At 3 a.m., the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere so the cramped passengers could stretch their legs, use the lavatory, smoke a cigarette. I was standing by the bus, when a guy – let’s call him Timur – asked me what I was doing there. It was a fair question. I was clearly not a native of this small former republic of the Soviet Union.
“I’m a journalist,” I replied. “I’ve been teaching journalism in Ganje,” referring to the provincial capital about six hours away.
“Oh. A journalist. You probably support democracy too.”
“Yes. Actually, I do.”
“Democracy. I hate democracy.”
Timur spit out the words like something noxious and vile.
I don’t think we had much more a conversation. I didn’t present a philosophical defense of democracy. I didn’t really know how to respond. Like many Americans, I never seriously considered that an alternative to democracy might be superior. But Timur did – and when I stepped back from the conversation, I understood his position. After all, ten years earlier any bus there was vulnerable to hijacking by bandits. For many in that country, democracy meant violence and corruption. It meant that the steady job you held for decades was suddenly irrelevant. It meant that comfortable truths were toppled. The well-connected became suddenly very wealthy, while the mass of the population struggled amid a web of graft and cynicism. That’s how Timur understood democracy. No wonder he hated the word.
Fifteen years have now passed. I talk about democracy to students as part of my job – but I avoid referring to any country as a democracy. I think of democracy as an abstract noun. A landscape or a flower is not “beauty.” Those things are more or less beautiful – just as a country is more or less democratic. When I talk about democratic institutions, I mean laws and practices that make government accountable to the governed. Because of accountability, the government must respond to the people. The more democratic a country, the more all people are fully and equally represented. Maybe this sounds fine – but the reality is that maintaining democratic institutions requires vigilance, compromise and patience. It’s hard. Frequently people become impatient, dissatisfied with a process that is complicated and slow.
The country where Timur and I spoke 15 years ago is still ruled by the man who held power then. In Europe, an authoritarian state now is invading a country that was governed democratically. And in my country last year, for the first time in its history, insurgents attempted to thwart a peaceful democratic transfer of power. Millions of Americans increasingly sound more like Timur, scornful of this thing we call democracy.
I’m not as naïve as I was 15 years ago. I don’t assume people yearn for democracy. I recognize that many who profess to revere democracy don’t like democratic institutions. But I believe principles of democracy like honesty, fairness, and accountability are more important than ever. And these principles always must be defended.
Academic teaching is a second career for Eric Schwartz, who worked as a newspaper reporter and editor for a couple of decades in the United States and abroad. He returned from Russia in the late 1990s to earn an master’s in international relations from Syracuse University and a master’s and Ph.D in political science from Binghamton University. After finishing his course-work for his doctorate, he trained journalists in Azerbaijan and Russia for a couple of years. Eric started teaching political science at Hagerstown Community College in 2012. He teaches American government, media and politics, international relations, comparative politics, constitutional law and environmental policy. He lives near the Potomac River with his wife Margaret Yaukey and three cats in Williamsport, MD.