Written by Nayyera Haq
Illustration by Rob Dobi
Jan. 13, 2023
When you visit the Colosseum in Rome, after you pass the security fence and military guards, you can see the original columns and archways we’ve copied into our architecture here in the United States. Four years ago, I visited the ruins of ancient Rome with my family: my parents, who were shaped by life under a military dictatorship; my husband, the descendent of enslaved Black people; and our toddler, the heir to all of these pieces of world and American history.
While a guide explained how the Colosseum was the scene of violent entertainment and the physical embodiment of panem et circenses ― the powerful strategy of distracting people from political engagement with “bread and circuses” ― my parents nodded sagely, my husband scoped out the exits to escape the theoretical mob, and I fervently hoped my boy wasn’t absorbing anything other than sunshine and culture.
You don’t have to go back to the Roman Republic or dust off your pre-World War II history lessons to see how democracies crumble.
It’s happening now: in Hungary, where the liberal world order was the de facto state religion, and in India, considered the world’s largest pluralist democracy. Where the rule of law was once valued as a way to navigate the challenges of different people living in close proximity, now ethnonationalism and the “rule of me” dominate political and social spaces.
In both of these countries, as in the United States, leaders insist they are only fulfilling the promise of democracy.
Democracies don’t die in darkness. They crumble, then fade, in broad daylight, with the tacit support of the people.
In April 2022, Viktor Orbán won his fourth-straight election to lead Hungary, under strict and constantly changing election rules he’d gradually put in place a decade before. Now that his party has a supermajority in Hungary’s parliament, he can and has amended his country’s constitution at will.
The Hungarian prime minister has very clearly stated his plans to gain and keep power, saying in 2010 that “we have only to win once” and in 2013 that “in a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions.” Orbán severely limited who can participate in the political process, then layered in documented ballot rigging and voter intimidation at the community level. He used the trappings of democracy to purge the courts, eliminate independent media and give himself permanent power. Early in the pandemic, for example, Orbán’s party had the parliament cede its power and give him the ability to rule by decree, arguing that legislating is cumbersome during a health crisis.
Orbán speaks of an exclusively white and Christian nation, using anti-immigration and law-and-order rhetoric that in turn has inspired the American right. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative U.S. think tank, actively promoted Orbán’s constitutional changes. This past summer, Orbán skipped meeting President Joe Biden and other leaders in Washington, D.C., to deliver the keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas. Though Hungarian law embraces policies anathema to the modern Republican Party — like allowing abortions, restricting private gun ownership and providing government health care for all — Orbán was welcomed with an “endorsement” by former President Donald Trump, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson lauded his “national vision.”
Orbán’s stated vision: a world where white Christian nationalists in Europe and the United States join forces to win the “clash of civilizations.”
“The horrors of Nazis and communists happened because some western states in continental Europe abandoned that Christian values, and today’s progressives are planning to do the same,” Orbán told his band of brothers at CPAC. “Who is going to stop them if we don’t?”
The current prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, was once denied entry to the U.S. by the State Department. In 2002, as the leader of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi refused to condemn or stop thousands of Hindu rioters as they torched, raped and murdered their way through Muslim villages. More than 1,000 people were killed. When Modi’s state government refused to prosecute the offenses, other Indian jurisdictions took over and found more than 100 people guilty of violence, including one of Modi’s own state ministers.
President George W. Bush’s government stopped Modi from coming to the U.S. to rally a stadium full of political supporters. For years, Modi was the only person rejected under visa rules designed to protect religious minorities. Modi has never apologized or acknowledged the targeted massacre conducted on his watch.
Now, 20 years later, Modi is the leader of one of the United States’ main trading partners, to the tune of $130 billion. As prime minister of India, Modi is feted by presidents, lawmakers, CEOs and others looking to engage India’s 1.3 billion-person consumer market. As head of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, Modi runs an ethnically and religiously diverse country of 121 languages. He does so with little regard for the civil rights of women, Muslims and the socially disadvantaged.
