Sunday, April 16, 2017

The End of Democracy?

For Americans raised on living in the land of liberty, with guaranteed constitutional rights and the ability to vote for our governmental leaders, the concept of living under a different form of government – a more autocratic regime with restricted voting rights, limited free speech, and concentrations of power in minorities that do not reflect racially and ethnic diversity of America – is unthinkable. And while this is a particularly longer blog today, perhaps the importance of the question raised in the title merits the additional focus.
For many in the West, the evolution of democracy was the “final step” in human governance. For example, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published his The End of History and the Last Man book, presenting a case, espoused by many political scientists for decades, that Western liberal democracy was such a successful and highly-human-conscious method of governance that there was no place to go beyond that sociocultural phenomenon. But if that were indeed the case, it would be hard to explain why democracy has fallen on hard times these days, why autocrats and those seeking to curtail personal freedoms are the rising trend in governance.
We’ve been here before as my February 28th I Don’t Want Your Stinkin’ Facts! blog describes – when after nearly a century of political liberalism and the rise of scientific fact over faith-based views of the universe (the “Age of Reason”) – the world retreated into a faith-driven age of anti-empiricism dominated by dictators. For example, the violent French Revolution into democracy was quickly replaced by a monarchy dominated by Napoleon Bonaparte.  History appears to be repeating itself in our new, twenty-first century rise of populism, where people are openly accepting autocrats as their leaders to solve problems that have just lingered, unsolved, under previously democratic regimes.
“Trust in political institutions – including the electoral process itself – are at an all-time low. New converts to democracy in Europe and the Middle East are sliding back into authoritarian rule. And populist leaders who are expected to curb certain civil liberties are winning votes. Societies the world over are experiencing a strong backlash to a system of government that has largely been the hallmark of developed nations for generations… ‘A lot of focus gets put on places like Russia, the Middle East or China,’ says Joan Hoey at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London. ‘But the problem is here, in the heart of the most mature democracies in the West.’
“Hoey's stark assessment is shared by many others. Western states are worrying about the health of democracy for the first time since perhaps the end of World War Two, says Larry Diamond, a political sociologist at Stanford University in California and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a think tank that ‘promotes political and economic freedom’. ‘We’ve not seen anything like this in decades, and we don’t know where it’s heading,’ he says. ‘We don’t know how serious it is.’
“Diamond has been watching democracy around the world go through what he calls “a mild but protracted recession” for about a decade. Parts of the world new to the democratic system – such as former Soviet countries in Eastern Europe or states working through the aftermath of the Arab Spring – are slowly slipping back into authoritarianism…
“In fact, the decline of democracy has been measured. Every year since 2006, Hoey and her colleagues at the EIU [the Economist Intelligence Unit from the prestigious UK publication, The Economist] have produced a report called the Democracy Index, which provides a comprehensive ranking of nearly every country in the world on a 10-point scale. It combines regional data and multiple surveys conducted in 167 countries to measure the quality of political processes, civil liberties, the functioning of government, public participation and political culture. Each country is then classed as a full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime or authoritarian regime.
“The results of last year’s report are sobering. Overall, the global average score fell with 72 countries dropping in the ranking compared to 2015, and just 38 moving up. The number of ‘full democracies’ dropped from 20 to 19, with the US now classed as ‘flawed’. According to the EIU's measure, around half the world's population (49.3%) live in a democracy of some kind. But only 4.5% of people live in a ‘full democracy’ - half as many as in 2015.
“And the EIU's measure is not the only one that suggests a rapid, fundamental shift in global politics. Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina and founder of the Electoral Integrity Project, which assesses the quality of democracies around the world, has argued that the US state of North Carolina should no longer be considered a democracy after it brought in voting restrictions that reportedly disenfranchised black voters.” Douglas Heaven writing for the, March 30th. For some, the harsh results and resulting economic polarization that followed the recent Great Recession were the tipping point:
“A common explanation is that the world is still reacting to the global financial crisis and the austerity policies that followed. This had a major corrosive effect on democracy, changing the way people viewed their political leaders. According to this view, the effect will be short-term – when economies start to pick up again, politics will return to normal. But what we're seeing is not a temporary blip, says Hoey.
