Noura Ahmed: In this episode Eliza and I spoke with Dr. Hussein Banai, a professor in international studies. Dr. Banai could you please introduce yourself?
Dr. Hussain Banai: I’m Hussain Banai. I’m an assistant professor on international studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International studies at Indiana University.
My research broadly focuses on democratic theory and history of liberalism specifically within that. I’m interested in the development of democratic ideas and the proliferation of liberal values in the non-western world -- both through the lens of empire but also, and especially through the lens of movements that are generated in response to the legacy of western liberalism, or western imperialism.
Noura Ahmed: What is democratic backsliding, and could you give some current examples?
Dr. Hussain Banai: Sure, democratic backsliding which is a term that oftentimes is used interchangeably with the term democratic erosion which refers to both either a rapid or gradual decline in democratic standards.
Dr. Hussain Banai: Rapid decline refers to the kind of very dramatic radical changes oftentimes to the constitutional democratic setup that a country has. Things like the suspension of parliament or the repealing of freedom of the press or freedom of assembly.
Gradual decline is something that takes place overtime, and oftentimes refers to the decline in the norms of behavior by leaders especially: of how they address their democratic opponents, how they conduct themselves publicly, what the language they use towards their institutions is like, whether they think they’re corrupt or led by the wrong elite, or the press is just producing fake news and misinformation.
That process can overtime erode confidence in democratic institutions. What leaders who behave this way do is oftentimes undermine confidence in the reliability of democratic institutions and eventually create constituencies that doubt the legitimacy of democratic outcomes. So, if a given court says, decision X is the one that corresponds to our constitutional values. The supporters of a political party or a candidate who has for the last few years been saying that the court is corrupt, or this judge has X, Y, and Z affiliations will doubt those outcomes. And say, no, That’s just one opinion. It has nothing to do with our constitutional reading, etc.
Dr. Hussain Banai: Democratic backsliding of the rapid sort is often associated with newly established democracies. So, countries that have been in democratic transition are more prone to rapid democratic decline and the reversal of democratic intuitions. So, we see this in countries in central and eastern Europe for instance. We’ve seen it in Turkey where powerful executives, like the current Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban or the Prime Minister and President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, how they’ve used the kind of populist ferment in the public, manipulated it to their advantage to go after their democratic opponents to discredit their revivals, to actively remove judges and university professors and journalists from their positions by labeling them as enemies of the public or enemies of the democracy, even in those countries. All of that has happened in the last decade or so in places like Turkey, Hungary, Poland. Obviously, these are countries that have recently transitioned to democracy so these populist leaders have been able to very successfully manipulate public discourse to their advantage -- to really repeal those hard-won democratic standards almost overnight. Sometimes they’ve done it by aping up public fear against the impending takeover of social values and customs by outsiders. Immigration and foreign migrants have been a very potent force for them to caricature. So, in Hungary for instance, Orban has very effectively used the fear of the Islamization of Hungary by migrants that are coming from Islamic countries to win elections but to also have the public support very draconian laws that violate the European Union.
Noura Ahmed: I didn’t know Hungary had a lot of migrants or refugees coming to go and work there. I thought they were kind of a poor country of Europe.
Dr. Hussain Banai: No, well they’re one of the border countries of Europe. So. You have to go through Hungary in order to get to Germany or all of these places, but because some of those countries have a more difficult kind of entrance or entry ways into them, you either have to travel through a bunch of countries to get to them. Migrants oftentimes don’t make it there or they can’t directly fly there. Right, it’s much easier for you to get on a boat and go across the sea and find yourself in some of these border states and go from there into the heart of Europe.
Many migrants don’t make that journey all the way to the kind of industrialized counties that have employment for them. But regardless of whether Hungary is a major attractive destination for them or not, the point is that Orban has used this fear to say that they will change our society and they will change European civilization in a way that will make it so much more Islamic. And that the rest of Europe, the cosmopolitan, liberal democracies that have the luxury of being on the western edges of Europe are asleep to this. In fact, it gives them more credibility as the defender of the European Christian civilization. So, in that respect we see kind of the very rapid democratic backsliding that happened in a country like Hungary.
