Are the Wolves Devouring Democracy?

“Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner,” wrote the libertarian James Bovard. Yet too often that seems where it is headed.

What worries the defenders of democracy today is not that there are fewer democracies than before, but that voters are choosing populists who proclaim that since they won a free and fair election, they can dine on what they will, unconstrained by law, international norms, values, human rights or basic compassion.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used his serial victories at the polls to purge opponents, curtail press freedoms and expand his powers. Hungary’s Viktor Orban openly embraces “illiberalism.” Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski has steadily moved away from the rule of law. And the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy of all, is pushing the limits of presidential power, assailing a free press and challenging some of his own government’s institutions.

These are the forces John Adams warned of in his famously pessimistic letter to his wife: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself.” Unlike kings or dictators who deny rule by the people, the illiberal democrats undermine the fundamental institutions and values of democracy from within, often to the cheers of a duped majority.

The task before those who believe in democracy is to prove Adams wrong; to demonstrate, once again, that democracy is a self-righting mechanism. It is not a simple task: the inherent inefficiencies of democratic rule are an easy target for its foes, and the worlds of commerce, politics, technology, justice and journalism, among others, all have their own take on how government should function.

Serge Schmemann is a member of the editorial board of The New York Times.