Yesterday I caught up with the latest episode of Pod Save the World, a foreign policy-focused spinoff from the folks behind Pod Save America. (You may remember I wrote about Pod Save America just the other day.) The guest, Mike McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, offered some sobering thoughts about the speed at which one might see democracy unwinding.
McFaul and the podcast’s host, Tommy Vietor, were with the State Department during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010. Vietor noted that while many of his colleagues felt optimistic that major democratic reforms might take place, McFaul had been cautious—noting that democracy requires generations to take root.
The obvious question for the Ambassador today—and I found myself holding my breath when Vietor asked it—is, given that it takes generations for democracies to established…
“…do you feel hopeful or not hopeful about the speed with which democracies can unwind?”
The first words out of the Ambassador’s mouth:
“Honestly, I’m worried.”
Democracy unwinding — don’t acquiesce.
Ambassador McFaul noted some similarities between Putin—who also never ran for elected office before becoming Russia’s leader—and the Republican now occupying the White House: both pledged to cut taxes and both declared the press the enemy. Putin followed through on his promise to cut taxes, and took over the state media in relatively short order.
“And in that period people were like, ‘Well, we need law and order. We had this tumultuous period. Let’s give him a break'”
Ambassador McFaul says he talked to some Russian friends recently and they identified two major mistakes in their approach to Putin:
“We were too quick to acquiesce to what he was doing and we were thinking it would all taper out. And we didn’t resist when we had the power.”
More ominously, they added:
“And then later, we didn’t have the power and we tried to resist and it was too late.”
I added the emphasis there, although I probably didn’t need to.
The good-ish news here is that we are resisting. Yes, the Women’s Marches were planned weeks in advance, but the airport protests of the first attempt at a Muslim ban sprang up almost instantaneously. If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that Americans are more engaged and vocal than we’ve ever been before.
Our long-term relationship with democracy is in trouble. I guess it’s like any relationship—get too complacent and one morning you wake up with divorce papers on your pillow. Maybe you can patch things up, but it’s much better not to let the estrangement get this far to begin with.
The U.S. has a solid foundation
Still, our current situation is not completely analogous to Russia’s at the dawn of Putin’s reign. Ambassador McFaul pointed out:
“Our institutions, our opposition party, our U.S. Congress, our press, our courts, our federal system, our elected leaders at the state level are way more robust than Russian similar institutions back in 2000. And our society seems willing to push back…in a way that Russian society was not willing to do. So I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Optimistic—as long as we don’t slip back into complacency, we might stop democracy unwinding.
“I’m optimistic in the long run,” the ambassador repeated:
“But I think vigilance now in the short run will help us avoid these more difficult times.”
I pray he’s right.
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