An unexpected wave of democratization reshaped the world not so long ago. Could it happen again now?
When Portugal's Estado Novo dictatorship fell in the Carnation Revolution of 1974, and through months of political turmoil afterward, it wasn't particularly obvious that Portugal would end up a democracy: It had never been one before; in fact, for most of the 20th century it had been under authoritarian rule. Next door in Spain, the also-authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco regime seemed plenty stable. And throughout the West, journalists, intellectuals, and academics tended to assume that the whole Iberian peninsula -- along with most of Latin America -- wasn't fit for democracy on account of its Latin-Catholic social mores. Similar ideas about Asia's and Africa's ostensible incompatibility with democracy were super-common.
At the time of the Carnation Revolution, only 41 of the world's then-150 states were democracies, and most of these were first-world, advanced-industrial economies. But after Portugal pulled off its big democratic transition in the mid-'70s, Greece and Spain followed, leading to to what Samuel Huntington called the "third wave" of democratization globally: During the '80s, civilian governments replaced military rulers across Latin America, eventually including Chile; Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship fell in the Philippines; military rule ended in South Korea; and martial law was lifted in Taiwan, beginning a 10-year democratic transition there. By 1990, between the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Eastern European countries were holding meaningful elections. Also in 1990 -- the year a watershed democratic transition got underway in Benin, and the same year Nelson Mandela was released from prison in Apartheid South Africa -- there were just three democracies on the African continent; only seven years later, the majority of African states were holding competitive elections. (For a fuller retrospective of the third wave, check out Larry Diamond's "Universal Democracy?")
Here and in other areas of the world hit by the third wave, there's been ideological resistance, endemic corruption, and daunting regression offsetting the advance of democracy. But of the almost 200 states in existence around the world today, 123 are democratic, and no form of government has anything close to the broad global legitimacy theirs does.
Until now, North Africa and the Middle East have remained mainly unmoved by this current (Israel, Lebanon, and our own attempts to engineer democratization in Iraq over the last decade notwithstanding). That seemed maybe to be changing in 2009, with Iran's Green Revolution. And it appears decisively to be changing now -- in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and potentially across the region.
No, none of the countries affected by today's pattern of fast-replicating protest movements is obviously in the midst of a real transition to democracy, and we can't really tell yet how close to one any of them might be. In some cases, as in Yemen, it's not even clear that anti-government agitation will organize itself around of democratic goals at all. And it remains entirely possible that the regional momentum building since the outset of this year's Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia will stall, or that the democratic hopes driving this momentum will end up crushed, whether abruptly by force or gradually by political failure.
But here at The Atlantic, the idea of democracy strikes us nevertheless as the right frame for looking at the broader story around these uprisings. This isn't just because the story is ultimately tough to scope in regional or cultural terms -- though it is: It's North African but also Middle Eastern; it's Arab but also Berber and Persian; it's Muslim but also secular. And it's not just because the story is ultimately impossible to imagine apart from its global history -- though it's that, too: Without the third wave having normalized democratic ideas internationally, and without the proliferation of Western social media, we wouldn't have the Arab social movements we now have. It's also because the story is already affecting global events as much as it's been affected by them: While the idea of democracy has rapidly gone from a latent aspiration among Arab peoples to a manifest threat to Arab political orders, Arab mass protest movements have almost as rapidly created powerful demonstration effects, influencing others not just throughout the region but around the world -- including scenes as geographically remote as Zimbabwe and China.
From the escalation of protests in Tunisia, through the revolution in Egypt, the current crisis in Libya, and the ongoing demonstrations in Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, to the unprecedented ways in which social technology has changed the political game in country after country, The Atlantic has been on the regional story in the Middle East and North Africa with some of the sharpest and most creative reporting and analysis we have going. As of today, we've also launched a special section at TheAtlantic.com, The Democracy Report, bringing this coverage together from across our channels (International, Technology, Politics, and others). So check back, read around, and stay with the discussion -- down in the comments, on Facebook, or on Twitter.
