After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have been conditioned to believe that democracy was eternal and that no other system could triumph against it. The Western powers also consider that morally, no other political model can top the people’s self-government and therefore no democracy can be totally replaced by another regime. However, we have studied different phenomena, from the rise of populism to the extreme political polarization, which, as we saw, feed into a global trend of Democratic Backsliding. This concept represents the fear of many citizens all over the world that their system is failing progressively. They do refuse to admit that the democracy they live in has already been “de-democratized” to an extent and when confronted with the idea that they are transitioning towards another model, they cannot even conceive it. We have considered Democracy to be an ideal to achieve for every country in the world but perhaps, a new system is possible and more efficient… What if democracy was just a step in the History of political regimes?
In 2004, Colin Crouch described the trajectory of many nations, which are transforming into post-democracies, that is to say a political system that has become a “shell” of a democracy, keeping democratic institutions but betraying its ideals. In this system, the policies are crafted by technocratic elites behind closed doors. Although Crouch argue that we have not attained this stage yet, I would differ with that statement. The American political system has become an exclusive machine with a remarkably low voter turn-out and a certain isolation from the elites in Washington and the rest of the population.
Pretending that the United States is not a democracy anymore would be quite radical but it is certainly much different from the model the founding fathers had in mind. The lack of willingness to even consider changing the institutions is alarming. Everybody seems to agree that it fails at representing correctly its population, yet no politician comes up with ideas to remedy to that issue.
In that battle, the United States is far from being alone. As a matter of fact, many observers worry that the rise of Populism all over the Western democracies undermine their values. If these factions are so successful though, it is because they propose a new vision of politics that is closer to the essence of Democracy in the sense that it correspond to a better attention given to the citizens. In its book What is Populism? Jan-Werner Mueller highlights all the threats posed by the rise of such political forces. He also demonstrates however, that Democracy as a whole can benefit from them, by forcing a better communication between the citizens and their leaders as well as giving the power back to the people. Populists are using the democratic institutions with savviness and I am not sure that their rise is more worrying that the development of technocracies everywhere in terms of undermining the Democratic ideals. If Democracy must end through populism, at least the people would support it and be responsible for it, unlike an erosion impulse by a technocratic elite.
Furthermore, we usually fail at considering the benefits of other political systems and highlight their success. The West has severely criticized Vladimir Putin’s reelection in 2018, calling out the manipulation of the elections and attacking the state of Democracy in Russia. They fail however to highlight the Russian president’s ongoing popularity: according to the Levada Center, 80% of Russian citizens approve of his leadership as of March 2018.
The same goes on with the Western treatment of the People’s Republic of China. For a long time, the United States believed that the opening of the country would place the nation on an ideological slippery slope towards democracy. This is far from what we have observed as the Communist Party’s grip on the Chinese society has been maintained over the years and as President Xi Jinping has solidified its position at the head of the State. We cannot seem to understand why Chinese citizens would not want another system. Besides, when confronted to a Chinese citizen that does not have interest in politics, we usually consider this attitude as a cope-out while we seem less worried about the lack of political conscience of our own neighbors. Many Chinese believe in the wisdom of their leaders and that is not something the West accepts eagerly.
Certainly, a world where all nations would be democratic and live at peace would make international relations easier but as years go by, it looks more and more like an unattainable utopia. If we pay attention to the recent trends, it is clear that a large number of democracies have been attacked as the concept of democratic erosion keeps producing an important literature. Yet, it is taboo to argue that, maybe, Democracy as we know it, is just a phase in the trajectory of our political systems.
I am obviously not arguing in favor of a return to authoritarianism. Instead, I believe that our political systems have a lot to learn from the successes of foreign illiberal forms of government as well as in the recent events causing a democratic backsliding “from within”. The Western powers have been at the forefront when it comes to the development of both Populism and Technocracy. According to Sheri Berman, those two phenomena “are two evil twins” because they defend a system that is only liberal, or only democratic instead of both. This type of remarks is typical of the way we erect Liberal Democracy as a perfect system that every nation should aspire to. We seem to voluntarily make ourselves blind to the fact that our ideal is flawed and that other regimes are also efficient.