In the world’s largest democracy, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Modi’s government has now made religion a criterion for citizenship. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists are given an expedited claim to citizenship, while followers of Islam are explicitly left out. Muslims who have identified as Indian for generations are now being stripped of their citizenship because they cannot provide papers from an era when such documentation didn’t exist. There is no grand ceremony or stripping of stripes: Bureaucracy and mundane paperwork are how people lose identity and sense of belonging to a country.
After stripping citizenship from nearly 2 million people, Modi’s India is building mass detention camps for Indian Muslims who are now legally “foreigners.” To “humanize” the camps ― their words, not mine ― the government has labeled them “transit centers.”
That a modern democracy would write discrimination into its laws is shocking, but especially so in a region where post-colonial religious conflict already led to the violent breakdown of communities and shattering of national identity. The Partition of 1947 remains the largest mass migration in world history, when 15 million people were displaced and more than 1 million people were killed in the process of creating India, Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh.
My grandparents saw the communal violence and left behind wealth in India to become refugees in Pakistan. My parents were born of this conflict.
The Civil War was America’s bloodiest moment. The racial tensions remain palpable some 150 years later, with rhetoric of the Lost Cause still permeating our society. My in-laws were born of this conflict, sharecroppers in South Carolina.
Now, imagine a scenario in which the Union was shattered, recently enough that your grandparents still remember horrific details. Modi uses this kindling to his political advantage.
In 1967, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage. India has done the opposite, making it a crime punishable by 10 years in prison if a Hindu woman’s family can “prove” their daughter was the target of a Muslim man’s “love jihad.” In Modi’s India, a woman’s consent matters less than racial and religious purity.
The appearances and machinery of democracy matter. Government buildings in America feature various Greco-Roman columns to symbolically connect us to the ancient halls of democracy.
But without a common commitment to pluralism –– a sense of my-freedoms-end-where-yours-begin –– we end up with the founders’ freedom being formalized mob rule.
In countries where democracy and the freedoms of press, assembly and religion are no longer deemed necessary for mutual survival, the average person simply does not see how the system can go so wrong, so quickly. State violence is part of the equation, but it’s targeted at those who stick out and dissent openly: intellectuals who teach real history, journalists who write forcefully, individuals who refuse to be silenced. Hungary’s prime minister has eliminated non-state media. In India, Modi has shut down internet service in areas he says are in crisis. Both leaders regularly crack down on protests and public gatherings that are not their own political rallies.
The lack of transparency is combined with political rhetoric pushing the idea that people different from you are gathering to take over your community. It’s all part of a time-tested strategy of keeping people fearful, focused on survival, unable to expect more from their leaders.
My parents, young in Pakistan in the 1960s, were not writers or activists or hippies of any sort. The cultural upheavals, the conflicts between liberals and conservatives that raged globally, were part of a different world. They saw news reports of German shepherds being sicced on Black people in America, but they did not see the reporters and students being arrested in their own midst. When the military set up checkpoints to cut young men’s hair by force, my mother internalized this message: Toe the line and you won’t get in trouble.
Dictatorship aside, my parents were simply trying to get the college degrees that would Get Them Out. This is something my husband, raised decades later on the outskirts of Oakland, California, finds relatable. Political protest and systemic change were not top of mind for either of them. The indignities suffered by minorities on the ladder up are simply a part of life.
They often point out this specific point of privilege: “How can you worry about democracy when you’re trying to feed your kids?”
Yet when we put American democracy in a global context, we still believe Ronald Reagan was right when he described our country as a beacon of light on a hill. We are raised convinced that we, out of all the countries, have gotten democracy right. American diplomats and tourists, myself included, hold on to the idea that everyone wants to watch American movies and buy into American culture. Despite our hardships, the fits and starts of realizing America’s promise, we are smug in the belief that people living elsewhere would jump at the chance to be here.
And we never suspect that bread and circuses have become our most potent product.
CORRECTION: A prior version of this story gave the incorrect year for the Partition of India and Pakistan, and it misstated the total number of elections won by Viktor Orbán. It also inaccurately represented Orbán’s margin of victory in 2022. Additionally, language has been amended to clarify when the rule-by-decree law was put in place in Hungary.