Democratic decay, though often thought of to occur rapidly and aggressively, in actuality occurs over the course of decades and tends to go unnoticed by a large majority. This slow, subtle process of decay is what Huq and Ginsberg’s “How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy” refers to as constitutional retrogression. The coups and revolutions one might expect describe the opposing process of authoritarian reversion, which suddenly puts an end to democratic norms and institutions. In the United States, the former method of decay is currently in the works.
The Economist’s “Democracy’s Enemy Within” identifies cynicism as being the key factor contributing to this slow erosion of democracy. This sense of cynicism arises when the charismatic appeal of a populist leader convinces citizens that the frustration they have been experiencing is a result of poorly run democratic institutions and corrupt politicians. With this in mind, people start to develop a general mistrust in their government and an overall dissatisfaction with democracy, thus becoming more susceptible to populism. Author Katherine Cramer identifies Scott Walker, a previous Wisconsin governor, as a prime example of this. Against all odds, Walker’s success in the election was made possible through his use of populist tactics to appeal to the rural folk in Wisconsin. He skillfully took advantage of what Cramer calls “rural consciousness,” or the belief that rural areas are ignored by policy makers and therefore do not receive the resources that they rightfully deserve. More specifically, Walker tapped into the disdain that rural communities felt for public employees and the benefits they receive by restricting collective bargaining. By utilising their resentment for his own personal gain and claiming to represent this marginalized group, Walker shows signs of a true populist leader. Thus, citizens of Wisconsin’s mistrust in government grew and which further diverged the state from true democratic principles.
In addition to fueling this sense of mistrust amongst citizens, a populist leader simultaneously exploits current crises for his or her own benefit as well as portrays their own failures and fallacies as baseless attacks from the opposition or self serving institutions. The prime minister of Israel Binyamin Netanyahu, for example, is accused of acting as if the official inquiries into his corruption were a part of an establishment conspiracy to threaten his premiership. His own fraudulent practices are what caused the allegations, but nevertheless he put blame on the establishment as a populist often does. President of the United States, Donald Trump, acts in a similar manner when deeming any media contrary to him and his belief system as fake news. The article claims that these trends fuel cynicism and threaten to undermine democracy for the long term, despite the fact that politics are typically cyclical in nature.
I agree wholeheartedly with the author’s idea that this sense of mistrust in government and political institutions has threatened democracy. However, I do believe that there are other factors beyond cynicism that have contributed to democratic decay that should be taken note of. In her article titled “On Democratic Backsliding,” Nancy Bermeo indicates that one highly dangerous and popular tactic is executive aggrandizement. This occurs when elected executives weaken checks and balances on executive power, which creates a series of institutional change and impedes others to challenge executive decisions. Bermeo also identifies election manipulation as another indicator of democratic erosion. When politicians put down their opposing candidates or inhibit media access and voter registration, they are manipulating the election in their favor. Evidently, this is not a fair way to gain support and is a clear indicator of backsliding — and these are merely two factors that pose a threat. Cynicism alone cannot produce the large scale effects the United States and other like-minded liberal democracies have experienced. Though executive aggrandizement and election manipulation could further a sense of cynicism in people, they are important contributors to democration erosion in and of themselves. Essentially, while I agree that cynicism is threatening to democracy, there are other threats that are of equal importance, if not of greater importance, that can work in tandem with cynicism or on their own.
The author of “Democracy’s Enemy Within” ends the article with an encouraging metaphor, comparing the promising signs coming out of emerging democracies with scraping Diogenes’ barrel. What this means is that regardless of the factors eroding our democracy, there are still citizens and policy makers that push against cynicism and populist rhetoric. A sense of hope remains for an increasingly democratic future, which I strongly believe in as well.