For a long time, the Western nations have been at the forefront when it comes to the development of successful systems of governance. It might be time for them to take a step back and facilitate a transition to a new era.
The concept of democracy, as argued within this blog has been everchanging. We fail to recognize that no democracy is an ideal or true democracy and that the system itself still has many flaws. Yet when alternatives are put forth, they are rejected outright because the people in most areas of the world think of other political systems as a step down and fail to recognize their positives. The Founding Father’s when constructing the constitution envisioned an evolving system. However, many in leadership positions with the power to start change and fill in the holes fail to do so. Everyone acknowledges that the system has flaws yet no one seems to take the step forward to initiate change. Other forms of government that we view as bad alternatives have their benefits. Less people complain about issues in Russia, as stated since Putin has an amazing 80% approval rating. Compare that to the sub 50% of most Presidents in the United States. Other forms of government have their benefits and to evolve the Western civilizations need to borrow the good parts and create a hybrid form of democracy. Democracy is within our roots, yet no democracy has been a true one. It is important to expand and build on what we have to create a better and more stable future system.
The idea of changing the political system might be difficult for our leaders to believe, especially the changing of democracy. For example, when Senator Bernie Sanders ran for office with the belief that our society is so much in control of wealthy corporations, that we need to have a more balance in social classes. Yet many people think that he is a socialist. Therefore, people’s knowledge of politics is one of the most important steps to start or initiate change for the system. As the author of the article above mentioned, the Russians and the Chinese still favorable over their leaders even when the other part of the world see them as a step down from democracy, an authoritarian regime with its leaders are full of fascists ideas. Therefore, we can say that in many types of regimes, it is a must for the leaders to have a long and bright vision for their nations. When President Abraham Lincoln took a big step to abolish slavery, the whole country was in favor because it was the right thing to do. When Ho Chi Minh decided to leave Vietnam and find a way to save the country, he traveled to many places to study, to learn and to extract the best ideologies from other political systems in order to establish a type of regime that would benefit his nation. A small country under colonialism for a long time like Singapore, how is it possible that a one-party rule is now one of the most effective and innovative democracy systems in the world? The World Bank and Transparency International almost gave Singapore a perfect score in terms of government efficiency and corruption. The one-party system that the rest of the world thinks that it has no future because of corruption. And once again, President Lee Kuan Yew has proved the opposite. Now if we say corruption is the tumor of a one-party political system, think again. Many countries in the world have proved otherwise and I have mentioned the most two famous one, Singapore and China. According to the Transparency International report, China ranking is even higher than any democratic nations with a voting system. We are now living in the world that most of the Western ideologies may no longer be suitable when the rising power like China, India or Brazil is step by step proving that a transition is needed for a better form of democracy.
This is a very interesting take from our course on democratic erosion. Your point about populism increasing direct communication between leaders and the people seem promising, however there are some notable downsides to this. Populist leaders only represent a specific portion of a nation’s population and make it a point to encourage their division from the other groups within the population. We have seen in recent years that in the West populist leaders form their platforms around white nationalist interests. These interests not only benefit only portions of the white population, but actively form resentment and hostility towards minorities. Your point about democracy potentially just a trend within the history of global politics is very valid, we’ve seen greater empires thrive for centuries under one political system before falling. The world is globalizing at an increasing rate, populations are becoming more diverse, especially in the west. In the face of such a globalized world, where is populisms place? And perhaps more importantly, where is the place for minorities in a populist government.
Another point to consider is that while citizens may report to be happy with authoritarian governments, the amount of education, access to information, and freedom of expression are key factors in determining their happiness with the government. Information and public transparency invites debate and diversity of political thought, a hallmark of democracy. If people only know a certain way of living, they will be inclined to believe it is the only way to live successfully. This being said, I remain open to the idea that perhaps democracy is a temporary trend following the decolonization of most of the world. Whether there exists a form of democracy that side steps its failures at implementation is an interesting line of thinking.