Trudy Rubin: Democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Trudy Rubin is an op-ed columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Trudy Rubin is an op-ed columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. KRT

The 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is a good time to reflect on the dimming regard for democratic government – at home and abroad.

The fall of the wall not only ended the Soviet empire in East Europe, but also led inexorably to the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. Third World countries turned toward the American capitalist model in hopes it would deliver the prosperity that socialism hadn’t. In the United States, hubris reigned as pundits decreed “the end of history” and democracy’s global triumph.

Twenty-five years later, democracy is on the defensive.

In Europe, right-wing xenophobic parties are on the rise, as a result of the continent’s ongoing economic problems. In the Muslim world, the Arab Spring uprisings that called for democratic rights have collapsed in a backlash that produced a military coup in Egypt and entrenched a bloody dictator in Syria. The American experiment with imposing democracy on Iraq produced a sectarian regime and the birth of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is promoting his toxic brew of ultranationalism-authoritarianism as an alternative ideology to democracy. Never mind that Moscow can sustain this new authoritarianism only on the back of high oil prices.

From the outside, Putin’s model looks attractive to some leaders – for example, in Egypt and Venezuela – who are crushing free media and political opposition. Meanwhile, China, too, hypes its brand of authoritarian rule as a better alternative for Asia than messy democracy or any political alliance with America.

Yet none of this global backlash threatens the future of democracy as much as the crisis of democracy within the United States.

Few Americans realize how tarnished the concept of democracy becomes worldwide when the world’s premier democracy no longer believes in itself.

That sour attitude was apparent in last week’s congressional elections, which were as much about distrust in government as they were about dislike for President Barack Obama. Exit polls reflected voter dissatisfaction with both political parties, with Congress, and with the direction of the country. Most young people aren’t voting.

When foreigners look at America today – and I hear this everywhere I travel – they don’t see the same country that aroused so much admiration at the time the Berlin Wall fell. They see a country where the government is paralyzed, the infrastructure shockingly poor, and inequality rising – and an education system that trails woefully behind Asia’s.

And they recognize that these problems can’t all be blamed on Obama. For starters, the economic crash, which led to a global meltdown, took place under George W. Bush. And it was tea party Republicans who shut the U.S. government down.

What bewilders folks abroad is the visceral American distrust of government. Such cynicism – encouraged by ideologues in Congress who regard pragmatists as traitors – makes government unworkable.

No wonder that the U.S. model of democracy has lost much of its global luster. Why would foreign countries want to emulate American democracy if Americans no longer believe in it themselves?

Trudy Rubin’s email is