We are approaching the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The conventional wisdom then was that freedom was on the march. Max Boot writes:
I was a student spending part of my junior year abroad at the London School of Economics, and I was profoundly affected by the collapse of this symbol of tyranny. “Like Westerners everywhere,” I wrote a few weeks later in the University of California at Berkeley student newspaper, the Daily Californian, “I was exhilarated by the West’s apparent victory in the Cold War, as well as by the opportunity to shape a Europe of free markets and free elections.”
Boot's exhilaration has long since dissipated. Since the fall of the wall, freedom has not been on the march:
The world remains much better off than it was during the dark days of the Cold War, but freedom is much more embattled today than I expected in 1989. China, home to nearly a fifth of humanity, has not progressed toward democracy; the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests a few months before the fall of the wall foretold its future. Russia flirted with democracy but reverted to autocracy. New democracies have emerged, but a number of them — e.g., Poland, Hungary, Serbia, the Philippines, Nicaragua — have been backsliding. Authoritarian populists are rising. Even India, the world’s largest democracy, is seeing minority rights threatened by Hindu nationalists. Freedom House reports 13 consecutive years in decline in political rights and civil liberties around the world.
Most worrisome of all, in the United States, freedom is in retreat:
Who could have imagined in 1989 that the United States would someday be governed by a president who refers to his critics as “human scum” and “the enemy of the people,” who obstructs justice, ignores Congress, assaults the media, invites foreign election interference, engages in blatant corruption, locks children in cages, praises white supremacists and kowtows to dictators? Yet here we are — and the latest poll of battleground states suggests that President Trump could easily win reelection despite (or because of?) his assault on democratic norms.
Age tends to temper youthful idealism. But this is more than old age's re-evaluation of youth:
Freedom will not prevail because of historical forces; it will only win, if it does, because of historical actors. In other words, us. Those like me who came of age around 1989 used to take democracy for granted. Now I realize we have to fight for our freedom, just as our ancestors did. And there is no guarantee that the perpetual struggle against oppression will have a happy outcome.
Democracy should never be taken for granted.