Fareed Zakaria's thesis is that the USA is moving towards an excessively
democratic system in which polls are having a perverse influence on a
system that was designed to be less about democracy and more about liberty.
He doesn't quite offer a crisp definition of "liberty" but roughly it means
individual freedom and protection from abuses of authority by the state.
"Freedom" is a vague term, that has been used throughout history in different
contexts (for most nations it meant "freedom" from foreign oppression).
"Liberty" is about personal freedom.
He points out that Western democracy is really "liberal" democracy, and the "liberal" stands for a limitation of democracy. For example, the USA constitution mandates equality under the law: if citizens voted to create inequality under the law, that would not be accepted. For him the impartial judge is a better symbol of Western democracy than the mass referendum. The liberties of speech, religion, etc are embedded in constitutions that limit the power of the democratically elected government.
And that also explains rationally (and not only cynically) why, for example, a democratically elected government of Islamic fundamentalists is not acceptable to the West: it's democracy without liberty.
He goes as far as to say that what is unique about the USA system is not how democratic it is but how undemocratic it is: how constrained the will of the people is by the Constitution. He points out that there are a number of blatantly undemocratic institutions: the judges of the Supreme Court are not elected by the people, the Senate is wildly undemocratic (two senators per state, regardless of the population of the state), and the president himself is not elected by the majority of votes but by the majority of electoral votes (it has already happened a few times that the man who won the most votes did not become president, most recently in 2000 with Gore and Bush). He thinks that the very reason these undemocratic rules exist was, basically, a distrust by the founding fathers of the masses. They introduced a system of checks and balances to make sure that the masses would not steer away from liberty.
Zakaria's opinion is that the West is becoming more and more democratic, but at the expense of liberty.
The book begins with a survey of liberty over the centuries. Zakaria points out that a key event in the history of the West was the separation of Church and State that took place when Constantine (in 324 AD) moved the capital to Constantinople (Byzantium to the Greeks, and later Istanbul to the Muslims). We are familiar with the perverse effect that it had on the Church: the Church's power increased and eventually turned it into a tyranny of its own, depriving it of its spiritual credibility. Zakaria instead points out the benefits of a Church that was the only institution to temper the absolute power of the monarchs that came to reign over Europe after the fall of the Roman empire. When the Empire fell, the Church survived, and in 800 the Pope managed to establish a procedure by which no monarch in Europe was legitimate unless he was crowned by the Pope. This gave the Pope a strong mandate to influence how monarchs ran their states. The Church became many things, but in particular it became an institution that challenged the power of the state. Zakaria sees this as the prehistory of liberty: a check on the power of the state.
He even digs deeper into Roman history: the Roman Republic that preceded the Roman Empire was the model for all subsequent republics (including the USA). It was certainly not democratic, but it did divide power into three branches, it did enact a legal system that (theoretically) made all citizens equal before the law, and it created the institutions through which the people limited the power of the state (the senate, the constitution, the judges).
The medieval landowners became an aristocracy that put another check on the power of the monarch. Eventually in 1215 the British aristocracy demanded a charter of rights from the King of England (the "Magna Carta"). That was another important step in the history of liberty. There were others, and eventually capitalism completed the process of maximizing liberty.
By the time Zakaria gets to the 19th century, he has a theorem to prove: that liberty leads to democracy, but not viceversa. In the 19th century both Britain and the USA had become models of liberty, but they could hardly be defined democratic, as only a tiny percentage of the population was allowed to vote. Democracy came after liberty had created a system that was viable for democracy. The same happened in the late 20th century to the Far East: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and so forth became capitalistic first, and democratic much later. For decades they were ruled by a one-party system that liberalized the economy, reformed the legal system, and granted all sorts of rights to the individual. The right to vote was one of the last to be granted. The countries that tried democracy right after independence fell under the rule of a dictator. The most democratic countries in the developing world are the ones that used to be British colonies for the simple reason that Britain left them an embrionic system of constitutional liberalism and capitalism. Zakaria's conclusion is that liberty leads to democracy, not viceversa.
He examines the situation in Europe before World War II. He finds examples that show how democracy led to lower degrees of liberty. The most notorious is, of course, Hitler's (Mussolini's too, which he doesn't mention). Democratic elections are in the hands of the masses, not of the intellectuals, and the masses, especially the uneducated masses, often choose illiberal policies, such as antisemitic or ultranationalistic policies. Zakaria shows how, more than a century earlier, the French revolution itself had been an example of how illiberal democracy can be: the French revolution basically replaced the absolute power of the king with the absolute power of the National Assembly. The result was a reduction in human rights.