We're all going to die and we all know it. This can be both a burden and a blessing.
In the heart of every parent lives the tightly coiled nightmare that his child will die. It might spring at logical times—when a toddler runs into the street, say—or it might sneak up in quieter moments. The fear is a helpful evolutionary motivation for parents to protect their children, but it's haunting nonetheless.
The ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus advised parents to indulge that fear. “What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: Tomorrow you will die?”he wrote in his Discourses.
Some might say Epictetus was an asshole. William Irvine thinks he was on to something.
“The Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be,” he says. “You’re supposed to allow yourself to have a flickering thought that someday you’re going to die, and someday the people you love are going to die. I’ve tried it, and it’s incredibly powerful. Well, I am a 21st-century practicing Stoic.”
People look to Amy Schumer and her fellow jokers not just to make fun of the world, but to make sense of it. And maybe even to help fix it.
This week, in a much-anticipated sketch on her Comedy Central show, Amy Schumer staged a trial of Bill Cosby in “the court of public opinion.” Schumer—her character, at any rate—played the role of the defense. “Let’s remind ourselves what’s at stake here,” she argued to the jury. “If convicted, the next time you put on a rerun of The Cosby Show you may wince a little. Might feel a little pang. And none of us deserve that. We don’t deserve to feel that pang.”
Her conclusion? “We deserve to dance like no one’s watching, and watch like no one’s raping.”
Ooof. This is the kind of thing that gets Inside Amy Schumer referred to as “the most feminist show on television,” and her act in general called, in a phrase that reveals as much about her craft as about Schumer herself, “comedy with a message.” But while Schumer’s work is operating at the vanguard of popular comedy, it’s also in line with the work being done by her fellow performers: jokes that tend to treat humor not just as an end in itself, but as a vehicle for making a point. Watch like no one’s raping.
Can a political system be democratically legitimate without being democratic?
The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The government doesn’t even make a pretense of holding national elections and punishes those who openly call for multiparty rule. The press is heavily censored and the Internet is blocked. Top leaders are unconstrained by the rule of law. Even more worrisome, repression has been ramped up since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy.
Some China experts—most recently David Shambaugh of George Washington University—interpret these ominous signs as evidence that the Chinese political system is on the verge of collapse. But such an outcome is highly unlikely in the near future. The Communist Party is firmly in power, its top leader is popular, and no political alternative currently claims widespread support. And what would happen if the Party’s power did indeed crumble? The most likely result, in my view, would be rule by a populist strongman backed by elements of the country’s security and military forces. The new ruler might seek to buttress his legitimacy by launching military adventures abroad. President Xi would look tame by comparison.
Some spoiler-y speculation on the final three episodes
With only three episodes left to go, Game of Thrones looks as though it once again has a lot of ground to cover before wrapping up a season. And so, for the curious and impatient among you, I’ll do my best to offer some quasi-informed speculation about what we might reasonably expect in these final weeks.
Note: I haven’t seen any of the remaining episodes, but I have read the books. The first five items below are spoiler-y, but the predictions in them do not derive from the George R. R. Martin novels. Rather, they’re guesswork based on what’s already happened on the show and on tidbits scattered across the web: a behind-the-scenes photo here, a close-read of a trailer there. (They could all, of course, turn out to be completely wrong.) The last four items, however, are based at least in part on events that take place in A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, so non-book-readers may want to skip them. And obviously anyone, book-reader or not, who’d prefer to go into these final episodes without preconceptions—who doesn’t want to know at least some of what will (probably) happen—should stop reading now.
The former speaker of the House is charged with lying to federal agents and evading financial reporting requirements, reportedly while attempting to conceal past sexual misconduct.
Updated on May 29, 2015, at 4:05 p.m.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents and evading federal financial-reporting requirements, reportedly while paying a man to cover up past sexual misconduct.
Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was speaker from 1999 to 2007. BuzzFeed’s John Stanton notes that there were several high-profile congressional scandals in those years. Illinois is also a notorious hotbed for political corruption, as Roland Burris, Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan, and Jesse Jackson Jr. can attest.
But Hastert’s indictment seems to involve a darker story than political corruption. In or about 2010, according to the indictment, Hastert—a former high-school teacher and coach—met with an unnamed individual from Yorkville, Hastert’s hometown. They “discussed past misconduct by defendant against Individual A that had occurred years earlier.” In effect, Hastert fell victim to blackmail, the indictment alleges: He “agreed to provide Individual A $3.5 million in order to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A.” (Since leaving the House, Hastert has become a highly paid lobbyist.)
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
A challenge based on four words of the law amounts to little more than politics dressed up as a legal argument.
The Supreme Court is about to decide another blockbuster case arising under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The specific issue is whether federal-tax subsidies are available to people who purchase health insurance from exchanges operated by the federal government or instead whether such subsidies are available only from exchanges established by the states. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs in King v. Burwell would most likely cripple the ACA in over thirty states and deprive millions of people of health insurance.
That the Supreme Court even agreed to hear the case is the result of an improbable conjunction of events. Two committed opponents of the ACA seized upon four words of the law out of almost 1000 pages, and through their persistent and energetic work, created a powerful soundbite that appealed to die-hard opponents of the ACA. They then took that sound bite and dressed it up in highly technical arguments about statutory interpretation that might well change how healthcare is paid for in the United States. But the soundbite is inaccurate, and the technical window dressing shouldn’t obscure the fact that the argument is based on a faulty reading of the text of the entire law as well as a misleading account of how and why the law was passed. At bottom, King v. Burwell is a political challenge to the ACA dressed up in legal garb.
An activist has made it so in France. Could he take his campaign global?
In 2010, U.S. supermarkets and grocery stores threw out 43 billion pounds, or $46.7 billion worth, of food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). But if Arash Derambarsh had his way, that number would be zero. His goals are ambitious, but then again the municipal councilor from Courbevoie, France did manage to get a law passed in France last week that would accomplish just that.
The law bans supermarkets in France from discarding or destroying unsold food. According to Salon’s Lindsay Abrams, the law mandates that all unsold but edible food should be donated to charities for immediate distribution to the poor. Food that is unsafe to eat is to be donated to farms for agricultural purposes. Supermarkets that exceed a certain square footage are required to sign contacts with charities by July 2016; penalties for failing to do so include fines of up to roughly $81,600 or two years in prison. The legislation is one of the world’s first attempts to address the twin problems of food waste and hunger in this manner.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life.
Caves and tunnels have always been part of human life. We've grown more adept at shaping these underground shelters and passages over the millennia, and today we dig for hundreds of reasons. We excavate to find both literal and cultural treasures, digging mines and unearthing archaeological discoveries. We use caverns for stable storage, for entertainment, and for an effective shelter from natural and man-made disasters. And as the planet's surface becomes ever more crowded, and national borders are closed, tunnels provide pathways for our vehicles and for smugglers of every kind. Collected below are more recent subterranean scenes from around the world.
Fresh from his breakout performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s Selma, the actor discusses his radically different role in HBO’s chilling one-man film Nightingale.
Nightingale poses a challenge to its viewers from its opening scene on. Protagonist Peter Snowden (David Oyelowo) has done a terrible thing—only hints of the aftermath can be glimpsed on screen—and the audience is trapped in his house with him. The film, which premieres on HBO Friday, is an audacious one-man show—a series of deluded, sometimes charming, often tragic, occasionally frightening monologues delivered by a troubled veteran clearly in the midst of a dissociative crisis. Peter works in a menial job and lives with his mother at home, where Nightingale is entirely set, but, as he repeatedly states, his “circumstances have changed” in horrifying fashion.