Over the last decade there have been multiple warnings that democracy is in danger. This blog looks at the warnings
The warnings that democracy is in danger has been triggered by a wide variety of developments. In the US, former President Trump stimulated alarm. In Europe, Victor Orban is widely seen as illustrating how a democratic leader can subvert democracy. In North Africa and the Middle East, the Arab ‘spring’ was followed by a return to authoritarian regimes and formerly ‘pariah’ regimes such as Syria and Iran are being reinstated in international alliance building. In addition to specific examples, international measures of democratization also show a general growth in backsliding across the democratic world.
The main question that follows from this diagnosis of democracy in danger is how far we can see this as part of a normal ebb and flow of systems of social and political organization and one where reversal can occur spontaneously, or whether it is a development that will be hard to reverse. According to some commentators these developments have occurred in part because of inattention. We would have paid more attention if the reversal of democracy had been associated more generally with abrupt changes, such as military coups. Sufficient attention was not paid to a more gradual process of democratic erosion where charismatic leaders used their popularity to gain office and, once in a position of authority, exploited it to remove the sources of opposition to their rule.
Spontaneous reversal or not
The difficulty that stands in the way of a clear diagnosis as to whether we will see a spontaneous reversal of adverse trends or, in the worst case, a continued decline of democracy as a way of organising collective public policy choices, is that the same factors can be deployed on either side of the argument.
Loss of US influence
One argument is about the influence of the US as a leader of democracies worldwide. On the one hand, President Trump’s exploitation of polarisation in the US combined with his cavalier dismissal of the norms of democratic behaviour and support for insurrection can be viewed as having done severe damage to America’s standing as the leading example for the democratic world of a functioning democracy. If he were to be re-elected the damage would be irreparable. However, the other side of the coin is that President Biden can be seen as representing a return to normalcy. America’s standing in the world has gone up again. He stands for a centre that held in the face of challenge. In addition, he has given priority to achieving closer relationships with democracies world-wide, including a tilt towards India and away from China. A polarised electoral dialogue remains a problem for democracy in the US but, for the moment, centrism seems to have overcome polarisation.
The erosion of democratic norms
President Trump can also be held as an example of the importance of democratic norms for the prospects of democracy. He refused, and continues to refuse, alternations in power through electoral processes. He undermined the legitimacy of the judicial branch in the US by failing to exercise restraint vis a vis the other branches and in particular by stacking appointees to the Supreme Court. President Roosevelt had been dissuaded from an earlier attempt at court stacking in the New Deal. Trump was not dissuaded.
Hungary represents another case where a popular and populist leader has used their executive power to undermine the independence of other branches that are intended to serve as checks and restraints. Orban’s party has control of the legislature. At the same time, he is widely seen to have undermined the independence of the judiciary.
Democratic norms are usually seen as socially embedded and difficult to change. The fact that former president Trump was able to disregard them can thus be interpreted as the symptom of a more fundamental societal departure from the values people need to embrace to uphold democracy.
The other side of the coin is that democratic norms can be reaffirmed. The evidence is that people in America still value the vote. In addition, the Supreme Court is turning out to be less partisan in some respects than might have been predicted, in part possibly because of its own awareness of the damage that has been done to its standing. Partisanship may not represent a winning strategy for restoring its legitimacy. In a recent ruling it made gerrymandering more difficult for state legislatures by affirming the role of judicial review. In Europe, Orban may eventually run out of populist causes to exploit.
The erosion of democracy can also be seen as the predictable result of what has been termed a ‘hollowing out’ of democratic politics. This diagnosis mainly reflects a turn to the judiciary for decision making over a wide range of social and distributional issues traditionally seen as belonging to electoral politics. If people feel that democratic politics no longer addresses issues that are important to them and that the judiciary is both remote and costly to access then they will turn away from democracy.
The other side of the argument is that opening up the law has provided civil society organisations with an expanded field for influence. It may have demotivated some, but for others the availability of the law has been hugely motivating factor for social and civic activism. It is not immediately apparent why a wider scope for decision making through the law necessarily contradicts notions of the rule of law that accompany democracy.
Economics no longer favouring democracies
‘It’s the economy, stupid’ is the best remembered phrase from the Clinton presidency. From this perspective the prospects for democracy depend on the economic fundamentals. If growth prospects are good and people believe they can maintain or improve their lot in life then, over the long-term, democracy will not erode. If prospects are seen to be unfavourable, then there will be a loss of support. One of the factors propelling Trump to the presidency was the perception of a significant part of the electorate that openness to international trade was no longer working to their advantage and their economic status was under threat.
According to this economic logic, because the crisis of 2008 brought a long period of benign economic growth and low inflation to an end some erosion of support for democracy was to be expected. With many economic predictions forecasting a much less favourable climate for growth and low inflation in Europe and America then a continued erosion of democracy looks likely.
This rather simplistic account of cause and effect needs immediate qualification. There is a longstanding view, voiced by the American Founding Fathers, that income inequalities are what could undermine democracy. If everyone feels that they are in the same boat, growth by itself is not determinant. This does not deny the importance of economics but gives a different account of where the danger lies. On either account ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.
While economic determinism tends to support the view that democracy is in danger, the other side of the argument is that the underpinnings of democracies are much wider than economics alone. A key motivation is that people want to feel that they count in collective decision taking and that they count equally. Negative economic prospects will not necessarily change this motivation.
There are good reasons to be concerned about the future of democracy. Nevertheless, as long as people want a system of government where their views have a possibility of counting and their own person is held in the same respect as anyone else, then democracy will remain attractive relative to authoritarian alternatives. It is inequalities in representation that could bring it down.