Saturday, September 24, 2016

Democracy on Death Watch

It wasn't supposed to end up like this but liberal democracy is reeling around the world, the United States included. Harvard prof and Foreign Policy columnist, Stephen Walt, puts it down to a bit of miscalculation and a whole lot of hubris.

Once upon a time — that is, back in the 1990s — a lot of smart and serious people believed liberal political orders were the wave of the future and would inevitably encompass most of the globe. The United States and its democratic allies had defeated fascism and then communism, supposedly leaving humankind at “the end of history.” The European Union seemed like a bold experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from most of Europe. Indeed, many Europeans believed its unique combination of democratic institutions, integrated markets, the rule of law, and open borders made Europe’s “civilian power” an equal if not superior counterpart to the crude “hard power” of the United States. For its part, the United States committed itself to “enlarging the sphere of democratic rule, getting rid of pesky autocrats, solidifying the “democratic peace,” and thereby ushering in a benevolent and enduring world order.

...In Russia, China, India, Turkey, Egypt — and yes, even here in the United States — one sees either resurgent authoritarianism or a yearning for a “strong leader” whose bold actions will sweep away present discontents. According to democracy expert Larry Diamond, “between 2000 and 2015, democracy broke down in 27 countries,” while “many existing authoritarian regimes have become even less open, transparent, and responsive to their citizens.” Great Britain has now voted to leave the EU; Poland, Hungary, and Israel are heading in illiberal directions; and one of America’s two major political parties is about to nominate a presidential candidate who openly disdains the tolerance that is central to a liberal society, repeatedly expresses racist beliefs and baseless conspiracy theories, and has even questioned the idea of an independent judiciary. For those of us committed to core liberal ideals, these are not happy times.

...The first problem was that liberalism’s defenders oversold the product. We were told that if dictators kept falling and more states held free elections, defended free speech, implemented the rule of law, and adopted competitive markets, and joined the EU and/or NATO, then a vast “zone of peace” would be created, prosperity would spread, and any lingering political disagreements would be easily addressed within the framework of a liberal order.

When matters didn’t go quite so smoothly, and when some groups in these liberal societies were in fact harmed by these developments, a degree of backlash was inevitable. It didn’t help that elites in many liberal countries made some critical blunders, including the creation of the euro, the invasion of Iraq, the misguided attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and the 2008 financial crisis. These and other mistakes helped undermine the legitimacy of the post-Cold War order, open the door to illiberal forces, and left some segments of society vulnerable to nativist appeals.

...It is also abundantly clear that post-Cold War liberals underestimated the role of nationalism and other forms of local identity, including sectarianism, ethnicity, tribal bonds, and the like. They assumed that such atavistic attachments would gradually die out, be confined to apolitical, cultural expressions, or be adroitly balanced and managed within well-designed democratic institutions.

But it turns out that many people in many places care more about national identities, historic enmities, territorial symbols, and traditional cultural values than they care about “freedom” as liberals define it.

Most important of all, liberal societies are in trouble today because they are vulnerable to being hijacked by groups or individuals who take advantage of the very freedoms upon which liberal societies are based. As Donald Trump has been proving all year (and as Jean-Marie Le Pen, Recep Erdogan, Geert Wilders, and other political entrepreneurs have shown in the past), leaders or movements whose commitment to liberal principles is at best skin-deep can take advantage of the principles of open society and use it to rally a popular following. And there is nothing about a democratic order that ensures such efforts will invariably fail.


Owen Gray said...

The American founding fathers knew that they were nurturing a delicate plant which required constant attention, Mound. We took our eyes off the plant.

Lorne said...

Unfortunately, Mound, the arrogance of the United States, if I am not stating the obvious, did much to delegitimize the very concept of liberal democracy by the hubristic notion that it could export or impose its putative principles on countries lacking any traditions that would give rise to real democracy. In doing so they contributed much to the woes we see today, and have much to answer for.

Anonymous said...

My take on Lorne's explication:
United States started to export a phoney version of "democracy" at exactly the same time when, at home, hijacking of US democracy had begun by "groups or individuals." That turning point was JFK assassination...

Toby said...

Does a free electorate have the right to choose a dictatorial form of government?

Anonymous said...

when i democratically vote one day in 4 years
for an unaccountable meatsack
and am dictated to for 1460 days
on every issue that affects my life
how in hell do you classify that as democracy?
no wonder it has been a hardsell
few find absolute surrender to the chimp of your choice appealing
however you dress it up in "of the people"

The Mound of Sound said...

A..non, my take is that it was the introduction of neo-liberalism during the Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney era that was the body blow for democracy.

Did you read the post I did a few weeks ago on the study by an American prof who concluded that you can have two of three - an integrated economy, national sovereignty, democracy - but you cannot have all three. All he was revealing was the inherent nature of neoliberal globalism of the sort that Justin can't get enough of.

