Praising the Turkey Coup: An Erroneous Position

The recent failed coup in Turkey and, moreover, the diversity of reactions to it by various members of the pundit class was an interesting exercise in how illiberal forms of democracy consistently baffle the sometimes-not-so-intelligent intelligentsia. This bafflement is expressed in the equally-remarkable support some U.S pundits had for the coup. Since Erdogan was authoritarian, removing him would be a necessarily pro-democratic act, the argument goes. Not only is it reliant on a specious logic, it is premised on an ignorance of the politics of Turkey.

Turkey fits the description of an illiberal democracy, a term first defined by Fareed Zakaria: it is democratic in its governance structure but illiberal—increasingly authoritarian—in its functioning. In this manner, Erdogan’s Turkey resembles many states who also fit the bill: Egypt (during the Morsi administration), Russia, Iran, Poland (recently), Venezuela, Ghana, and many others. The contrast between democracy and illiberalism perceived by U.S thinkers and writers that animates such statements of support for the coup  is a product of our unique political tradition wherein democracy and liberalism are two intricately linked concepts. To quote Kathy Gilsinan quoting Shadi Hamid, “As Richard Youngs writes in his excellent study of non-Western democracy, liberalism and democracy have historically been ‘rival notions and not bedfellows.’ Liberalism is about non-negotiable personal rights and freedoms. Democracy, while requiring some basic protection of rights to allow for meaningful competition, is more about popular sovereignty, popular will, and accountability and responsiveness to the voting public.” (I would like to pause and point out the triple quote on quote here)

Our American tradition holds that the rights enshrined by liberalism are necessary for the proper functioning of society and democracy and that both liberalism and democracy are similar in that they both are expressions of ideologically humility. Nevertheless, the American political ethos holds classic liberalism and democracy as inextricably linked—supporting democracy, in this tradition, is a liberal value; an axiom that is consistent across many iterations of liberalism. But it is just the same that, in many cases, democracy may empower the voices of those opposed to liberal values and end up eroding them.

It is my suspicion that the contrast between liberalism and democracy, especially in non-western democracies, produces confusion over which actions constitute a pro-democratic act and which do not. Since liberalism and democracy are related concepts in our political tradition, a coup against an illiberal leader is thus construed to be a pro-democratic act. And while perhaps within our political system, democracy and liberalism ought to be sometimes understood as related concepts, other times they clearly come in contrast with one another—such is the lesson of the illiberal democracy.

But that is not the only problem with blindly supporting the Turkey coup in the name of democracy. First of all, of the many military coups in the past, most if not all have resulted in an authoritarian state. Secondly, the perpetrators do not have substantial democratic bonafides either. ( Given how entrenched support for AKP is within the country, it would stand to reason that in order for stability to be established in the case of successful coup, an authoritarian approach would be necessary.

Furthermore, a military coup, and an unpopular one at that, is affront to democratic principles. What pundits are supporting, when they ascribe democratic traits to the coup, is an armed subversion of the will of the body politic. We hold that governments are assented to and formed by the people, not imposed on them. Democracy offers the citizenry a choice to accept the tradeoffs of an increasingly authoritarian state, and allows them to judge whether it is truly within their best interest. While it is true that the irony of this popular authoritarianism is that it erodes the democratic institutions that facilitated its institution, and undermines the ability of the citizenry to properly exercise their democratic responsibilities by silencing political opponents and the media, supporting a military coup that utterly ignores the popular will and acts without a mandate is anathema to democracy, plain and simple.