In a more gradual sense democratic erosion or backsliding, I like the term democratic erosion. It’s associated with established democracies and democratic backsliding to less established democracies. Because erosion, like anything that erodes, it takes gradual time for it to get to another state and in established western democracies we’ve seen this kind of gradual undermining of democratic standards when it comes to both the behavior of democratic politicians. Small “d” democratic politicians. Elected politicians and in the kind of democratic outcomes that we see that are produced whether as a result of highly manipulative public referenda like the Brexit decision in Britain or in elections that are kind of gains to advantage one party over the other in the case of gerrymandered districts in the United States, for instance. We see the gradual decline happen both at the institutional level, but also at the level of political behavior in those countries over time as well. And, you all have to have paid attention in the last three and a half, four years in the United States to see how the discourse in this country has changed. Everything has turned into a binary. You’re either for immigration or against it. You’re either for public health measures or you’re against it. You’re either for taxes or against it, right. These binaries are produced, these black and white decisions because of this kind of rise of polarization that we see in American society and some other western societies as well.
Noura Ahmed: Would you say that the United States is currently experiencing democratic erosion?
Dr. Hussain Banai: I think that in the case of the United States there’s no question that democratic standards have declined over the course of the last decade, especially since the collapse of the financial system in the United States. But even before then in the post-Cold War world the confidence with which American politicians talked about democratic values or how America had arrived at this end point in history. We increasingly look back at that as something that really had in it bits of democratic decline overtime. Over confidence in democracy or a sense of finality about where you are in a life cycle of democracy is usually a very erosive thing that democratic society because it reveals just how impoverished the idea of democracy is as an end point not as an ongoing process that has to be rejuvenated, constantly attended to, requires vigilance, and is always grasping at new a fronter and so in the United States we really have seen this remarkable arch, right. From this moment of high democratic confidence in the nineteen-nineties, to the gradual recognition that many of our social and economic structures have actually created a very hollow constitutional setup.
Eliza Craig: How do binaries and the polarization impede on democracy and democratic values?
Dr. Hussain Banai: They have a huge impact, because the success of democracy rests to a great extent on a sense of shared understanding and a shared reality of living in a society with others. Polarization tugs at that shared sense of reality. Polarization testifies to the fact that people have fundamentally different perceptions of the same reality or they see two different realities all together. I support party A, because this party tells me that all that stands in the way of prosperity and freedom and liberty in this country is immigrants, right? The other side, I support party B, because I believe all that stands in the way of prosperity, liberty and all those wonderful constitutional values is the existence of the philosophy avowed by party A, right. Polarization narrows our vision and in democratic societies it often time manipulates and focuses the mind of constituencies around highly, highly, highly divisive issues that are actually not in an ordinary sense something that divides people in communities or neighborhoods but once elevated to life or death issues, it really helps political parties win power. And so, in that sense it had played a very erosive role in the life of democracy. It is something that is absolutely manufactured by media that are supportive of one political party over another.
Eliza Craig: So, there’s the important distinction between erosion and backsliding. So, erosion being for longer standing democracies and backsliding being for newer democracies. How for both of those situations is there a way to combat the backsliding or erosion? Or is that even the solution?
Dr. Hussain Banai: Well, there are different ideas about how you would counter democratic erosion or stop a country from backsliding, the surest way, or the one that has proven historically to be the most pertinent way is the power of the public. Resistance to any kind of arbitrary power grab by those in power, obviously, slows down the pace of erosion. This being successful in countries that are more pluralistic and heterogenous; this is where established democracies do better and have better promise of getting out of erosion and backsliding then the newer democracies, right. Ethnically more homogenous, they tend to be far less polarized than established democracies that have generated pluralism or values and ideas that go beyond just a sense of ethnic identity, right.
Dr. Hussain Banai: But in democracies that have been in transition this sense of security, this sense of stability usually results in trust in kind of a strong man or strong politician who would restore order and stability and keep out the disruptive forces that in the political agenda of this person are the reason the country is in the bad shape that it is. So, there are different prescriptions as to what you do to slow down this process, but the surest way has been to generate social movements that counter the narrative that is being pushed down oftentimes by those in power.
