Sometimes I am not sure if I became a historian because I am pessimistic by nature, or if I became pessimistic because I am a historian. These days one does not have to be pessimistic to worry about political developments in many countries. I am not the only one who has noted a certain negative trend in the political evolution of Europe and the US.
From Poland to the Czech Republic, and from Slovakia to Hungary, illiberal regimes seem to be on the move. I am not even talking about Russia and other countries which were never really democratic. I am talking about states which suffered under communist regimes, tasted the fruits of democracy in the 1990s and early 2000s, but are now charting a different course.
It is disheartening to see the people of Europe turning their backs on liberal democracy in favor of regimes that are democratic in name only. And while the European core, Germany, France and Italy, is holding on to its democratic ideals, the collective voice of Europe is muted as illiberal states hold a measure of power in the EU. How can the EU lecture other countries about basic human rights when Poland and Hungary, major recipients of EU economic support, are allowed a free hand in oppressing segments of their own people? When Viktor Orban basks front and center during meetings of EU heads of government, can the EU castigate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his violations of human rights?
Here I will single out Greece as a good example of a country which went through “trial by fire” but came through with its democratic institutions in good order. It was only 10 years ago that the economic crisis resulted in major demonstrations against the Greek Parliament and the country’s democratically elected leaders came under attack. Just like in other European countries, populism was on the rise and a neo-Nazi party found itself sitting in the Vouli. Yet, our democratic system prevailed, Golden Dawn disappeared, and open and democratic elections brought about a peaceful transition of power.
But while small states like Greece or Hungary becoming illiberal is unpalatable, at the end of the day that is a problem mainly for the people of those countries. Recent developments however are more ominous. An illiberal leader of a large country, such as Vladimir Putin of Russia, is capable of hostile acts the kinds of which we thought were not possible in Europe any longer. His attack on Ukraine reveals him for the autocrat he really is, and the attacks on civilian targets betray the lengths to which he will go to achieve his ends. Add to this his nuclear capability and one can see why a strong non-democratic country is, once again, a threat to world peace.
I single out Greece as a good example of a country which went through ‘trial by fire’ but came through with its democratic institutions in good order
Unfortunately, just when the free world needs America (with all its shortcomings notwithstanding) the most, the USA appears poised to join the ranks of the so-called “illiberal democracies.” For those who wonder as to the results of next November’s congressional elections and those of the presidential elections of 2024, it pains me to say that the great American Republic is about to fall. The Democrats will most likely lose both elections, mostly due to corrupt methods. The Republican Party which will come to power is not the same one that I have known since I came to this country in 1981. Whatever else one might say about presidents Reagan and Bush (father and son), they were committed to upholding the ideals of the Republic. Currently the Republican Party is under the spell of extreme right-wing white nationalists with very little understanding of and even less sympathy for basic democratic ideas and procedures.
Accepting the myth that the 2020 election was “stolen” – something that no US court, from the lowest to the highest, and no individual judge, appointed by Democrats or Republicans, including Donald Trump, has found to be valid – many Republican-controlled states took action. Since in the US system individual states, not the Federal Government, control the electoral process, some Republican-controlled states have taken measures to usurp the popular vote. Thus, some state legislatures are empowered to ignore the popular vote and declare whomever they want the winner of the next elections. In essence the American democratic process has already been compromised. As a result, the US will slide away from democracy and freedom. Women, people of color and working-class people will experience discrimination, and loss of freedoms we now take for granted. Corporations will be empowered to pollute, gouge the consumer, and ignore basic safety regulations.
To be sure, there will still be elections and an elected president, Congress etc. There will still be courts, newspapers and TV stations. They will all function seemingly as before, only by then the US Republic will resemble more Putin’s Russia than Roosevelt’s, Eisenhower’s or Reagan’s America.
John A. Mazis is a history professor at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.