Democracy’s Broken Promises

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.

Modern democracy is representative. When elected representatives spend more time in Parliament than they do interacting with citizens, they are not neglecting their duties; they are doing their job. But the rhetoric of modern democracy claims otherwise: it emphasizes closeness to voters and their concerns. When the contrast with reality is too glaring, political leaders’ credibility suffers.