“Take the US. Its relegation to ‘flawed democracy’ in the EIU’s ratings is not because of the 2016 presidential election. ‘The US has been teetering on the brink for many years,’ says Hoey. ‘Donald Trump is a beneficiary of a deep-seated and long-standing problem.’
“The level of public trust in democratic institutions in the US has been plummeting for decades. According to a survey carried out in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan organisation in Washington DC that investigates demographic trends, only 19% of people trust the government to do the right thing ‘always or most of the time’. In 1958, when the American National Election Study asked the same question, 73% of people did.
“Some may argue that this is because governments no longer feel like they are ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address. Over the last half century, the business of governing has arguably become more technocratic, with positions of power populated by larger numbers of professional politicians and policy wonks. Many long-established political parties once had closer ties with specific groups of people. Left-wing or social democratic parties in particular were set up to represent the will of the working class. Those ties have stretched to breaking point, however.” Today, too many Americans seem content to accept an autocratic Donald Trump, one who challenges constitutional rights at almost every turn, to “drain the swamp” and reconfigure America to a bygone era… at the expense of just about everyone other than the mega-rich and white evangelical traditionalists.
For those young nations seeking results, where the ends justify the means, witnessing professional bureaucrats – trained in governance and charged with representing the “people” – lift over a billion people out of poverty in just a couple of decades, the governance model of China seems to trump more traditional notions of democratically-elected leaders. But is this really the future?
“‘I don’t see any stable authoritarian states out there,’ says Diamond. He believes governments in places like China, Russia and Iran will eventually collapse. ‘The only well-functioning authoritarian regime in the world is Singapore and I'm not sure even that is going to last,’ he says. ‘In any case, you can’t build a theory on a city state of just a few million people.’
“Not everyone thinks things are so clear cut, however. Daniel Bell at Tsinghua University in Beijing argues that a lot of Western ideas about democracy verge on dogma. A Canadian political scientist trained in the UK, Bell has spent many years living and working in China. ‘In the West we tend to divide the world into good democratic regimes that set the path for all the others, and bad authoritarian regimes that are on the wrong side of history,’ he says.
“Bell points out that non-democratic states can take many forms. There are family-run dictatorships like in North Korea, military dictatorships like in Egypt, monarchies like in Saudi Arabia. Each is quite different. And some, like China's meritocratic system – in which government officials are not elected by the public, but appointed and promoted according to their competence and performance – should not be dismissed outright. ‘To put them all in the same camp is ridiculous,’ says Bell. ‘It’s not a good way of trying to understand what’s going on in China.’ 
“The Communist Party of China has 88 million members. Its membership is managed by the Department of Organisation, which is essentially a huge human resources department. To be a member of the party, candidates must pass a set of examinations. Government officials are thus selected from across the country and from various sectors of society according to merit. Promotion from low-ranking official to the very top of government is then – in principle – simply a matter of performance.
“The biggest challenge to Chinese politics is corruption. A democratic system can live with corruption because corrupt leaders can be voted out of power, at least in theory. But in a meritocratic system, corruption is an existential threat. If political leaders are seen to be corrupt, they cannot claim superior merit and thus lose the one quality that justifies their position. Because of this, China needs more mechanisms to keep its politicians accountable. Chinese officials have studied the British civil service to learn how to deal with corruption, for example. ‘Elections are a safety valve that isn't available in China,’ says Bell. ‘But they know this. It's why they're having the longest and most systematic anti-corruption drive in recent history.’  
“There are obvious flaws in China's system, says Bell. But he also ticks off several advantages. Political officials at the top all have substantial experience at running a country – ‘unlike in the US with the current president’. The government is also not subject to the electoral cycle and can focus on its policies. ‘If they say they’re going to do something by 2030, we can be pretty sure they’re going to do it,’ he says.”
It doesn’t look like political scientists are going to be obsolete anytime soon, but there may be more questions than even they could contemplate just a few short years ago. If indeed, autocratic regimes are on the rise, and if indeed they are inherently unstable, what replaces them? Does democracy return or is the replacement simply another autocracy?
I’m Peter Dekom, and as our own democracy is as severely threatened more than at any time since our Civil War, exactly what should Americans expect from their leaders in 2017 and beyond?

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