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Donald Trump And 'Waves Of Democracy'

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Samuel “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington’s lesser known work on the ebb and flow of democracy can be helpful in the era of Donald Trump, when we need to distinguish dangerous trends from merely inconvenient or unpopular ones.

Huntington’s work shows that democracy is never “secure.” No matter its age, the system has to always be defended, and the most critical defender is a strong, independent, and trustworthy news media. Without it, almost nothing else in democracy is possible. Wherever we find sick democracies, we also find a sick press.

For journalists around the world working in places where the press is not truly free and democracy is not currently stable, it is tempting to abandon the effort. But democracy is built incrementally. It takes time to build norms and practices of independence, transparency and accountability in young democracies.

U.S. media are currently in a panic fearing that journalism won’t be able halt Trump’s agenda. They fear his regime will make a frontal assault on U.S. democracy and especially the press, despite the country's 200-year democratic tradition.

In my view, their agony is vastly exaggerated, but there are good reasons to be wary.

In his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, Huntington compares the history of democracy to a series of breaking waves that each time push into more and different parts of the globe. This is no story of triumph, however.

The first wave followed the American and French revolutions. The second followed WWII and decolonization. The third accompanied the 1989 post-communist global reset. We have now seen a fourth wave after the 2001 U.S. invasion of Iraq up through the Arab Spring. This last one has been a dismal wave indeed.

Huntington’s work predicts our dismay because it turns out that democratic waves that come in also often retreat. Most democracies won’t survive to their teenage years. They are traded in for or usurped by unsavory alternatives.

Why do countries experiment with democracy and then abandon it? I’ll mention three of Huntington’s reasons that might have some relevance for the U.S. and Trump-era politics.

1) Unfulfilled expectations: In a literal sense, democracy doesn’t pay off for the idealistic nations that adopt it. For the suffering masses who desire industrialized-world standards of living - or constantly improving standards - democracy can only fail.

Those unfulfilled expectations lead to a strange affliction called “authoritarian nostalgia,” like when the Jews wandering (freely and hungrily) in the desert grumbled that they “had it better under Pharaoh.”

2) Unenlightened leaders. New democracies contend with unprepared leaders that can’t or won’t model or teach what good citizenship looks like in a democracy.

Even a leader as promising and sympathetic as Burma’s democratic reformer Aung San Suu Kyi was a better dissident than leader (though to be clear she is not the country’s premier). 

Meanwhile, freshly democratized populations lack political culture (weak civil society; excessive levels of corruption) to offset bad leaders or to support institutions required for democratic success.

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