David Allio/Reuters

What happens when democracy can’t meet our expectations? The recent scenes in Zimbabwe—celebrations in the streets as 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe finally stepped down—reminded me of the cycle of heightened expectation and disappointment back home in the United States around Presidents Obama and Trump. In Myanmar, too, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation as a human-rights icon has crashed as the country moves toward democracy. In today’s issue, I’ll piece together what happens when our expectations for change get too high.


If you want a good read on the dynamics of power, you could do worse than to focus on opposition leader Tendai Biti. He was finance minister in a government that shared power with Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF, starting in 2008. In a speech after the coup, he made clear how raw the situation still is. Mugabe’s fall brought thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans to the streets, Biti remarked. “They did not march to resolve the internal succession issues in Zanu-PF. They marched for a new Zimbabwe.”

Hopes are sky-high that newly installed President Emmerson Mnangagwa will solve everything from corruption to the recognition of historic atrocities (including some that he allegedly committed). “Zimbabweans are in search of a new contract with those that are in power and with power itself,” said Biti.

But a new contract will be difficult to write. “The authoritarian state is not only still intact, but also has been strengthened by this brief but bold intervention,” wrote Timothy Scarneccia, a scholar who studies Zimbabwe’s history. “A party that managed to use the state so effectively to guarantee their control of power in the face of a strong opposition is not now going to forget their past after a week and a few mass rallies.” That opposition is now much weaker. The election next year would have offered Biti’s party an easy target: an aging Mugabe refusing to relinquish power. Now the positions are switched. “ZANU PF is experiencing a new verve,” wrote Alex Magaisa, a lawyer who advised on Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Of course, the new president could choose to meet the people’s hopes, not dash them. One sign he’s doing so would be the appointment of a unity cabinet including opposition leaders like Biti. But it’s worth remembering that, during the coup, the country’s last finance minister was dragged out of his bullet-hole-riddled house in the middle of the night. The people haven’t seized control of the state; the military-backed party has. Hopes are high, but there is no better mechanism to deliver on them now than before the coup.  


Few places illustrate the mismatch between expectation and reality better than Myanmar. That’s particularly true as Pope Francis, a man who is frequently the object of myth-making around the world, visits this week. His visit brought about an agonizing decision about whether or not he should utter the word “Rohingya,” referring to the Muslim minority group based in Rakhine state that has been targeted for ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s military.

Using the word might call attention to the 620,000 Rohingyas who have been forced to flee the country and the many who remain and fear violence. But doing so could jeopardize the relationship of the country’s Catholics with the military, and could be seen as meddling. Francis was warned by his local cardinal and luminaries such as former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan not to utter the word publicly during his visit. Nationalists call the the group “Bengalis,” implying that they aren’t rightful citizens of Myanmar like other ethnic groups in the country. Francis ultimately avoided saying “Rohingya” in public, but made clear that it was on his mind. (He has used it outside the country.)

The pope’s trip also made clear that Myanmar isn’t nearly as close to a democracy as might be hoped. His first visit upon landing in the country was not to Aung San Suu Kyi, often described as the country’s de facto prime minister, but to the country’s other major power broker, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. The general has sole control of the armed forces under the same constitution that ensures Aung San Suu Kyi can never be president. Where she has been notoriously silent about the Rohingyas, the general has been outspoken, calling the idea of a mass exodus of persecuted people an exaggeration. But the high expectations on Aung San Suu Kyi make her absorb the bulk of the criticism from abroad: “Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are a human shield for the military against international and domestic criticism,” an activist told the New York Times.

Aung San Suu Kyi deserves criticism for letting massacres go unopposed. But anyone disappointed in her has to ask why they hoped so much to begin with. “Cracks were there from the start,” wrote Poppy McPherson, a journalist who interviewed Aung San Suu Kyi’s closest advisers. “Please tell those who are disappointed in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or in us just [to] look at the history,” one told McPherson in March. “They have too high expectations.”

But those expectations were built up deliberately by both Aung San Suu Kyi and calculating leaders overseas. “President George W. Bush, for example, was happy to have someone like her to help justify his policy of exporting democracy around the world,” wrote Andrew Selth. And Aung San Suu Kyi felt it was her destiny to become president. “As opportunities permitted, she shrewdly exploited both her reputation as a campaigner for human rights and her considerable personal appeal to win support for democratic change in Myanmar.” The result, Selth explains, was that “the struggle for democracy and human rights in Myanmar was cast as a cosmic battle in which goodness and light was pitted against the forces of darkness.” Little attention was paid to the machinations of the country’s military junta, which spent 15 years preparing for a guided transition to semi-democracy while waging a xenophobic war against the country’s minority ethnic groups. If we couldn’t predict how far Aung San Suu Kyi would fall, it was inevitable that the country’s move toward democracy under her leadership wouldn’t live up to expectations.


But if those kinds of machinations can shake a country on the way to democracy, what about an already robust one like the United States? President Obama’s campaign for hope and change led to a tenure characterized by dashed hopes—about his ability to close the racial divide, his ability to fully reform policies like health care, and his national security decisions. Donald Trump was a change candidate as well, but, if anything, his promises often go undernoticed in the distinctions made between the two leaders.

I asked Matthew Flinders, a professor at Sheffield University who has studied political expectations, to try to help make sense of this. He explained that populism is the strategy Trump uses to power his promises. If you believe in him and his messages, then Trump’s ability to deliver isn’t about him, it’s about the system that he’s fighting against. “Populism provides a very convenient answer to not being able to fulfill your promises. It blames the elites all of the time. So if I get into office as a populist leader, and I can’t deliver, it’s not my fault. It’s those bloody elites again; it’s the establishment; it’s those judges; it’s the media and fake news.” But that will lead the populists into a trap, where there’s no incentive to de-escalate the wild promises. Eventually the bottom will fall out.

In the meantime, as democratic theorist David Runciman has written, the checks and balances of the political system will constrain Trump’s most overzealous promises. “This suggests that the people who voted for him were right to suspect that the system would do everything in its power to soften the blow of their choice.” But that’s also the great danger. While other parts of government hunker down, he writes, “politics atrophies and necessary change is put off by the overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse.”

Fixing this will take some brutal honesty. We need politicians who know how to temper confidence with realism, said Flinders. They need to find a way to get across the message, he said, “that politics will be messy and it can’t make all sad hearts glad.”


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Matt Peterson


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