Thursday, October 23, 2014
14

Rethinking Democracy

PRINCETON – By many measures, the world has never been more democratic. Virtually every government at least pays lip service to democracy and human rights. Though elections may not be free and fair, massive electoral manipulation is rare and the days when only males, whites, or the rich could vote are long gone. Freedom House’s global surveys show a steady increase from the 1970s in the share of countries that are “free” – a trend that the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington dubbed the “third wave” of democratization.

The dissemination of democratic norms from the advanced countries of the West to the rest of the world has been perhaps the most significant benefit of globalization. Yet not all is well with democracy. Today’s democratic governments perform poorly, and their future remains very much in doubt.

In the advanced countries, dissatisfaction with government stems from its inability to deliver effective economic policies for growth and inclusion. In the newer democracies of the developing world, failure to safeguard civil liberties and political freedom is an additional source of discontent.

A true democracy, one that combines majority rule with respect for minority rights, requires two sets of institutions. First, institutions of representation, such as political parties, parliaments, and electoral systems, are needed to elicit popular preferences and turn them into policy action. Second, democracy requires institutions of restraint, such as an independent judiciary and media, to uphold fundamental rights like freedom of speech and prevent governments from abusing their power. Representation without restraint – elections without the rule of law – is a recipe for the tyranny of the majority.

Democracy in this sense – what many call “liberal democracy” – flourished only after the emergence of the nation-state and the popular upheaval and mobilization produced by the Industrial Revolution. So it should come as no surprise that the crisis of liberal democracy that many of its oldest practitioners currently are experiencing is a reflection of the stress under which the nation-state finds itself.

The attack on the nation-state comes from above and below. Economic globalization has blunted the instruments of national economic policy and weakened the traditional mechanisms of transfers and redistribution that strengthened social inclusion. Moreover, policymakers often hide behind (real or imagined) competitive pressures emanating from the global economy to justify their lack of responsiveness to popular demands, and cite the same pressures when implementing unpopular policies such as fiscal austerity.

One consequence has been the rise of extremist groups in Europe. At the same time, regional separatist movements such as those in Catalonia and Scotland challenge the legitimacy of nation-states as they are currently configured and seek their breakup. Whether they do too much or too little, many national governments face a crisis of representation.

In developing countries, it is more often the institutions of restraint that are failing. Governments that come to power through the ballot box often become corrupt and power-hungry. They replicate the practices of the elitist regimes they replaced, clamping down on the press and civil liberties and emasculating (or capturing) the judiciary. The result has been called “illiberal democracy” or “competitive authoritarianism.” Venezuela, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand are some of the better-known recent examples.

When democracy fails to deliver economically or politically, perhaps it is to be expected that some people will look for authoritarian solutions. And, for many economists, delegating economic policy to technocratic bodies in order to insulate them from the “folly of the masses” almost always is the preferred approach.

With its independent central bank and fiscal rules, the European Union has already traveled far along this road. In India, businessmen look wistfully at China and wish their leaders could act just as boldly and decisively – that is, more autocratically – to address the country’s reform challenges. In countries like Egypt and Thailand, military intervention is viewed as a temporary necessity in order to put an end to the irresponsibility of elected leaders.

These autocratic responses are ultimately self-defeating, because they deepen the democratic malaise. In Europe, economic policy needs more democratic legitimacy, not less. This can be achieved either by significantly strengthening democratic deliberation and accountability at the EU level, or by increasing the autonomy of the member states to set economic policy.

In other words, Europe faces a choice between more political union and less economic union. As long as it delays making the choice, democracy will suffer.

In developing countries, military intervention in national politics undermines long-term prospects for democracy, because it impedes the development of the necessary “culture,” including habits of moderation and compromise among competing civilian groups. As long as the military remains the ultimate political arbiter, these groups focus their strategies on the military rather than one another.

Effective institutions of restraint do not emerge overnight; and it might seem like those in power would never want to create them. But if there is some likelihood that I will be voted out of office and that the opposition will take over, such institutions will protect me from others’ abuses tomorrow as much as they protect others from my abuses today. So strong prospects for sustained political competition are a key prerequisite for illiberal democracies to turn into liberal ones over time.

Optimists believe that new technologies and modes of governance will resolve all problems and send democracies centered on the nation-state the way of the horse-drawn carriage. Pessimists fear that today’s liberal democracies will be no match for the external challenges mounted by illiberal states like China and Russia, which are guided only by hardnosed realpolitik. Either way, if democracy is to have a future, it will need to be rethought.

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  1. Commentedjoey jay

    Samuel Huntington"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. (P. 51)"

    Hungtinton never speaks of democracy for real like you he is a sham.

