Reagan’s Westminster Address and Democracy 35 Years Later

Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright turned president in Czechoslovakia, had a unique ability to find hope in the bleakest of situations. In his famous essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” he explained how ordinary and seemingly helpless people can expose the fatal weaknesses of totalitarian systems by rejecting official propaganda and fearlessly “living in truth.” The Polish Solidarity activist Zbigniew Bujak said that “When the essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979…we felt that we were at the end of the road.” The essay maintained our spirits, he said, by giving “us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity.” Suddenly it became clear that the party apparatus was afraid of the workers’ movement and that “we mattered.” The Solidarity uprising occurred just a year later, leading to the Gdansk Agreement that opened the first crack in the totalitarian political system.

It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, that at the end of May a group of democratic intellectuals and activists from more than two dozen countries gathered in Prague under the auspices of Forum 2000, an organization founded by Havel, to consider how to reverse the alarming decline of liberal democracy in the world today. The group issued  The Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal that has already been signed by more than sixty prominent figures from around the world, among them Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich, the former Estonian President Toomas Ilves, Bernard-Henri Levy, William Galston, Francis Fukuyama, Anne Applebaum, Garry Kasparov, Amr Hamzawy, Sergio Bitar, Shlomo Avineri, Adam Michnik, Leon Wieseltier, Maina Kiai, and Yang Jianli.  

The Appeal identified both external and internal threats to democracy, the former represented by the growing hard and soft power of authoritarian countries like Russia and China, and the geopolitical retreat of the West; and the latter reflected in the erosion of belief in democratic values and the loss of faith in the efficacy of democratic institutions in many of the long-established democracies. Such problems, according to The Prague Appeal, “have caused widespread anxiety, hostility to political elites, and cynicism about democracy.” One result has been eleven consecutive years of decline in political rights and civil liberties, as reported in the latest Freedom House global survey. 

The Appeal called for the creation of a Coalition for Democratic Renewal that would seek “to change the intellectual and cultural climate by waging a principled, informed, and impassioned battle of ideas.” In addition to reaffirming the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, the Appeal called for a campaign to defend democracy against its critics, to support the brave people who are fighting for freedom in non-democratic countries, and to expose “the crimes of kleptocrats who rob and oppress their own people,” even as they seek “to divide and defame established democracies.”  

The Coalition will also be a forum to address the complex new challenges facing democracy, such as economic stagnation, the backlash against immigration, the rise of “post-truth” politics in an age of social media, and the erosion of support for liberal values.

It is reasonable to ask whether such a campaign can realistically hope to reverse the retreat of liberal democracy, which faces formidable challenges on so many different fronts. Havel once said that there is always hope, which is not a prognostication but “a dimension of the soul.” But that begs the question of whether the Coalition can realistically achieve its ambitious objectives.

Here we need to turn to a different democratic leader, Ronald Reagan, and to the Westminster Address that he delivered in the British Parliament 35 years ago this week.  “Optimism,” Reagan said, “comes less easily today” at the end of “a bloody century” when “democracy’s enemies have refined their instruments of repression.” He was speaking at another difficult time for democracy, not long after the US defeat in Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the declaration of martial law in Poland, and President Jimmy Carter’s “malaise” declaration about the “crisis of confidence” in America threatening “the social and the political fabric” of the country. Daniel Patrick Moynihan reflected the pessimism of the period when he declared on the occasion of the US bicentennial that “democracy is where the world was, not where the world is going.”

Reagan nonetheless believed that “optimism is in order” because he felt that democracy was showing resilience–it was not, he said, a “fragile flower”–and totalitarianism faced “a great revolutionary crisis” in which “the demands of the economic order are conflicting directly with those of the political order.” Before anyone foresaw what was later called “the third wave of democratization,” Reagan proclaimed that “around the world today the democratic revolution is gathering new strength” and “the march of freedom and democracy…will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people.”

It’s very hard to summon such optimism today. The impulse for democratic renewal, as demonstrated by The Prague Appeal, is coming not from democratic leaders but from intellectuals and activists. It is nonetheless still appropriate to ask if there are hidden opportunities today for the restoration of democratic momentum, as well as incipient crises that could lead to unexpected authoritarian breakdowns.

There are three reasons to think that there is the potential for democratic progress in the period ahead. The first is the growth and resilience of civil-society movements around the world that are pressing for democratic accountability and promoting democratic advocacy and education. Such movements hardly existed when Reagan delivered his Westminster Address 35 years ago, but today they have effective and vigorous networks, extensive international support systems, and access to social media that gives them a communications and outreach capacity that is entirely new. Their influence has been a factor in the democratic advances that have taken place recently in countries like Argentina, Burma, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria. The National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its pivotal role in that country’s democratic transition. The contribution of civil society may also explain why the number of electoral democracies in the world–123 according to the latest Freedom House survey–has remained roughly stable since the peak year of 2005 when it was 125, despite the backsliding in countries like Turkey and the Philippines and the 11-year decline in democratic freedoms.

The importance of such movements is the reason Russia, China, Egypt, and other autocratic governments have been passing harsh NGO laws and taking other measures to repress civil society and close off civic space. Their fear of what they call “colored revolutions” is a symptom of their own insecurity, which is why the possibility of authoritarian breakdowns is a second reason for cautious optimism. In Russia, for example, the regime has lost the support of young people, whose significant participation in the anti-corruption protests in more than 100 cities on March 26 was the distinctive feature of that uprising.  In China, the continued imprisonment of the Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo exposes the insecurity of the Xi regime, which now must confront explosive allegations of corruption at the highest level that have been made by billionaire Guo Wengui, who is planning to release “concrete evidence” at a press conference preceding the 19th party congress in the fall. Other dictatorial regimes also face uncertain futures, especially in Venezuela where continuing protests are likely to accelerate the Maduro regime’s inevitable collapse.

The third source of potential progress is the possibility that the rise of illiberal populism and the prospect of democratic deconsolidation in the advanced democracies will concentrate enough minds to spark a democratic renewal. In the words of The Prague Appeal “There is no excuse for silence or inaction.  We dare not cling to the illusion of security at a time when democracy is imperiled. The present crisis provides an opportunity for committed democrats to mobilize, and we must seize it.”

The robust optimism of Reagan may not suit the times. But Havel’s more restrained statement of hope still resonates. “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of an immediate or visible political effect,” he said after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, “can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance.” A better future is possible, therefore, but only if we are prepared to take moral actions and, as Havel said, live in truth. The time for such action has now arrived.

Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).


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