Democracy in Crisis?

by Harvey Asher, Ph.D. on July 4, 2014

in IDEAS, POLITICS

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Today’s political scene finds democracies everywhere in serious trouble. Are we looking at a permanent deterioration of democracy as a workable form of government? Is the great experiment over? Hardly. Keep your lab coats buttoned and read on.

Here’s the short view:

According to a recent report by the non-partisan research organization Freedom House, 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which global freedom declined. (“What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy,” The Economist, March 1, 2014.) A similar group, the Bertelsmann Foundation, also reported a significant rise in the number of defective democracies (rigged elections and so forth) (David Brooks, “Democracy in long-run decline?” New York Times, May 19, 2014.)

In the United States an asymmetric polarization has seemingly ended Congress’s ability to perform as an effective legislature. The Republican Party hijacked by Tea Party radicals has become scornful of compromise, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition, and unconvinced by facts and evidence. (Thomas E. Mann, “Politics Is More Broken than Ever – Political Scientists Just Need to Admit It,” The Atlantic, May 27, 2014.)

The GOP politicizes or is against anything Obama-related. How much the obstructionism is race-based is hard to say, but surely racism played some part among those who urged taking back the country from a “Kenyan-born Muslim” president. (Eugene Robinson, “The Times When Race Matter,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, May 27, 2014.)

Strong showings by the Tea Party’s conservative cousins in the latest elections to the European Parliament by nationalist and anti-immigrant parties opposed to the influence of the European Union have rocked establishment leaders. The United Kingdom Independence Party got 28% of the vote on a platform favoring a flat tax, school vouchers, and disavowal of multiculturalism. (Alan Cowell “Established Parties Rocked by Anti-Europe Vote,” Boston Globe, May 27, 2014 and Cal Thomas, “The Tea Party Lives – in Europe,” World Magazine, May 29, 2014).

Ironically, there is flat-out admiration among these right wingers for the anti-Western policies, including restrictions on homosexuals and crackdowns on dissidents, pursued by Russia president Vladimir Putin.

Democracy also disappointed by failing to put down roots in Egypt, Libya, and Syria in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening. Intensified religious and ethnic grievances there led to repression, violence, and civil war.

Most telling in the weakening of the democratic government model at home was the 2007-2008 financial meltdown. Its results and mishandling led to sustained unease and anger in the electorate about the ways globalization and technology magnified the returns for the super rich. The financial elite were operating in a world of low taxation and lax regulation, growing inequality, fewer opportunities for the young, and an increasing sense of unfairness. (Roger Cohen, “Capitalism Eating Its Children, New York Times, May 29, 2014.) For politicians, “whom to blame” took precedence over “how to govern.”

In Europe, similar disillusionment followed years of austerity cuts born by those who could least afford it, failure to curb high unemployment, out-of-touch elites at home, a heavy-handed European Union bureaucracy with no democratic mandate, and growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

Elsewhere historical factors showed the difficulty of transplanting democracy onto barren soil. President George W. Bush’s notion that toppling Saddam would lead to democracy in Iraq and throughout the Middle East was badly mistaken.

And here’s the long view:

Democracies often look a lot weaker than they are because “doing” democracy is excruciatingly slow work. That’s not a bad thing. The tortoise-paced process acts as a safeguard against sudden and all-too-often violent upheavals.

And yet the adaptability of democracy remains superior to that of its political competitors: witness the ongoing expansion of gay rights.

Moreover, despite the criticism, democracy’s world-wide appeal remains enduring. Its message of freedom that lets people speak their own minds and shape the future for themselves and their children continues to inspire.

Fear that the Chinese model of substantial economic growth with little political freedom represents the wave of the future is overblown. Its costs are too prohibitive: historical amnesia, imprisonment of dissidents, wide-ranging censorship, and pervasive and systemic corruption. China needs to whip up nationalist claims (to air space and territory in the South China Sea) to deflect public anger away from the communist party kleptocracy.

The current political gridlock in the U.S. will end in 2016. If the Republicans win the presidency they will have to govern, not just criticize. If they lose, they will have to re-embrace the party’s right-center political space, and come up with programs more appealing to women and minorities or give up on capturing the presidency.

The ballots cast for the European Parliament do not reflect voting patterns in national elections. Those contests usually favor traditional parties whose edge is reinforced by larger voter turnout. Reforms by the EU, especially its open door policy on immigrants, would temper some of the current anger.

There is a good chance that Putin’s Russia will implode after he leaves office, at the latest. The country’s liabilities continue to grow: pervasive corruption, alcoholism, a declining population, an economy too dependent on fluctuating prices in the oil and gas markets, and an inability – despite the Crimea annexation – to reestablish its empire with the states that made up the former USSR.

Elsewhere, the desire of young people to express themselves, as they do via social media, will keep the idea of freedom attractive to them despite the practical difficulties standing in the way of its implementation.

For all of these reasons, it is premature to predict the imminent demise of democracies. The laboratory doors remain open. The great experiment continues.

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Harvey Asher

After receiving his doctorate from Indiana University, Harvey Asher taught a variety of courses in history and interdisciplinary studies for thirty-five years at Drury University, a liberal arts school in Springfield, Missouri. His articles on themes in Russian history, American history, and the Holocaust have appeared in the Russian Review, Kritika, the Journal of Genocide Research, the Russian Dictionary, the SHARF Newsletter, Federalism in America: An Encyclopedia, and Lessons and Legacies of the Holocaust. He is also the author of The Drury Story Continues, an informal but thorough history of the school.

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