AFTER LIVING in Turkey for years, I concluded that Turkish democracy was deeply enough rooted so that no demagogic leader could throw it off track. I was wrong. Now I believe the same thing about the United States: that our institutions are strong enough to withstand even the force of an autocratic president. I may be wrong again.
A decade ago, Turkey seemed headed toward a glorious future. Turks were richer and enjoyed more freedom than at any time in modern history. Their government promoted a cooperative foreign policy based on the principle “zero problems with neighbors.” Turkey was a prized NATO ally with an increasingly respected voice in the councils of world power.
That great promise has given way to ruin. Driven by the whims and ambition of Turkey’s elected leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has become a repressive state. Tens of thousands of real and imagined critics of the government have been jailed. Society has become deeply polarized. Investor confidence is plunging, tourism is in free fall, and the currency is steadily losing value. The press has been stifled. Armed conflict has broken out again in the mainly Kurdish southeast. Terror bombings have killed hundreds in Istanbul and elsewhere. Turkey’s insistence on pushing itself into Middle East conflicts, including the Syrian civil war and the proxy competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has earned it a host of new enemies. Worst of all, in the eyes of the United States and Europe, Turkey seems to be rethinking its place in the world, turning away from NATO and looking fondly at authoritarian countries like Russia.
Nearly all of these lamentable downturns in Turkey’s fortune may be attributed to President Erdogan. When conflict broke out in Syria, he jumped to take sides against the Syrian government, even to the extreme of allowing militants from ISIS and other radical groups to travel across Turkey to the war zone and establish support bases inside Turkish territory. Now that the momentum of war in Syria has shifted, he has turned against ISIS — which feels betrayed by a former friend and retaliates with horrific terror attacks. Last year, after failing to win what he considered enough votes in a national election, Erdogan called a second election and ordered a crackdown on Kurds in order to win nationalist votes — a strategy that brought him electoral success at the cost of social peace. After last summer’s failed military coup, Erdogan might have responded with a call for national unity. Instead he did the opposite, lashing out in ways that have devastated civil society.
Turkey’s leader pulled down his country’s democracy by taking a series of radical steps. He pitted citizens against each other based on their group identities. Then he recklessly intervened in foreign conflicts. He disrupted longstanding alliance patterns, rejecting the path of diplomatic compromise in favor of me-first chauvinism. At home, he demonized the press, refused to allow examination of his private fortune, and denounced critics as unpatriotic. It reads like an eerie foreshadowing of today’s Washington.
To minimize backlash, Erdogan has closed newspapers, jailed reporters, threatened business leaders, and fired mayors, judges, and prosecutors. Now he has proposed sweeping changes to the constitution that would legitimize and expand his power. Voters will decide in a referendum on April 16 whether to make him the world’s newest elected dictator.
Could something similar happen in the United States? It seems unlikely. Civic activism is a more vibrant tradition in American life than it is in Turkey. States, cities, and many quasi-public institutions have enough independent power to resist dictates from Washington. Turkey’s leader, for example, has summarily dismissed the rectors of all public universities; no American president could do that.
It would be foolish, however, to dismiss the possibility that Americans could lose the blessings of democratic rule. Would-be autocrats understand that the most powerful of all human emotions is fear. They foment it as a way to lead people to surrender their freedoms. Over the last decade, fear-mongering has been just as potent a force in American life as it has been in Turkey.
President Erdogan used the failed coup as an excuse to impose a “state of emergency,” which he has since extended. He interprets his emergency power as giving him the right to jail critics and rule more or less by decree. The United States might be just a few terror attacks away from such a power grab.
The great danger to American democracy, however, is not the blatant crushing of free institutions that has shaken Turkey. More threatening is the continued existence of democratic forms that are drained of their democratic essence. We continue to elect a Congress, for example, but in many states voter suppression and gerrymandering rob people of true choice. Our courts are arenas for waging ideological battles. The power of money in our politics is overwhelming. Earth-shaking decisions to wage foreign wars are made in private by a handful of people. Lady Liberty still symbolizes American freedom, but this is how you lose her.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.