  2. Commentedjoey jay

    The truth is that the democratic facade hides the reality of pluralistic elitism and the Conservative Parties, with their secret plutocratic donors, secret lists of finance capitalists,close links with the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East who are make immune from criticism and condemnation, cash for access and so on are effectively the most insidious protagonists of undemocratic practices. Their hypocrisy when it comes to paying lip service to "hard working families" and the " the people" beggars belief. What happens in Britain, happens in the US and all over the democratic world. At least the corruption in African and Latin countries are not hidden. Freedon House is a sham...Third wave democratization is a lie. Look at Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, CAR, Guinea, Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Emirates, India, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Italy, US, Greece, Serbia, Kosovo (depleted uranium anyone?) Russia, China...democracy is dead. only Rodrik sitting in his ivory tower is dreaming of a white Xmas and democracy in his own household... Globalized poverty, globalized corruption, globalized pollution, globalized destruction of the environment, globalized turbo capitalism...The fall of the dollar is almost complete. ...Gotta go puking...

  3. CommentedDavid Wittenberg

    Democracy soars when it devotes itself to the protection of liberty and property. Democracy begins to collapse when it strays into kleptocracy.

    Both crony capitalism and the welfare state are forms of kleptocracy, even when enacted by the democratic process. They both favor rent-seeking over individual initiative and effort. The public begins to view the government as the source of wealth, and governments are neither designed nor equipped to fulfill that purpose.

  4. CommentedUlrike Guerot

    Dear Mr Rodnik, totally agree - as Pierre Rosanvallon writes in The Society of Equals, We thought Democracy is about participation, but actually it is about equality.....We need to remember the principles of the French Revolution, best regards, Ulrike Guérot

  5. CommentedArjun Bhaskaran

    The root is the disequilibrium between Democracy and Capitalism. Democracy by definition is rooted in nationalism. Capitalistic forces in OECD have become global. Apparently they operate in free markets but are accountable to no sovereign government. The 4th pillar of democracy - Media, particularly OpEd - are also in the service of Globalism and do not reflect the pulse of the masses. And finally the Economists'profession which should have been playing a key role in facilitating equilibrium among competing interest groups (particularly pro-consumer and pro-citizen), is seriously compromised. Hence we have political and economic chaos with no mechanisms for conflict resolution and harmonization.

  6. CommentedAlasdair MacLean

    I would suggest that, with reference to Scotland and the principle of independence of nations, this will result in the formation of a new nation-state. It will not result in a non liberal democracy. The one, the UK, will become two, Scotland and the remaining UK, if indeed, Scotland votes yes, which is not certain. Large nation-states can be subdivided but the nature of the states formed remains the same.
    Europe is the ultimate non-democratic nation-state identified as elite supra-nationalism in another post on this site. This is the reason it will fall: the plebs will have their say and the elite will have to go.

  7. CommentedJohn Nick

    I see you put an emphasis on representation, as an essential part of the democratic process, even more, a defining part of the democratic process. Yet, I admit i have no idea what representation actually is. It seems to be no more then a incantation to reinforce the faith of the hesitant believers. I believe it should be more, representation should be more like a contractual relation, and i also believe that this lack of clarity in pragmatic aspects of the fundamental notions is not an unintentional one. The political elite is avoiding any political responsibility and any obligations beyond simply making promises in the electoral campaign and the eventual electoral sanctions of the next elections. This way politics became captive of the elite. Unfortunately, all categories of influential groups or activities on the state's policy seems very decided to avoid any in depth approach of these notions.
    An other example of such a fundamental notion is the free market. Free market has a non explicit defining trait of being very much like a statistical system. The assumptions of free competition are a result of a system in which agents are of comparable size and in such numbers to make competition prevail on coordination. Still, in contemporary markets populated with system sized agents, these assumptions are clearly not met. And again, no one seems to be inclined to address these issues. In other words, it's too much propaganda and too little real interest for these matters.

      CommentedAriel Tejera

      Completely agree with you comment.
      I take it was Socrates who advanced the notion of "reason" as providing the best chance to reach human concord, as opposed to blind submission to authority or tradition. Jesus enshrined brotherly love. Darwin disclosed that, for biological evolution to happen, terrible mortality is required - far more than in any hell. Perhaps now, in the age of Globalization, a new dimension of hope and dispair is needed.

  8. CommentedWilliam Wallace

    The real problem for which no viable solution is yet available is the mass unemployment in post-industrial societies that can no longer offer semi-skilled and skilled factory jobs. Since not everyone can become a knowledge worker, appeals to educational solutions alone are insufficient.
    ...
    I see an unfortunate repeat of the standard take on the drive for Catalonian independence. Surely its current intensity does relate to the issues raised in the article, such as a weak set of restraint mechanisms to avoid permanent and consistent denial of this minority's needs.
    However, the core underlying problem is the historical inability of the Spanish majority to adopt modern views. Castille has remained culturally anchored in authority-based sources of truth since prior to the Reformation. The Catalans are centuries ahead, are dedicated to free inquiry and, in consequence, demonstrably outperform the rest of the country in industry, science, and innovation. Finally, it is the nation-states that stand in the way of greater European Union. The Catalans have been arguing for quite some time for a Europe of Regions, allowing local cultures to flourish under a united yet diverse European unity, absent the ankylosed nation-states of old.
    Catalan independence is an expression of faith in Renaissance values and a European Union that does not stifle local custom in favor of a centralized official culture. It is a big step forward, not a step backward to the past, which is where the rest of Spain wishes to anchor it in the deadly grip of ignorance.

