Nicole DeOrzio ’24, Staff Writer

On Friday, March 25, the IU Honors Program hosted a seminar exploring democratic successes and failures throughout history.  During his hour-long forum, Professor John Hill discussed the results of historical conflicts between authoritarianism and democracy.  In the midst of Russia’s War on Ukraine, speculation is swirling as to whether Ukrainian democracy will endure.  By attending this seminar, students gained critical insights into how historical trends may predict the outcome of the history unfolding before their eyes.

            What is democracy?  As Professor Hill explained, democracy is rooted in popular sovereignty.  In this model, the consent to govern comes from the people.  However, democracy involves more than mere popular sovereignty.  Representative government, responsible government, civil rights, and a free press/media are also integral aspects of a true democracy.  As Professor Hill elaborated, the number of rights can expand and contract in a democracy.  While the government may limit rights during emergencies, citizens in a democracy usually enjoy a great amount of freedom.

            After defining a democracy, it is important to note where democracy has failed.  As a historian, Professor Hill carefully explained countless examples of democracy’s defeat.  Most notably, Italy fell to fascism, and Germany succumbed to Hitler’s dictatorial rule.  Other examples of curtailed democracies include Poland, France, the First Austrian Republic, the Second Spanish Republic, and Chile.  In interwar Europe, the age of empires caused a cluster of failures.  During the economic crisis from 1914-1930, democracy failed in places that were hit hard by trying times.  In many of these cases, democracy was eventually restored.  However, democracy could not endure dramatic shifts in socioeconomic and military activity.

            With so many examples of democracy crumbling, it begs the question of why democracy can fail.  Professor Hill noted three circumstances where authoritarian regimes may prevail: economic crisis, military defeat, and political crisis.  One of the basic functions of government is to provide a decent standard of living for its citizens.  If freedom in a democracy means freedom to starve, then people will naturally embrace change.  In addition, when a democracy faces military defeat, the regime loses legitimacy.  This makes it difficult to preserve democracy, and a more authoritarian regime may emerge.  Lastly, a political crisis occurs when the government cannot accomplish what needs to be done.  Like military defeat, this delegitimizes the regime and paves the way for a nondemocracy.

            While history certainly provides insights into trends, the future is still unwritten.  With this historical background, the dire situation in Ukraine can be better understood.  Although the past indicates that democracies struggle when the status quo changes for the worse, the alternatives to freedom often foster newfound appreciation for democracy among the people.  Only time will tell where Ukraine will fall on the spectrum of democratic success and failure.  For now, it is up to President Zelenskyy and his people to fight for their cherished democracy.

Source: National Democratic Institute