Democracy’s Circuses, Triumphs and Shams

A rally in New Hampshire on election night.

The main event of the past week was, of course, the midterm elections. It was a Republican romp, far greater than any poll predicted, but for those watching it from abroad it was also a striking lesson in the enormous complexity, expense, passion and mystery of the democratic process as practiced in the world’s premier republic.

All robust democracies surround elections with a circus atmosphere of stump speeches, TV debates, ceaseless polls, ads and posters. But none can surpass the United States in the range of offices that come up for election every two years, from the entire House of Representatives to scores of senators, governors, judges, local legislators and prosecutors, or the resolutions on issues like legalizing marijuana. And few spend anywhere near as much — around $4 billion was spent on this election.

It’s not all pretty, what with the prevalence of the attack ads and shameless lies. Nor is the mood of the American electorate understandable to a foreign observer: Why do American voters feel so strong a need to “punish” President Obama when the economy is in decent shape, unemployment is falling, most troops are home from foreign wars and the political gridlock in Washington is hardly his fault alone?

The apparent reason is that Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the way they are being governed. The departing Congress is widely reviled for its dysfunction, polarization and lack of achievement, and at times like this, people punish the president and his party. That may not seem fair or reasonable, but offering a legitimate channel for frustration and anger, and endowing the public with a sense that they can do something about it, is a key component of democracy.

Twenty-five years ago, the people of East Berlin did something about their frustrations in a far different way, bursting through the wall that had physically denied them and millions of Eastern Europeans the most elemental freedoms.

With the approach of Sunday’s anniversary, however, many commentaries have focused on the dashed hopes and lost illusions of that joyous moment. Russia is again looming as a threat, China has found ways of combining authoritarian rule with economic might, the United States is widely perceived around the world as having misused its monopoly on superpower, the Middle East is locked in sectarian rivalries that spread vicious terror far beyond the region, and democracy appears on the defensive against populist challenges and economic troubles.

None of that should detract from the sheer joy that was Nov. 9, 1989, in Berlin, when people who had lived under the threat of repression for thinking the wrong thought or dreaming the wrong dream suddenly found themselves free. I was there that night, and at many of the other celebrations across Eastern Europe and, yes, Russia, that collectively came to be known as the Fall of the Wall.

Many recognized at the time that this was a plunge into the unknown, and many had fears and doubts about where it would all lead. But at the moment when the formidable forces of repression created by the Soviet Union and its minions retreated before the power of the human spirit, there could be only celebration. As there was, unforgettably, that night in Berlin, and as there should be on this anniversary.

Over the past 25 years we have learned that building democracy requires more than triumphant moments like that night in Berlin — or the many days and nights of the Arab Spring in Middle Eastern capitals. However exhilarating it may be to topple statues of dictators and sack the offices of the political police, these are symptoms of a failure of the social contract, and not a guarantee that a new one will work better. Democracy is institutions, a culture, a history, a process.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine

Democracy is not what transpired in the sham elections held on Nov. 2 in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Ukrainian cities and surrounding areas held by pro-Russian separatists. Though many of the people who cast ballots may have honestly believed they were helping end the chaos in which they’ve lived for more than half a year now, the elections called by leaders of the self-proclaimed “peoples’ republics” served only to freeze the conflict, leaving residents in limbo.

The elections come a week after parliamentary elections in the rest of Ukraine, with a predictable victory for parties favoring a closer union with the West. The United States, the European Union and the United Nations refused to recognize the voting in the rebel territories, and the government in Kiev condemned it as a violation of a cease-fire agreement laid out by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in September. One result was that Ukraine cut off all state funding to rogue territories.

Russia welcomed the elections, declaring that the “peoples’ republics” now had “legitimate” representatives to negotiate with Kiev on their future status. Moscow can also claim it is responding to legitimate demands for assistance when it funds and otherwise props up the rebel territories. NATO says hundreds of Russian troops are still inside eastern Ukraine training rebel soldiers.

For now, the net effect is that Russia has added two more unrecognized “states” and frozen conflicts to its collection, alongside South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. That may suit President Putin just fine, but not his economy: The past week was the worst for the ruble in many years, dropping the Russian currency to all-time lows against the dollar and the euro.

After the Elections

Even if the midterm elections in the United States were not cause for celebration, given the sour mood of the electorate, the low turnout and the partisan attacks, they did demonstrate that there is a way to effect change other than through barricades or sham ballots.

The change may not be for the better this time around. It is possible that a Congress now fully in Republican hands will only deepen the ugly duel with the Democratic president that has so damaged Washington in recent years. But there will be new elections in two years.

It could also be that a lame-duck president in need of a legacy, a Congress in need of salvaging its brand and a Republican Party looking two years ahead will find ways to cut some deals. Initial signals were mixed, but already on the day after the election there was talk of various walls that could be breached, like reforming the tax code, promoting trade and eliminating the budget deficit.

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