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Democracy’s Broken Promises

Populists are doing all they can do to undermine liberal democracy. But liberal democracy's current troubles may also reflect the widening gap between its practice and the expectations raised by some of its advocates.

SANTIAGO – Liberal democracy is under siege. Populists of the right and left are not only lashing out at globalization or stagnating middle-class incomes; they are calling into question the legitimacy of the institutions of liberal democracy and of the political elites who manage those institutions.

It’s facile to blame the politics of post-truth practiced by populists. Lies and exaggerations would not work if current democratic practice were without problems. We must re-examine and, if possible, redress what the Italian democratic theorist Norberto Bobbio called the “broken promises of democracy.”

Anyone who has ever campaigned for office has heard voters’ familiar refrain: “We only see you politicians at election time.” Politicians seem distant and untrustworthy, citizens tell pollsters. Populists exploit that gap.

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