Is democracy in decline, in retreat or under siege?
THIS is an intriguing question for many who suffer from a lost golden age of democracy, freedom and rules-based world order.
Democracy, from the Greek words “demos” – people – and “kratos” – rule, is generally defined as a system of government in which the majority reigns, taking into account the rights of minorities.
As Abraham Lincoln defined it, “government of the people, for the people and by the people”. But in her time, women and slaves did not have the right to vote or participate in their governance. The crux of the democratic ideal lies in the question – “who governs?”
Note that democracy was rarely granted by the British Empire, which never granted democracy to its colonies (other than white Canada or Australia) until it was forced to give independence after being exhausted by two world wars.
Democracy was adopted as part of the American Toolkit to be pushed so that more people would be like Americans, free and equal, at least in theory.
This is not to say that the idea of democracy does not appeal to people of different cultures and political backgrounds.
The Chinese idea of democracy, first expressed by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) embodied in San Minzchu-I or Three People’s Principles, encompassed citizens of a common culture defined by nationalism, governance rights ( constitutionality) and people-centered well-being.
In a survey of 50,000 people in 53 countries surveyed for the Alliance of Democracies Foundation, 71% of Chinese respondents agree that China has the right amount of democracy, while only 33% of Russians think so. Indeed, 81% of those questioned agreed that it was important to have democracy in their country.
What is remarkable is that 44% of those polled think that the United States threatens democracy in their country, against Chinese influence (38%) or Russia (28%). The biggest threat to democracy is seen as inequality (64%) and big tech companies (48%).
Democracy in practice today is built around the process of procedural democracy, in which people vote openly, freely and regularly to choose their government. The best governance arrangement is presumed to be the Montesquieu Trinity of Executive, Legislative, and Judicial where mutual checks and balances deliver what the people want. Over the past decade, economists like Professor Daron Acemoglu of MIT have argued that democracy promotes economic growth. But if growth has not been equally shared, democracy is threatened by populist authoritarianism, which is often democratically elected to power.
Freedom House, which produces an annual report on global freedoms, says 2020 was the 15th consecutive year of long-term global democratic decline. Two important trends mark this decline: the domestic political problems of the United States and the reclassification of India, the most populous democracy in the world, from free status to partially free status.
Is this democratic retreat real or scientifically proven? Political scientists Waldner and Lust (2018) argue that the health of global democracy can no longer be properly measured by simply counting democracies and autocracies. There is a bunch of countries they call WINDS or new weakly institutionalized democracies that easily revert to military coups or autocratic politics due to bad institutions that cannot deliver on their promises. The poorer the country, the more vulnerable it is to political change.
In short, democracy as an ideal depends on the quality of institutions and if those institutions corrode, become politically captured, or are unable to deliver what politicians promise, then democracy or any other ruling ideology will inevitably be subject to change. change by peaceful or violent means. .
In my opinion, the Austrian philosopher / economist Joseph Schumpeter stays put in his classic diagnosis of capitalism, socialism and democracy (1942). The 18th century definition of democracy was an institutional arrangement to achieve the common good through procedural arrangements that deliver “the will of the people”. But how do we define the “common good” and what arrangements ensure that it is achieved? Schumpeter predicted that “whenever individual wills are very divided, it is very likely that the political decisions produced will not conform to” what people really want. ” This is exactly why people are disillusioned with politics, because politicians are unable to deliver what they really want.
Schumpeter, the genius of innovation, saw that just as the entrepreneur engages in “creative destruction”, it is political competition that creates the leadership that delivers what people want. He saw that dynamic leadership and the competition of ideas and execution either delivered him or failed in the process. This is because what people want at different times and places can be different. Political leadership is about understanding the mood of the moment, seizing opportunities and organizing the institutions to be implemented. The problem is that democracy alone does not guarantee that the government will be better at delivering results than any other arrangement, such as autocracy.
This failure is the reason why democracy is retreating or at least re-grouping itself. As globalization, technology, demographics and climate change have made life much more complex, demanding instant decision-making, even the best democracies have seen a concentration of power within the presidential executive branch, crushing judicial controls. or parliamentarians. When institutional checks and balances fail due to corruption, corrosion or incompetence, new forms of political leadership arise to challenge old ones.
We should not fear change, but welcome it.
As Hayek, the market’s greatest philosopher, acknowledged, “A limited democracy might indeed be the best protector of individual freedom and be better than any other form of limited government, but unlimited democracy is probably worse than any other.” unlimited form of government, because its government loses the very power to do what it thinks is right if a group on which its majority depends thinks otherwise (Letter to the Times, 1978).
Democracy is a work in progress, not set in stone to be worshiped. Each country and each community must find its own form of democracy to achieve what is best for the community as a whole. To survive, it must meet the Darwinian test of evolutionary competition from many different modes of governance. Darwin never said survival was the best, only the fittest.