  9. CommentedShane Beck

    If you think that US elite money mixing with Russian elite money, European elite money and Chinese elite money in safe tax havens constitutes being democratic, then the world has never been more democratic. But the world is dominated by corrupt oligarchies who could care less about the state of the nations, as long as the bondholders get paid. Screw the average Joe who has little choice but to vote for one of two parties selling the same thing

  10. Commentedmarkets aurelius

    You neglected to discuss the USA, Dr. Rodrik, which has devolved into a plutocracy. The USA no longer is a democracy. The rich and well-connected are above the law here, particularly those members of the banking cartel that control the levers of power in Washington, as the aftermath of the financial crisis demonstrated.

    In the history of the world, this transition to plutocracy, regardless of its starting point, has marked the beginning of the end of those societies that go down this road. This is the root of the crisis afflicting the eurozone as well. Various cartels take over the institutions of their societies -- legal, regulatory, social -- and blatantly use government as an instrument of control to benefit themselves. Their societies and economies become ossified; wealth becomes increasingly concentrated at the top; and the middle is completely hollowed out. When the middle class is no longer invested in its society that society is not long for this world.

  11. Commentedslightly optimistic

    In the global economy, is it really practical to have seriously different political values in 200 nations around the world? This week the boss of Goldman Sachs told us of the dilemma facing the democratic government of the US in addressing North American energy. Washington is expected to reconcile the interests of those wanting the lights kept on, economic growth, employment, environmentalists, global investors, national democracy, etc.
    Investor-state dispute settlement is likely to become the global norm, with little to restrain the proverbial race to the the bottom.

  12. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    It is a very important review article raising acute and essential questions.

    I think there are two issues which need full exploration and if we understand those we can start building the next installment of "democracy".

    The first issue is the "user".

    We can safely say that through human history we have tried all possible governing methods, social structures, and also all possible economic models and financial systems.
    But somehow after a while we always run into a dead end, inequality, tension and an imminent breakup.

    Our whole historical development has been through jumps when the actual civilization has become intolerable and a violent eruption catapulted us into a new state.
    Today we are nearing a similar eruption despite the desperate and honest efforts to avoid it.

    So what makes us repeat the same mistakes again and again, what prevents us using the seemingly perfect ideas, institutions in a sustainable way?

    It is our inherently self-centered, egoistic nature.
    Somehow in human beings the instinctive feeling of interconnections, mutual trust and mutual guarantee prevalent in nature has disappeared at a certain point of our evolution.
    As a result we are forced to care for ourselves, compete for survival with each other and try to succeed at the expense of others.

    This is not something evil, it is not a sin, this is the way human beings evolved. And so far the resulting "ego breakout", "egoistic evolution" drove us to unprecedented highs, inventions, explorations, technical development in a positive manner.

    But today we have reached a crossroads when it becomes ever clearer that if we do not try to harness our nature, like a skillful rodeo rider channeling our egoistic energy in the right direction we might not make it much further and destroy ourselves.

    So the first issue is that we will not be able to implement democracy optimally, in a sustainable way until we adapt, correct our inherent human nature.

    The second issue is "globalization".

    The problem with our nature has been compounded by the fact that we also evolved into a globally interconnected and interdependent human system, thus the contradiction and paradox in between our egoistic, individualistic, ruthlessly competitive behavior and the globally integral, interdependent conditions we exist in has grown intolerable.

    If we want to build a new structure a new democracy it cannot be a national, not even a regional one. Somehow we have to build a global, supra-national structure, supervising body, that can "see", "understand", and "balance" the whole system, since in a global, integral system every little action immediately changes the whole system, thus we cannot even move a finger before analyzing how it affects the rest of the system.

    Thus what we need first of all is a global, integral education program so we all understand ourselves, and the system we evolved into, and only based on such understanding will we be able to start building a new system, a new democracy, new economics that is not going to end in crisis and becomes a sustainable foundation for the future.

    Only a new, adapted human being can build the right, "crisis-proof" world.

  13. CommentedHermann Arnold

    We should think through how we would organise democracy nowadays if it would not exist. Our dysfunctional democracy is not a matter of the wrong people; it is the result of the wrong system ...
    we have to think how to «crowd-source» the political decision processes – the very meaning of democracy – before the call for a strong man seems to be the only solution. This is not to say that crowds always are right. But it is not crowds versus elites. It is to think crowds together with elites. But crowds taking the ultimate decision, eventually following the advice from whatever specialist they see fit.
    http://tiny.cc/ei7ahx

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