Andrew O'Hehir in Salon:
In the glory days of the anti-globalization movement, circa the “Battle in Seattle” of 1999, there was an oft-repeated street scene some of you will remember. A group of protesters would seize an intersection or a block for a little while, likely because the police were otherwise occupied or couldn’t be bothered or didn’t want to bust heads while the cameras were watching. The ragtag band would haul out the drums and noisemakers, climb the lampposts and newspaper boxes with colorful banners, and send out an exuberant chant: “This is what democracy looks like!” (Contrary to what you may have heard, smashing the Starbucks windows was not required, and not all that common.)
It’s easy to snark all over that from this historical distance: If democracy looks like a noisy street party involving white people with dreadlocks dressed as sea turtles, count me out! But the philosophy behind that radical-activist moment was not nearly as naive as it might look from here, and much of the problem lies in that troublesome noun: democracy. In those post-Communist, pre-9/11 days, the era of the “end of history,” democracy in its liberal-capitalist formulation was assumed to be the natural fulfillment of human society. It was the essential nutrient-rich medium for the growth of all good things: Pizza Hut, parliamentary elections, knockoff designer clothes and broadband Internet, not to mention all the wonderful gizmos that were about to be invented. Even anti-capitalist protesters were compelled to embrace the rhetoric of democracy, if only to suggest (as Gandhi did about “Western civilization”) that it was a great idea but we hadn’t gotten there yet.
A decade and a half later, democracy remains officially unopposed on the world stage, yet it faces an unexpected existential crisis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American-style liberal-capitalist democracy has presented itself to the world as “the only legitimate form of expression or decision-making power” and “the necessary first condition of freedom.” (I’m quoting an anarchist critique by Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart, which is well worth reading.) But it has abruptly and spectacularly stopped working as advertised: The broken American political system has become a global laughingstock, and numerous other Western countries that modeled their systems on ours are in chronic crisis mode.