Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters

Yemeni women looking for their names on a registration list before voting in the presidential election that ended the thirty-three-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sanaa, February 21, 2012

The following is drawn from Thinking the Twentieth Century, written with Timothy Snyder and just published by Penguin.

Intellectual activity is a little bit like seduction. If you go straight for your goal, you almost certainly won’t succeed. If you want to be someone who contributes to world historical debates, you almost certainly won’t succeed if you start off by contributing to world historical debates. The most important thing to do is to be talking about the things that have, as we might put it, world historical resonance but at the level at which you can be influential. If your contribution to the conversation then gets picked up and becomes part of a larger conversation or part of conversations happening elsewhere as well, then so be it and so much the better.

So I don’t think intellectuals do very well talking about the need for the world to be democratic, or the need for human rights to be better respected worldwide. It’s not that the statement falls short of the desirable, but it contributes very little to either achieving its goal or adding to the rigor of the conversation. Whereas the same person, really showing exactly what’s defective about democracy and democracies, sets a much better base for the argument that ours is a democracy that others should be encouraged to emulate. Merely saying that ours is a democracy or saying that I’m not interested in ours but I want to help make yours encourages the response: well, go away and fix yours and then maybe you’ll have a foreign audience, and so on. So in order to be international, we have to be national first.

What should we be caring about today? We are at the end of a very long cycle of improvement. A cycle that began in the late eighteenth century and that, notwithstanding everything that’s happened since, continued essentially through the 1990s: the steady widening of the circle of countries whose rulers were constrained to accept something like the rule of law. I think that it was overlain from the 1960s onward by two different but related spreads: of economic and individual freedom. Those two latter developments, which look as though they are related to the first one, are in fact potentially dangerous to it.

I see the present century as one of growing insecurity brought about partly by excessive economic freedom, using the word in a very specific sense, and growing insecurity also brought about by climate change and unpredictable states. We are likely to find ourselves as intellectuals or political philosophers facing a situation in which our chief task is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones. And that’s a slightly different sort of situation, where the kind of intellectual who draws big pictures of idealized, improvable situations may not be the person who is most worth listening to.

We may find ourselves asking how we can defend established legal or constitutional or human rights, norms, freedoms, institutions, and so on. We will not be asking whether the Iraq war was a good or not good way to bring democracy, freedom, liberty, the market, etc. to the Middle East; but rather, was it a prudent undertaking even if it achieved its objectives? Recall the opportunity costs: the lost potential to achieve other things with limited resources.

All this is hard for intellectuals, most of whom imagine themselves defending and advancing large abstractions. But I think the way to defend and advance large abstractions in the generations to come will be to defend and protect institutions and laws and rules and practices that incarnate our best attempt at those large abstractions. And intellectuals who care about these will be the people who matter most.

Timothy Snyder: It’s not that one ought to be speaking about democracy or that one ought to be spreading it but rather that it’s precisely a very tender thing that is made up of a lot of small and fragile mechanisms and practices. One of which is making sure that votes are counted.

If you look at the history of nations that maximized the virtues that we associate with democracy, you notice that what came first was constitutionality, rule of law, and the separation of powers. Democracy almost always came last. If by democracy we mean the right of all adults to take part in the choice of government that’s going to rule over them, that came very late—in my lifetime in some countries that we now think of as great democracies, like Switzerland, and certainly in my father’s lifetime for other European countries like France. So we should not tell ourselves that democracy is the starting point.


Democracy bears the same relationship to a well-ordered liberal society as an excessively free market does to a successful, well-regulated capitalism. Mass democracy in an age of mass media means that on the one hand, you can reveal very quickly that Bush stole the 2000 election, but on the other hand, much of the population doesn’t care. He’d have been less able to steal the election in a more restricted suffrage–based, old-fashioned nineteenth-century liberal society: the relatively few people actually involved would have cared much more. So we pay a price for the massification of our liberalism, and we should understand that. That’s not an argument for going back to restricted suffrage or two classes of voters, or whatever it might be—you know, the informed or the uninformed. But it is an argument for understanding that democracy is not the solution to the problem of unfree societies.

Timothy Snyder: But wouldn’t democracy be a good candidate for a more pessimistic century? Because it is, I think, best defended as something that prevents worse systems from coming into being, and best articulated as mass politics as a way of making sure that people aren’t fooled the same way every time.

The Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst possible system except for all the others has some—but limited—truth. Democracy has been the best short-term defense against undemocratic alternatives, but it is not a defense against its own genetic shortcomings. The Greeks knew that democracy is not likely to fall to the charms of totalitarianism, authoritarianism, or oligarchy; it’s much more likely to fall to a corrupted version of itself.

Democracies corrode quite fast; they corrode linguistically, or rhetorically, if you like—that’s the Orwellian point about language. They corrode because most people don’t care very much about them. Notice that the European Union, whose first parliamentary elections were held in 1979 and had an average turnout of over 62 percent, is now looking to a turnout of less than 30 percent, even though the European Parliament matters more now and has more power. The difficulty of sustaining voluntary interest in the business of choosing the people who will rule over you is well attested. And the reason why we need intellectuals, as well as all the good journalists we can find, is to fill the space that grows between the two parts of democracy: the governed and the governors.