Phony Democracy and the Internet's Influence

The Post has published a couple opinion pieces in the past couple days-- one from Fred Hiatt, and a column by Anne Applebaum-- both addressing the state of democracy in the world. Applebaum applauds Secretary Clinton for her appearance at the Community of Democracies in Krakow, and issues a call for full-throated support of democracy to return as an objective for American foreign policy.

Hiatt riffs on the work of Freedom House, observing that the forward march of freedom, after decades of remarkable progress, has ground to a halt.  In recent years, we have seen the tide recede, with basic freedoms curtailed and many democratic governments slipping away from basic democratic values like rule of law, press freedom, and open markets. Hiatt blames this regression on repressive governments learning from past mistakes and evolving to be smarter and more effective:

Dictators have learned from each other to stamp out any buds of independent civil society by means of tax laws and supposedly neutral regulation. With China in the lead, they learned not only to neutralize the World Wide Web but to turn it into an effective weapon for propaganda, tracking and repression of their own citizens, and attacks against democratic rivals. Taking advantage of their control of television, they mobilized ideologies of nationalism and anti-terrorism to undermine the rhetoric of freedom...

Three assertive powers -- China, Russia and Iran -- not only resist democratization but actively seek to disseminate their model of authoritarian rule in their spheres of influence.

I think Hiatt is quite right that there is a new trend in authoritarianism, and one that is gaining momentum.  But one of the funny things about this resurgence of authoritarianism is that, unlike the communist states of the 20th century, these autocrats aren't trying to win on the power of their argument. Really, democracy can already boast rhetorical victory, and the fact that these autocrats hold power in part by perpetrating a charade of democracy is a testament to that.  As Applebaum writes:

Countries as disparate as Russia, Venezuela and Iran have become adept at using the rhetoric of "democracy" -- along with faked elections, phony political parties, even state-controlled "civil society" organizations -- to deflect pressure for change.

These prosperous yet undemocratic states like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, and China offer the trappings of democracy, with few of the freedoms. Their ideology is a daunting competitor, and developing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia face a choice between developing as open, free-market democracies, or as closed, statist autocracies. Increasingly, countries are sliding in the wrong direction.

ChinaIn the quote above, Hiatt cites control of the internet as a powerful tool for manipulation and repression by these authoritarian governments. And in truly, madly, deeply authoritarian states like China, North Korea, Belarus, or Syria (or the other 16 countries that grace the pages of Foreign Policy's review of the 20 least free places on earth), that's true.  But I think that internet and mobile networks actually make it harder for states to put on the "charade of democracy" that lets modern authoritarian governments legitimize themselves to their own people and to international observers.

Up until last June, Iran's Islamic Republic was a prime example of a repressive, dictatorial government that managed to be seen as legitimate by many of its own people and many in the Islamic world thanks, in part, to a machinery of democracy that they operated.  But when it didn't produce the result they wanted-- the wrong guy won the presidential election-- the machine started working against them, with the relative free speech and free association they permitted on internet and mobile networks helping to organize an opposition movement.

Iran cracked down, hard.  The government gave up its claim to democratic legitimacy, and the state has been pushed out of the middle ground into a position where everyone can see the regime's true nature.  Increasingly in the coming years, new connection technologies will force governments in this phony middle ground to make a choice.  With powerful tools for organizing, advocacy and communication in the hands of every individual, you can't fake democracy.  Elections are easier to monitor, movements are easier to organize, and the truth has a lot more routes to the people.

Some countries will follow Iran's path: give up their claim to democratic legitimacy and tightly control freedoms of speech and assembly on ICT networks. For other governments, that may not be worth it, or may not be possible, and we may see some developing countries, faced with a fork in the road, taking the path toward openness. As these technologies make phony democracy impossible, countries will have to choose their course, and if anything, we can surely expect the chasm that divides open and closed societies in the 21st century to grow still deeper and wider.