Noura Ahmed: I was curious if there was a connection between backsliding and nationalism?
Dr. Hussain Banai: Yeah, nationalism generally is a great check on democracy. Meaning that it tends to tap into a strain of thought that absolves leaders and people of appealing to democratic values, right. You only have to appeal to a sense of identity; a shared identity and not democratic values and they’re arguing against those democratic values because you say identity is so much more important.
Dr. Hussain Banai: I should say I have to distinguish between two strains of nationalism. There is ethnonationalism, which is based squarely about ethnic identity and national identity of a particular group and civic nationalism. Civic nationalism is the belief that what constitutes a nation is not the particular characteristics of a people, their skin color, their religious heritage, their lineage, etc., but rather their institutions. Established democracies, the reasons why they’re established is because they have developed a sense of civic nationalism. That doesn’t mean that ethnonationalism has never been prominent in their societies, but civic nationalism is something that has always competed or pushed against ethnonationalism.
Dr. Hussain Banai: So, In the case of American democracy for instance you have had a founding intentioned with the idea of a white supremacist kind of society that has had slavery and segregation deeply imbedded into its national culture there’s tension with American constitutional values and bill of rights as the beacon of liberty to the rest of the world. This is a country that says its greatest asset is the fact that it has a small “d” democratic constitution. It recognizes the inalienable rights of people, its declaration of independence, etc., etc. Now, that has always been at odds with the actual experience people in American society, but that is also what has allowed minorities and people who have not been part of the white majority to always contest the way in which the majority has rule and overtime win these rights for themselves and has gotten the majority to concede their privileges.
So, civic nationalism has played a great role in that regard in the United States. Ethnonationalism is far more toxic, because it holds up a particular ethnic identity as the source of greatness of a nation and in the case of newer less established democracies, we find that these leaders tap into a sense of ethnonationalism. That either has very racist undertones embedded in it or it openly under the guise of a commonly shared religion or cultural heritage is really nodding towards a particular race being more superior than others. And so that variant, ethnonationalism has especially been corrosive.
Civic nationalism can coexist with democracy and some scholars have even argued that it is necessary for a successful democracy to cultivate civic nationalism because it allows people to buy into something greater than themselves. You’ve heard this notion of America is an idea, right. It’s not a nation, it’s an idea that we see in the Statue of Liberty, we see it in the Lincoln Memorial, we see it in our buildings and the kind of imagery that we associate, that are oftentimes depersonalized. It’s not around a white race, it’s not around these kinds of monocultural markers of identity. And so, civic nationalism in that regard is important to get people to care about why democracy in a particular nation matters.
Eliza Craig: So, do movements like the Black Power movement, is that considered ethnonationalism?
Dr. Hussain Banai: Not necessarily, because obviously the historic context of the emergence of each of these movements matters a great deal. The kind of militant movements that we’ve seen amongst minority populations in countries that are dominated by a particular race in the nineteen-hundreds, and we may see pockets of it in the world today are oftentimes responding to a particular set of grievances. What helps, I think, distinguish between these movements is where power is located. Who has the material sources of power and the advantages that come with it on their side? Compared to those who have not. Strategies that we see kind of associated with, you know with the Black Power movement or black nationalism movements in the sixties and seventies that we saw were largely in response to an alternative view of civil rights that called to move away from the struggles within the existing democratic constitutional setup in the United States. By talking about separation, look we’ll be equal under this system so let’s separate, right. Well, that generated more elaboration on the part of other African American activists who thought, no you could very well use this constitutional setup to win these democratic values. So, the two kind of have this symbiotic relationship.
Eliza Craig: So, with that concrete example with America in mind, I’m curious about ethnonationalism versus civic nationalism in another country, maybe Iran?
