The End of Democracy?

I was thinking yesterday about finding polling data about people's faith in the basic tenets of democracy and human rights - questions like whether people felt that governments were responsive to their needs, do they think that special interests dominate political decision-making, etc. In short, I wanted to get a sense, especially in Europe and in North America, about the health of the democratic process.

While it didn't provide numbers, this New York Times story basically follows that question. The detractors of democracy are starting to become more numerous and more vociferous in their complaints. The article is worth a full read (I'll quote a few bits below):

Increasingly, citizens of all ages, but particularly the young, are rejecting conventional structures like parties and trade unions in favor of a less hierarchical, more participatory system modeled in many ways on the culture of the Web.


In the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, a consensus emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book "The End of History and the Last Man," has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises - the Asian financial collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the subprime crisis of 2007-8 and the continuing European and American debt crisis - and the seeming inability of policy makers to deal with them or cushion their people from the shocks.


Responding to shifts in voter needs is supposed to be democracy's strength. These emerging movements, like many in the past, could end up being absorbed by traditional political parties, just as the Republican Party in the United States is seeking to benefit from the anti-establishment sentiment of Tea Party loyalists. Yet purists involved in many of the movements say they intend to avoid the old political channels.

The political left, which might seem the natural destination for the nascent movements now emerging around the globe, is compromised in the eyes of activists by the neoliberal centrism of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. The old left remains wedded to trade unions even as they represent a smaller and smaller share of the work force. More recently, center-left participation in bailouts for financial institutions alienated former supporters who say the money should have gone to people instead of banks.

First, we have to be careful with these kind of "trend" pieces that the New York Times likes to generate. They get a lot of attention by being provocative about a cherished notion (much as I am doing with my headline). As I said in my introduction, I would really like to see some longitudinal survey data about attitudes toward democracy throughout the world, and most especially in the industrialized world.

That said, I can't help but feel as though we are all feeling the decline of the democratic ideal. When China is pointing to American politics and saying "look what happens with democracy," you know you have a problem. Countries like Singapore and China are holding on to their authoritarian models precisely because the West seems so unable to solve its fundamental problems, issues like economic growth, income inequality, health care, the list goes on.

I disagree with the Times' article that the power of special interests are to blame. Everyone in a democracy holds special interests. We have had special interests in America since 1609 at Jamestown (for just one example, the rise of the indentured servant movement and its effect on the colonies). Instead, the big problem with democracy in the West is that it cannot put together enough of a consensus to make the big things happen.

Solving economic depressions is not something that democracy is particularly geared to do. There are too many voices screaming too many different positions too loudly for the bandwidth of one approach to dominate. What countries need in times of crisis is coherence - any coherence. While we are all wedded to our political views, in the end, it is the complete dissonance of our policies that are causing us the most problems rather than any one individual policy.

In the US, this incoherence comes from a checks-and-balance system that has been extended to block any policy from having its intended effect. Procedures like filibusters and holds were once used sparingly on the most extreme pieces of legislation. Today, they are used routinely, making even the appointment of low level functionaries in unknown bureaucracies curiously difficult. Perhaps this is why the governor of North Carolina, Democrat Bev Perdue, recently suggested in a policy discussion that the country should cancel Congressional elections for a while.

What she is getting at, and a theme that I want to pick up on, is that accountability and transparency are not what we think they are. Holding elections regularly doesn't create accountability, but instead straightjackets office holders to the most extreme members of their party. Accountability about policies is easy - did we pass a stem cell bill or not? Did we increase funding for veterans' health or not? But accountability regarding the economy is so much harder to judge in the short-term. Does any politician have the power needed to suddenly rebuild the damage of the past three years?

The problems we are witnessing in America extend across the world. The European Council cannot get the strength to make the hard decisions regarding the Mediterranean countries due to split politics in countries like Germany. France's conservatives lost the Sénat for the first time in the Fifth Republic, and Spain's socialists are preparing for a major drubbing at the polls in a few weeks. Voters want change - any change - but it is precisely that change that is least helpful today. Few countries are doing well, and just switching parties isn't going to be magically move the economic barometer into the green.

I am not depressed about democracy. It has been and will remain a highly adaptable system capable of handling immense problems. But today its future is not the beacon on the hill that it has been in the past two decades. Politicians have reason to worry - if democracy itself doesn't become more responsive, there are going to be discussions about skipping elections, and no one is going to call that out as a crazy idea.