemocratic, illiberal, or simply self-aggrandizing ends, then the United States cannot hold itself entirely blameless. We haven't exactly been burnishing the image of democracy lately. Our recent governmental disfunctions, often driven by thoroughly unprincipled partisanship, have given people around the world good reason to think that democracy may not be a model system of reasonable, efficient, or even particularly virtuous governance. The rolling back of voter-rights protections in certain states and the imposition of new voting requirements in others raises questions about the depth of our commitment to core practices of democracy. And the growing power of money in politics has raised concerns about a drift toward patrimonial capitalism and even oligarchy.

All that said, reports of the death of American democracy are greatly exaggerated. Our system has come through other depressions, gilded ages, and even, as in the years preceding the Civil War, crippling bouts of political gridlock. What makes our current shortcomings so problematic and worrisome is that they now come under the intense scrutiny of friends and foes around the world, the former counting on us to serve as a model, the latter hoping we fail.

Even worse, we appear to be doing our very best to convince the world through our own cultural exports that our foes' fondest wishes are coming true.  Speaking at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture a few weeks ago, Martha Bayles, author of Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad, (a section of which is excerpted in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review), made a sobering point about the huge popularity of the Netflix series House of Cards in China. A dark drama about corruption, intrigue, and murder in the highest corridors of power in Washington, the show particularly appeals to elite Chinese viewers who seem to take comfort in the fact that political life in America appears to be at least as rotten as their own.

House of Cards may be an extreme case, but as Bayles shows in her timely book, the decline of America's public diplomacy efforts and institutions—which once vigorously promoted our strongest civic and political ideals—means that popular culture exports are now the main shapers of our image abroad. And when not glorifying violence, crime, or casual sex, most of these exports depict a people largely cut off from sustaining ties with family or community, completely absorbed in preening narcissim and seflish consumerism. So this, both friends and foes must think, is what American democracy hath wrought! Needless to say, the picture inspires neither emulation nor respect.

No, we can't blame the world's growing democracy deficit on Hollywood and other engines of American popular culture production. After all, television and film depictions of contemporary American society are not entirely caricatures. But we must at least recognize how little we do to correct the distorted picture of what our nation holds most dear. And how doing so little costs us, and the world, so much.