Dr. Hussain Banai: In the case of Iran or countries that are kind of outside of this formal democratic setup, I think it’s important to remember that these are countries that are neither new democracies nor established democracies but countries that could possibly transition to becoming democratic. The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran is very clear the ultimate source of authority in that polity is and the ultimate source of authority is religion as represented through the office of the Supreme Leader. So, you have this person who’s basically appointed for life who ultimately gets to decide what is a good and what is a bad outcome for the general public. They’ll have elections. There are electoral aspects to Iranian politics. Iranians elect parliament, they elect a president but they don’t enjoy democratic rights the way you would and certainly not liberal democratic rights like established democracies meaning that they cannot just freely say what they wish, what they think about the government without there being repercussions or getting them getting censored or worse. So, that subset of countries the question of democratic backsliding or erosion doesn’t even apply. The question is how to start progress towards democracy.
Eliza Craig: Is American democracy the model to follow if that’s something that should happen or were to happen?
Dr. Hussain Banai: No necessarily. There are many democratic models that are obviously the products of their own unique circumstances and historical trajectories.
One of the products of the democratic triumphalism on the nineteen-nineties was thinking that just because the Soviet Union was defeated that America emerged victorious and as the “Leader of The Free World” that that model was now the thing that everyone else had to emulate and live by and obviously we saw how catastrophically that played out in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where democracy and bring democracy into these countries based on this Jeffersonian notion of democracy was just so ill conceived. Not because these societies were not ready as condescendingly thought by some supporters of democracy promotion but rather because democracy is something that each country has to organically develop for itself. It has to be in conversation with its own history, with its own political currents and social and economic trajectories at any given time just as it’s been the case in the United States. It’s not a template that you can just put on a country and boom, they turn democratic and we’ve seen over and over again that what has been the forced democratization on a country usually by way of elections the outcome have actually been the opposite of those who were pushing for these things were hoping.
Oftentimes the most reactionary, the most anti-democratic, the most anti-liberal forces win office and that has to do not with the society or the larger forces at play but the balance of power in those societies. Those people can intimidate people from voting, they can get their side to turn out and keep the rest of the people at bay. The institutions are just not resilient enough to support that kind of kind of democratic participation.
Eliza Craig: I think that this question has been answered. It’s about whether or not democracy can be exported?
Dr. Hussain Banai: It’s up to the people. We have to think about countries and borders as arbitrary constructions that have historically ended up being what it is. If you look at the map of the world and these lines are constructed by human beings. You won’t find them if you go from the international space station. There's nothing, with the exception of the Great Wall of China -- that is also partially eroded. There’s no borderlines from space. We create borders on maps that we oftentimes arbitrarily drawn because of historic forces. We know out of the legacy of empire that a lot of the countries in many continents of the world and their borders are artificial, and that’s why we have the prevalence of civil wars and cross border warfare.
You only have to look at the map of Africa for instance to see the prevalence of straight lines as borders. It couldn’t possibly be that people so neatly divided into this country versus that country. Nigeria, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo. People don’t neatly divide across these lines. Those lines were drawn because of the struggles that came after empire left and were often drawn by European imperialists. Just ask Israel and Palestine about it, or Jordan, or Syria and Lebanon. So, recognizing that countries are historically contingent. They’re not these entities that actually correspond to where people’s identities are at any given time.
We have to be humble as to what democracy means in each of these settings. It has to correspond to those respective histories. It’s not an accident of history that established democracies are in countries that tend to rule over the rest of the globe. It’s not an accident of history that democracies tend to be more secure in countries that have water ways all around them. Island nations do very well with democracy compared to non-island nations. Why? Because they’re less susceptible to imperial dominance.
The oldest democracy in the world is the United Kingdom and it sits at the top corner of Europe; it has had a channel that has allowed it to kind of defend itself very robustly but it’s also this kind of privileged position from which to project its maritime empire to the rest of the world. So, the British Navy literally became the vehicle for spreading ideas that the British wanted in certain areas. So, democracy corresponds with these complex histories in ways that are ultimately going to be organic to these histories. We can try and force democratic experiences on other people, but the socioeconomic and political shape of those societies will organically form and deform democratic experiences to its own historical trajectory.