There is a well justified concern about backsliding in democracies. In central Europe the concerns centre on the erosion of the independence of the judiciary; in the US, backsliding has taken the form of a loss of underpinning conventions such as moderation, civility and loser’s consent (see posts of 9/14/2018 & 9/1/2020). Such lapses may just be temporary. However, a lot depends on the diagnosis. This blog looks at different diagnoses.
Erosion of Supportive structures
One early area of research into backsliding focussed on social structures outside politics that offer models of association that provide lateral benefits for the norms of democratic association. For example, families provide settings where people come together across different generations; trade unions set an example of how goals become more attainable if people with shared interests in the workplace combine together, and the communities in which we live set an example of the benefits from cooperative behaviour across socially diverse groups at the local level.
It is immediately apparent, even to those who have spent their lives mainly asleep, that these social underpinnings have all undergone enormous changes.
Family structures have seen the ideal of lifetime partnerships replaced by the two or three family model, by same sex marriages, and by changing male/female roles within marriage and partnerships. Intergenerational relationships are symbolised, not by shared abodes, but by ‘the bank of mom and dad’ and by ‘boomerang’ kids.
The workplace has undergone similar seismic change. We have moved from a world of jobs-for-life in the professions, and union protection for workers in manufacturing, to short term contracts and to self-employment in the gig economy. The education and skills we acquire to start our life in employment are no more than the beginning of a life of continuing professional training, development and reinvention.
In the age of social media, the communities to which we relate are no longer those of location but belong to the virtual world. This is no doubt liberating. At the same time, in the real world it is difficult to avoid an enforced interaction with social diversity and those who are in some ways different from ourselves. In the virtual world we can choose to associate with look-alikes and think-alikes and ignore others. ‘Infodiversity’ in the social media eco system is more elusive and more a matter of choice than the infodiversity we used to be exposed to, like it or not, in physical communities.
The net effect of such changes on the support structures for democracy is a matter for speculation. They are difficult to rule out as possible negative factors.
Another diagnosis suggests that democracies may have lost support because their representative bodies no longer reflect the kinds of societies we have become. Theories of representation do not call for elected representatives to simply mirror the image, preferences and desires of voters. However, there may now be too large a gap between the composition of societies as they now are and the bodies that are supposed to represent them. What this means is that elected bodies fail to reflect sufficiently the social and ethnic diversity of modern societies. In most cases they do not reflect their gender composition. Nor do they reflect inter-generational differences but are heavily weighted towards the older part of the electorate. This disconnection may erode support.
Expertise and the elected
The need for expertise in the modern world also suggests a different problem in the composition of elected assemblies. Elected politicians are professionals in their own sphere but lack the specialised expertise needed to meet many of the demands on public policy making and problem management. In recent years the solution has been found by harnessing specialised expertise and knowledge within the rapidly growing world of government agencies.
In this world the elected branches of government may appear to be playing second fiddle to technocrats, even in matters of high political salience. For example, central banks will be taking crucial decisions in the COVID recovery period about how long to prolong a period of exceptionally low interest rates. Their decisions will have particular salience for older voters who are watching the value of their financial savings evaporate in a low interest rate environment. The basic problem for democracies is that the relationship between elected politicians and specialised expertise and agencies is not sufficiently reflected or articulated in constitutional structures and there may be a loss of support for existing mechanisms as a result.
Indirectness in the delivery of the collective
The growth of specialised agencies not only distances electorates from those who make public policies in critical areas, but it also adds to the distance between people and the actual delivery of many collective or public goods that form the output of democratic politics. Public services across the bord, from health, to education, or to ensuring the probity of the financial sector, depend on multiple interactions. Parliaments and elected assemblies pass enabling legislation, but delivery increasingly depends on lengthy chains of specialised intermediaries. Politicians and ministers may continue to set performance targets and measure delivery. But the actual gatekeepers to the world of public services and collective goods are many steps removed.
The many steps that now exist between the preferences we first express in casting votes for politicians we support, through to policy formation and then to the actual delivery of services as we experience and receive them, distances people from a clear sense of who is responsible for many of the collective goods they depend on in their lives. The delivery of public goods contrasts strongly with the immediacy and personalisation of services we get in the market through the internet. Disenchantment with the indirectness of democratic procedures may feed a wish for the simplicities of populism.
Tectonic shifts and ‘why now?’
What is common to each of these different types of possible explanation of backsliding so far is that they focus on relatively slow-moving structural changes. The changes are akin to tectonic shifts. The distancing and the disconnects take place in the course of a generation or more, rather than over the four-or-five-year cycles of electoral politics. By the same token they do not suggest that the causes of backsliding are temporary and possibly self-reversing. They also suggest that we should look behind the political phenomena of populism and nationalism. These may be symptoms rather than causes of backsliding. Nevertheless, a question remains as to why relatively slow-moving tectonic shifts should be provoking eruptions and earthquakes now. What has given them critical mass at this point in history?
One possible reason is about the importance of leadership. When a leader steps outside the normal conventions of democratic behaviour, such as Trump, then trouble ensues. The difficulty about any explanation pointing to the quality of leaders is that democracies stand for institutional arrangements and checks and balances that are designed and intended to allow their societies to be free of reliance on the idiosyncratic misbehaviour of particular rulers. It follows that if Trump’s behaviour has had a disproportionate impact on American democracy then something has gone wrong with the framework. It has not just been him, but the system he has been able to exploit.
The rise of new autocracies
A totally different reason why backsliding is occurring now refers, not to poor leadership and problems within democracies, but to external problems and notably new challenges from autocracies. According to this explanation the rise of China and the reassertion of Russia in world affairs not only encourages fellow autocracies but also lays bare any weaknesses in democracies. Democracies have faced such challenges before, in the 1930s and in the Cold War, and prevailed in both cases. However, in the modern inter-dependent world, the ability of one regime to reach into another is greatly enhanced. Arguably democracies have not been sufficiently protective of themselves from the outside influence of autocracies reaching in, or sufficiently active in expressing their values by reaching out. They have followed a long tradition that presumes against making laws with external effect. In addition, democracies have allowed their old alliances to become jaded.
The body politic
A third kind of reason for why weaknesses are appearing now, one based on a medical analogy, is that while democracies can function reasonably well even if particular parts of the body politic are not in good health, there can come a point where the combined effect of many ailing parts overwhelms the whole. This kind of diagnosis is applied to the UK by Richard Rose. Applied to the US it suggests that democracy in the US may be vulnerable to backsliding because of the ailments affecting too many parts of the system: a constitution that is too difficult to amend, an electoral system over-dependent on private funding, a flawed system for the election of the President, representation that is too heavily weighted towards the elderly, (particularly in the Senate), the lack of an outlet for direct democracy at the federal level, a judicial branch that does not sufficiently reflect the social diversity of the US, etc. in other words, the time has come for the US to call a new constitutional convention. Other democracies may also be in need to rethink and to update their structures.
Each of these different accounts of the possible reasons for backsliding have some plausibility. What they have in common is that none of them suggests that backsliding can be diagnosed and treated as just a passing phase.