"Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Fareed Zakaria
As we watch these protests around the globe, we should keep in mind that the distinctive feature of the American system is actually not how democratic it is, but rather how undemocratic it is.
What do I mean? Well, we have three co-equal branches of government and the one with the final say on many issues, the Supreme Court, is composed of 9 unelected men and women. The American senate is the most unrepresentative upper house in the democratic universe, with the exception of Britain's House of Lords, which is utterly powerless. California's 38 million people have the same representation in the Senate as do Wyoming's 576,000. State and local governments battle federal power constantly. Private businesses and other non-governmental groups are also part of the mix.
Now there are aspects of this system that many Americans don't like – especially the abuse of the system by largely invented practices like the filibuster – but the basic system of checks and balances, as the famous phrase goes, has worked well.
The form of government that came out of the French revolution, by contrast, is one of absolute sovereignty, centralizing all power at the top. Since that revolution, France has had many upheavals and changes in its regime. It went through two monarchies, two empires, one proto-fascist dictatorship, and five republics before it got to the present regime. The United States, by contrast, has had a continuous constitutional existence since 1789.
Why is this important as we look at the world today? In so many of these cases, what we are watching are democratic governments, elected freely and fairly, that are abusing individual rights, ignoring minority groups, and eroding checks and balances. Observing the early flowering of this phenomenon in the mid-1990s, I described it as "illiberal democracy," and that is the problem we confront in Egypt and so many developing countries.
The good news is that the other elements within these societies are fighting back against illiberal democracy – political groups, student movements, opposition parties. The clash between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood reminds one of the many clashes between kings and lords, the church and the state, that produced the development of Western liberal democracy. It can look very messy while it's happening, neither side has a monopoly of virtue, but the contest between various centers of power over time helped create a system of checks and balances in the West.
So what we're watching around the world might look like crisis and breakdown, but it might turn out to be the road to better government.