Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Democracy's Discontents

On this date, 225 years ago, the Constitution of the United States went into effect (which is why US Presidents used to be inaugurated on this day from 1793 through 1933). The constitution has, in many respects, stood the test of time - quite an accomplishment. Even so, all is anything but well around the world for constitutional democratic governance in this 21st century. Thus latest issue of The Economist has a special 6-page essay entitled "What's gone wrong with democracy?"  Its analysis is not novel, so much as it is a serious summation of what many have increasingly noted and commented on.

The article begins by noting that, although autocrats may be driven from office, viable democratic regimes seldom succeed them. This is in contrast to what seemed for a time to be a steady march of democratic advances in the late 20th century - Greece (19740), Spain (1975), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985), Chile (1989), and the Central European democracies that were (re)born after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Even though 40% of the world's population, more people than ever before, live in countries that will hold free and fair elections this year, democracy's global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse."

To account for this, the authors suggest the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the rise of China. The former revealed fundamental weaknesses in the political systems of the West and their self-confidence, generating a corrosive cynicism instead. Meanwhile, China has proven false the old assumption that democracies do a better job of raising living standards. For many, the Chinese model may be quite attractive. The Chinese themselves seem to find it so. And they argue that democracy may be destroying america by institutionalizing gridlock, trivializing decision-making, and producing second-rate presidents. On the other hand, post-Soviet Russia, while hardly successful like China, has clearly evolved in an anti-democratic direction. And both the failed Iraq War and the failures of the "Arab Spring" have done much to discredit the promotion of democratization abroad.

All this has highlighted how complex democracy is - its dependence on institutions that must be built up over time and that also don't seem to be working as well as they should in places where they are in fact long established. Once again, there is the sad example of extreme polarization and gridlock in the U.S. And in Europe there is the cautionary tale of the increasingly undemocratic bureaucratic EU. And overwhelming everything is the ancient critique that seems to have come true that democratic electorates serve their short-term interests rather than the long-term good of their societies. Now that times have become hard, the conflict between the short-term interests of the present and investment in the future can no longer be avoided and is tearing at the heart of Western democratic societies - all further exacerbated by an increasingly corrosive cynicism about politics. Thus "dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy. Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper."

All of which suggests a need to return to the history and founding principles of democracy. There has been an excessive modern tendency to reduce democracy to elections, ignoring the larger political culture that needs to be in place (e.g., constitutionalism, limited government, limits on majority rule, etc.). 

The authors cite several positive examples of societies' trying to restrain their appetites - among them California's initiatives to counteract the consequences of its direct democracy ballot initiatives and it move to open primaries and reapportionment by commission.  There is, they recognize, a danger in delegating power away from the people. but they also argue that "Self-denying rules can strengthen democracy by preventing people from voting for spending policies that produce bankruptcy and social breakdown and by protecting minorities from persecution."

Does that sound a lot like Aristotle and Polybius and the American Founders?

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