Zakaria notes that Britain was more successful than Germany or France in establishing a liberal system (despite the fact that it was the last one to abolish the monarchy). He thinks it's due to the fact that Britain (to quote Napoleon) was "a nation of shopkeepers" whereas Germany's industry depended on favors from the government.
Zakaria points out that it's impossible to predict when a country will turn to democracy. It can happen in many ways, and usually it comes through a dramatic event (such as the death of the dictator or a war). Zakaria argues that it is more interesting to ask what makes a democracy last. Countless democracies fell and were overturned by coups. The ones that lasted, in Zakaria's opinion, owed their survival to wealth. When a democracy creates better economic conditions for its people, it tends to become a stable regime. The wealth has to be earned: easy money, such as the oil money flowing into Saudi Arabia, does not qualify. China is a thorny case. While it is difficult to estimate the degree of dissent, it seems to me that Zakaria hasn't spent enough time chatting with ordinary Chinese people: economic progress has made them much more nationalistic, and much more likely to defend their regime. Culture might, after all, count: the Chinese have thousands of years of Confucianism that may have not been erased from their collective subconscious by Mao's communism.
Zakaria thinks that Russia's Yeltsin and Putin are the kind of leaders who will become more popular in the future: the "popular autocrat" that rules over an illiberal democracy. But autocratic rulers are not the only threat to liberty. Another threat comes from the people themselves. Zakaria points out how in India free elections have given more power to the extremist forces and less power to the tolerant forces of society. The Islamic world is the prime example of a region in which democratic elections are likely to curtail liberty. Whatever liberty there is now is mostly due to "enlightened" dictators (Jordan, Morocco, etc). Democratic elections would probably be won by extremists and in particular by Islamic fundamentalists.
At this point Zakaria takes a detour and discusses why the Arab world is so stuck with totalitarian regimes. He's argument is confusing. Denying that Islam is the problem is not a good way to find a solution. He wonders why all the trouble with the Islamists started when it started, and doesn't seem to see the obvious answer: Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was never a power in history. Until recently the cultural, economic and military centers of the Arab worlds were Cairo and Baghdad. Saudi Arabia was a land of nomads and warlords. Oil money has turned Saudi Arabia into a regional power. Unlike Egypt and Iraq, that have always represented a very mild form of Islam, Saudi Arabia has been the cradle and the financier of fundamentalists. (See The rise of the Quran).
Next he examines the USA, where people's trust in their government has been steadily decreasing over the decades after the mid 1960s, despite the fact that individual wealth has increased. He notices that since the mid 1960s the degree of democracy has actually increased. While people complain more about their politicians, the truth is that their politicians are listening more than ever to the people. Public opinion is running the country in a way that it did not before the 1960s. It is ironic that the people themselves don't seem to like the result. Giving people more democracy seems to yield more disapproval. Zakaria retraces the steps of the USA democracy to show that as it became more democratic is also became less... democratic. The system was meant to be an indirect democracy, in which political parties chose candidates. The voters were neither supposed to pick the candidates nor to write and pass laws. Candidates were supposed to be picked by the party apparatchik and laws were supposed to be written by the candidates who got elected to president and Congress. Zakaria calls it a "republican democracy". Politicians were supposed to represent their constituency only to a point: their actions were not supposed to be driven step by step by their constituency. Zakaria pinpoints the year in which the democratic revolution began. During the 1960s the public opinion was feeling disenfranchised from the political system. The dissatisfaction was best represented by the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago. That turned out to be a key event in the evolution of the USA democracy. After 1968 the parties became more democratic (primaries became the standard method of picking candidates, thus replacing the party machines that had previously dominated politics) and referendums became more and more popular, especially after Proposition 13 in California (1978) that managed to stop politicians from arbitrarily taxing people. Zakaria shows the other side of the medal: a politician's main goal became to be reelected (a fact that did not depend on the party bosses anymore but on the will of the people), and that in turn increased the importance of campaign money which in turn conferred more power to special-interest groups. Thus Washington came to be dominated by lobbies. "Reforms designed to produce majority rule have produced minority rule". Worse: the people who vote in the primaries tend to be a fraction of all the party members, and usually the "angry" factions, thus producing candidates who tend to be more extremist than the majority of the members. Thus the divisive nature of politics in the 2000s. Worse: in order to be elected one needs money and name recognition. Thus the Bush and Clinton dynasties. Thus Hollywood stars who become governors. Thus more billionaires who enter politics. Indirectly, Zakaria assumes that this system is now producing less capable (if not less honest) politicians.
