Disappearing Democracies

By Jennifer Curtis

In response to Turkey’s constitutional referendum on April 16, 2017, which replaces the parliamentary system with an executive presidency,  PoLAR and APLA commissioned a series of responses from scholars and activists working on democracy and human rights in the region. In this installment, Elektra KostopoulouAyşe Parla, Aimilia Voulvouli and Jennifer Curtis reflect on the ramifications of the referendum.

By Courtney Chambers. Protesters dressed as handmaids, referencing Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, file into the Texas legislature to oppose Senate Bill 415. The photo was originally posted by Nan L Kirkpatrick (@nanarchist).

One apocryphal account says that, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a very good idea.”[1] In the present, the political form so closely associated with Western civilization—democracy—appears aspirational as well. Recent elections in countries conventionally considered part of the democratic west appear to threaten the democratic form itself. Across the globe, we have seen rhetorical and electoral assertions of ethnicized sovereignty against outsiders, particularly against “others” within nation-states and migrants. The Turkish referendum is the latest in an apparent surge of populist longing for authoritarian, “strong man” leaders (notwithstanding Marine LePen in France).

In transforming the parliamentary state into an executive one, the Turkish referendum, even setting aside its irregularities, underscores the degree to which democracy is contingent. The form itself contains the tools of its own destruction, most notably the popular referendum. The bare majoritarian referendum has long been the tool of authoritarians, who can mobilize 50 percent plus one voters legitimately or illegally to add a democratic veneer to their actions. At the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, it is worth remembering that during the Third Reich, referenda were a preferred vehicle for producing legitimacy. Recognizing the anti-democratic allure of the referendum is not simply a retrospective characterization; contemporary political scientists remarked upon this fact. For example, Zurcher (1935) wrote: “Proving to be superfluous in a representative regime and too radically democratic, it [the referendum] has suddenly been accepted as a leading constitutional practice in a Germany which is dedicated to the extirpation of political democracy” (91).[2]

In the U.S., the conservative writer Andrew Sullivan has been sounding the alarm since at least March 2016, directing his readers to Plato’s Republic, where Socrates asserts to a student, “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” Indeed, in his most recent piece for New York magazine, Sullivan considers an American alt-right blogger who explicitly proclaims the movement goals to be, “the liquidation of democracy, the Constitution and the rule of law, and the transfer of absolute power to a mysterious figure known only as the Receiver, who in the process of converting Washington into a heavily armed, ultra-profitable corporation will abolish the press, smash the universities, sell the public schools, and transfer ‘decivilized populations’ to ‘secure relocation facilities’ where they will be assigned to ‘mandatory apprenticeships.’” It is not alarmist to treat such fantasies with some seriousness. After the U.S. election, Masha Gessen, a writer who knows firsthand how autocracy works, reminded us that the autocrat “means what he says,” and warned against our tendency to “practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable.” Whether it is young Russians seeking stability through Putin, or alt-right trolls calling Trump “daddy,” the current political landscape offers a multitude of examples where democracy itself appears to be losing its appeal for anxious voters, who crave the reassuring promises of authority.

Embed from Getty Images

YASIN AKGUL/AFP/Getty Images. Supporters of the ‘No’ march to submit their petition to call for the annulment of a referendum that approved sweeping constitutional changes boosting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s powers, claiming blatant vote-rigging had swung the result, on April 18, 2017 in Istanbul. Embed from Getty Images.

The pieces in this installment of PoLAR/APLA’s series “Emergency for Turkish Democracy” consider this conundrum: that the democratic form itself provides tools for its own destruction. Elektra Kostopoulou’s piece squarely addresses this paradox. Aimilia Voulvouli unpacks the political economy of the new “Anatolian revolution,” and supporters of the “Yes” vote. And Ayşe Parla considers the way hope compromises realistic assessments of political events—and can even make citizens complicit in anti-democratic changes they oppose.

This last point—how hope can undermine recognition of threats to democracy—is especially urgent in the present moment. The reasons any given electorate may long for an authoritarian leader will be shaped by many forces, including shifts in economic fortunes (e.g., neoliberal policies, rising inequalities within and between states, globalization, and deindustrialization), local political histories, and crises like climate change. Beyond populism and authoritarianism, another important shared feature of Brexit, Trump, the Turkish referendum, LePen’s rise in France, and the erosion of Hungarian democracy, to name just a few recent events, is that these shifts were enacted through putatively democratic means.

One of the many dystopian novels that returned to bestseller lists following Trump’s election in the U.S. was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—now a terrifying (in a good way) series on the Hulu streaming service.[3] Atwood’s cautionary story imagines Gilead, a misogynistic theocracy that violently replaces the United States government. In 2017, ideologies that could produce such a regime are voiced ever more loudly in everyday life (and laws), and speculative fiction seems far less incredible than in 1986. Although the story provides no solutions, the handmaid narrator does offer a concise warning about how blind we can be to impending political doom: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it” (Atwood 1986: 56).

Recent events suggest there is far too much complacency about what procedures of democracy can safeguard. A democratic system requires more than vigilance: it requires participation. The Turkish referendum offers us yet another dire warning, in case we needed it, that hope is not enough. In some countries it is possible for citizens to embrace the political responsibilities of democratic citizenship and participate more actively in self-governance. In others, as this series demonstrates, democracy is far more imperiled. As scholars and as citizens, we have an obligation to recognize how precarious this political form is, and to practice solidarity with those whose states have already foreclosed the means to defend their rapidly disappearing democracies.

Jennifer Curtis is Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh and a board member of the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology. She is the author of Human Rights As War By Other Means: Peace Politics in Northern Ireland, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Her work focuses on grassroots social movements to alter rights politics and law. She is currently completing an ethnographic monograph on race, sexuality, and rights advocacy in red state America, based on fieldwork in Missouri. 


[1] This statement was first reported on January 17, 1967, in a CBS news special entitled “The Italians.”

[2] Arnold J. Zurcher, 1935, “The Hitler Referenda.” The American Political Science Review 29(1): 91-99.

[3] Margaret Atwood, 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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