I suspect that if national sovereignty and democracy were cherished nearly as much by those who would rule us as by those they rule globalism would be a more conventional trading relationship today. The very powers and rights people like Trudeau would so freely bargain away are critical elements of the glue that binds our political caste to their electorate. Loosening those bonds is the precursor to "political capture," whereby special interests manage to insinuate themselves between legislators and their electorate.

The Mound of Sound said...

Owen, Jefferson was right about the need to refresh America's democracy by periodic revolution.

The Mound of Sound said...

Some years ago, Lorne, I wrote that democracy is not like some potted plant that you did a hole and put in place. It has to be grown from seed in soil that has been tilled and fertilized and then nurtured as it comes along and grows into something worthwhile. If you don't prepare the soil, it'll never take hold.

The Mound of Sound said...

Yes, Toby, it's called illiberal democracy. It's what happens after that illiberal regime is installed that's troublesome. Hitler came to power at the ballot box and wasted no time getting rid of the ballot box. That's what Dr. Walt addresses in his article - those like Trump and le Pen who exploit the freedoms of liberal democracy to subvert it.

The Mound of Sound said...

@ Anon 8:52 - yours is a remarkably simplistic take on liberal democracy. Yes, you do get consulted once every four years or so but it's hardly a free for all by those elected thereafter. The essence of liberal democracy is constitutional restraint. In Canada that exists in the form of our Constitution and our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Think of the role those played in blunting Harper's excesses during his reign. Think of the Charter as Pierre Trudeau's lasting gift to our nation. Even his son rails at it.

Anonymous said...

In the era of Reagan this 'hijacking of US democracy" was already well underway and hence in a plain sight. JFK assassination was a pivotal point...

Anonymous said...

Anyong.....Everyone living within a so-called democracy ought to study how Norway manages to be so transparent with an exceptional social and economic top notch health system with 650 billion in reserves for the future. All of which is not invested in CO2 producing oil or gas companies but invested in alternative and sustainable entities. So much for American ideas of Socialism being detrimental to good democracy. Americans are dit heads. If I were twenty years younger, I would be moving there.

Anonymous said...

Moving to Norway that is.

The Mound of Sound said...

Toby said...

Mound, I argue that global economic integration is incompatible with either democracy or national sovereignty. Global economic integration, as we have it now is antithetical to the advancement of anything but itself. Think of the Borg (or locusts) consuming everything in their path.

Globalism is inevitable. It became so with cheap fuel, satellite communications and the Internet. However, globalism should not be synonymous with corporatism. The world needs a Bretton Woods agreement for Globalism.

Purple library guy said...

The article is very careful to miss the more important points, or glance at some of them very lightly just to make sure that nobody thinks they need to be looked at more thoroughly. The problem is that the trumpeting of the virtues of "democracy" has tended to accompany an actual narrowing of what the citizens of a country can affect about how things are run there. The United States is the pattern-setting exemplar: Studies show that what the majority of Americans want has precisely zero impact on what policies are enacted there. They have the superficial forms of democracy but none of the substance. In Canada we're pretty close to that. In Greece and some other countries, the demos have made concerted attempts to set policy, only to have the IMF and the bureaucrats of the EU blackmail them into submission (sure, if Tsipras had been proactive and hung tough instead of folding like a cheap suit, they might still have won--but the point is how massive and concerted the efforts were to shut down the threat of actual democracy breaking out). International trade deals systematically narrow both the scope of democracy and the leverage of democratically elected governments vis-a-vis transnational corporations. And the reason for all this undermining of democracy is so that elites can take our stuff, which they have been successfully doing, and in many many countries the results are pretty dismal for the average citizen.

So at a factual level, there is either no or barely any democracy to undermine. But at the propaganda level, what we have is people being told "Look! You got democracy! Isn't that great?" (Along with a certain amount of spurious equation, overt or tacit claims that free markets == democracy). And so when the citizens look around them and see that everything is NOT great at all, it's not unreasonable that they conclude this democracy stuff they're told they have so much of must not be all it's cracked up to be. Apparently, democracy means your stuff getting taken. And then when someone comes along who says "If you let me turf this democracy biz I'll use that power to crush the leeches that are taking your stuff," with maybe a few simplistic lies thrown in about just who those leeches might be, why it's not surprising that many people will figure that's a good trade--if the stuff that's been fucking them up is this democracy they're told they have so much of, losing it is no big deal. And even in the real world, they may not be losing much since, while democracy is an excellent and important thing that would be terrible to lose--they don't actually have any of it anyway, so nothing lost.

In some ways they'd be ahead of the game. If you obviously don't have democracy and become dissatisfied, you can try to get some and maybe you'll even succeed. But how can you try to get what you believe you already have?

Anonymous said...

from @ Anon 8:52
well you say i am simplistic
and yet
you may have to agree that the good of the people/planet/ecology/life
is perpetually subverted by our "elected" officials
all of your constitutional rights are revocable at some point
by eminent domain
you mound will do as your told
just like everybody else
we haven't even begun to get an inevitable crisis point yet
and as you post time after time
it is coming