Reckless partisanship and the rise of populism have left some wondering if democracy took a wrong turn somewhere. Others are left hoping and believing that democracy evolves through cycles of challenges and restorations, to become a better democracy. Democracy is never a static form of government. It evolves with challenges, adapts to different waves of complexities, and takes various shapes. Even though, democratic evolution is not a simple process, overall, the majority recognizes that it is the best form of government for freedom, tolerance, justice, and progress.
Does the law of diminishing returns apply to politics and democratic evolution? There is a perception of political stagnation, institutional decay, cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level in the current state of our democracy.
In the United States, some observers have suggested that for the past two decades, we have been experiencing the evolution of a political sclerosis. And “when the United States sneezes, Europe catches the cold, the rest of the world ends up with the flu”. This political sclerosis has turned democracy into a dysfunctional political system due to gridlock. On the other hand, others share the view that it is a form of a political decadence by default. A decadence by default built up on stagnation and exhaustion from reforms implemented over decades ago, and the lack in innovations that promote the common good and progress. Ross Douthat (American author and New York Times Op-Ed columnist) suggests that the exhaustion effect is based on the inexistent new revolutions, because people are very attached and dependent to the existing programs. Programs that are becoming complicated to continue to work because of interest groups pile-up.
Is there a global trend of democratic erosion? Perhaps, the global tendencies of democratic decadence are just symptoms of a wave of democratic erosion.
Three decades ago, humanity’s quest in promoting democratic values entered a new era of excitement. After the cold war, democracy expanded eastward like a wave. A tsunami of democracy flooded many regions of the globe. The instrumental value of freedom, tolerance, and justice was embraced like never before in previous totalitarian societies.
In my teen years, I lived in a country that peacefully transitioned from a single party political system to become a multiparty democracy. I was not old enough to vote yet, but I remember the excitement of participating in rallies ran by a newly formed political party MPD (Movement Pro Democracy). There was a generalized euphoric sentiment of liberation, as we idealized the instrumental values of United States democracy. The United States has one of the oldest democracies, and a leading role in promoting freedom and justice. I consider myself blessed to be living in a democracy that is more than two hundred years old. And on the other hand, for have experienced the birth of democracy in another society. I cherish my dual citizenship, that always reminds me of the intrinsic value of freedom in participatory democracies.
Despite the socioeconomic and political catch up, it did not take long for bipartisanship to become a dominant force in most of the new and young democracies, that emerged after the cold war. This phenomenon did set the framework for hyper-partisan environments and polarization in a global scale. Polarization works like political magnet, distracting people from common values and desires. Overtime, this trend of polarization has become more acute in the global arena. The perception is that hyper-partisanship born from polarization, seems to be evolving to a tipping point in democratic evolution, and consequently into a decadence of democratic values. In some young and fragile democracies, this phenomenon can implicate a tragedy of the commons in politics, poisoning the political process and ability to compromise, and ultimately adding fuel to populism.
What’s for the ‘disenfranchised’ fragments that crave for centrism and moderation? There is a generalized perception that those who do not hold strong political bonds for partisanship are left segregated as orphans to bipartisanship.
Hyper-partisanship decreases room for compromise on issues that are important for most people. This aspect leaves this fraction of society with a perception that politicians lack the sense of shared values, common desire to work across the aisle, and are out-of-touch. A phenomenon that reflects in discontentment and loss of faith in politics. An example of this aspect is manifested in the number of people that chose not to participate in the democratic process. This social fraction is embodied as the permanence of a void in politics, which can be found in a great number of modern democracies. Participation is put on reserve and replaced with hopes for its resurrection, if the tide changes. As they are hoping for a tide change in the name of unity rather than division. A tide change for agreeing while discording. A tide change that explores the gray areas for consensus.
Are there new frontiers? The dangerous new era of polarization is too much partisanship. And the remedy for the threat posed by populist dialogues is moderation.
There is an opportunity cost for every decision. New frontiers for moderation should be the next revolution. It should be citizenry based. The hope is for a refreshment in participation and true civic engagement. A type of civic engagement that benefits democracy and the country first. There is a need for a refreshment in political consciousness, to bring back the principle behind the quote “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. “The Social Contract” by Rousseau should be revised more often. Political capitalization should be reframed in a different fashion. Long-term political gains by promoting consensus, rather than quicker political gains fueled by divisiveness. We hope for a new generation politically conscious, that will rally for a constant restoration of sanity, as a periodic wellbeing political check-up.
The new frontiers will depend on our ability to pass the stress tests from these stagnations. The new frontiers will depend on our willingness in redefining our center and common ground. A new frontier is to put country ahead of partisanship. Our quest for a better democracy started by Plato, Socrates, and others more than two thousand years ago. This has been our journey. Will the equation of democratic erosion be altered by necessity for restoration? Or will it be restored from another wave in the name of tolerance and moderation? Either way, our quest for freedom, justice and progress will require collaboration for a common good that works for the people. And collaboration is only possible through wisdom.