The elections of november 2008 don't seem to support his thesis though: a humble son of an African immigrant, Barack Obama, beat anyone else in terms of fundraising, and, by general consent, was one of the best candidates to emerge from the USA political system in a long time. He emerged precisely through a process of democratization of politics that Zakaria does not illustrate in his book but is actually one of the most important phenomena of the last century: the Internet. Thanks to this process, a lot more people get to express their opinion during the primary. That's precisely the answer to Zakaria's argument that the primaries have created a more polarized system in which the angriest factions vote and elect more extremist candidates: the problem was that the country was still in the middle of a progress from undemocratic candidate selection towards democratic candidate selection, Now that the process of the primaries has become more democratic thanks to the Internet, the dysfunctional aspect that Zakaria noted is disappearing. The problem existed, but it was not caused by "excessive" democracy: it was caused by an imperfect democracy. The solution is to actually increase the degree of democracy during the primaries, to make it easy for the "silent majority" to pick party candidates. Media coverage also helped: the 2008 election campaign was the longest and most expensive in history, but also provided the average citizen a lot of information about the candidates, thus allowing a relatively unknown like Barack Obama to beat much more famous celebrities like Hillary Clinton, and a conservative maverick like John McCain to beat a celebrity like Rudolph Giuliani. The elections of 2008 proved the exact opposite of what Zakaria predicted: neither special-interest groups nor name recognition helped pick the winners. The reason that Zakaria's prediction failed could be that the process of democratization reached the point where it actually works.
Zakaria also neglects one important reason that lobbies became so influential in Washington: there is a lot more money in Washington today than there used to be. Big spending really started under president Johnson and has mushroomed since then. It was certainly useful for big business and special-interest groups to try and influence laws in the 1950s, but it became a major financial opportunity in the 1970s and today that opportunity is worth trillions of dollars (as the financial bailout of october 2008 proved).
Zakaria turns to referendums, the other form of democracy that has increasingly moved decisional power towards the people. He focuses on California, because that's where the process started and that's where it is still employed more often. Alas, he does not spends a word on Switzerland, a country that has been run by referendum for centuries, and that has consistently had the best government in the world. Zakaria shows that California has plunged in a state of semi-anarchy because of all the conflicting and poorly-written "propositions". And shows that a system designed to eliminate the influence of lobbies and big business has fallen precisely into the hands of lobbies and big business because it takes money and organization to put a proposition on a ballot and it takes even more money and organization to make it win. Basically, California has not only politicians who run for office but also propositions that run for office. It's an interesting point, but a big exaggerated. In fact Zakaria cannot mention a single referendum that passed a proposition only because it favored a big corporation or a lobby of big corporations. California's state of semi-anarchy may be due more to the lifestyle of its inhabitants than to the politics of referendums.
Many USA citizens will agree with Zakaria that the (partial) democratization of politics has been harmful to the effectiveness of the system. However, Zakaria does not show that it has caused a limitation of liberty. Liberty seems to have increased dramatically since 1968.
Zakaria sees the history of the USA over the last century as two parallel processes, one of regulation of capitalism and one of deregulation of democracy. He thinks that both got out of control. The excessive regulation of capitalism was eventually undone during the Reagan years (although that deregulation led to the financial crisis of 2008). Zakaria believes that the USA now has to put a limit to the deregulation of democracy, by creating and strengthening the non-elected structures such as the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court.
However, democracy is an altogether different story outside the USA. In the end, comparing the fate of countries that progressed gradually from dictatorship to democracy through a series of liberal reforms, Zakaria comes to the conclusion that it is not healthy (and in fact counterproductive) for a country to jump directly from dictatorship to democracy. Gradual political reform is preferrable to istantaneous democratic revolution.
All in all, this books presents one of the strongest arguments ever against democracy. It shows that democracy is a vastly overrated value.
Any theory is judge not by how appealing it sounds, but how good its predictions are. Zakaria makes very few predictions, but, when it does, recent events don't seem to prove him right. The presidential elections of november 2008 hardly prove him right about the effects of democratizing the political process.