Are Democracy's Days Numbered?

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How far do our representatives represent us really?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The rise in support for populists is only a symptom of the crisis of confidence in democracy. The true cause lies deeper: in the perceived failure of democratic governments to solve the world’s  problems.

  • Facts


    • Far-right populists and autocrats are enjoying growing support across Europe because trust in the established elites is waning. Europe needs more democracy to counter it.
    • Electing people who promise to take the world back to way it was 50 years ago, before globalization, won’t solve any problems.
    • The solution lies in constructive criticism, in more vibrant debate, as democracy feeds on doubt — but if the doubters are stifled, doubt in the system grows.
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Nothing is easier than blaming the crisis of democracy befalling us on those who profit from this crisis: Trump, Le Pen, Putin, Petry, Hofer or Orbán. But the fact that people like them are able to benefit from the diminishing confidence in democracy is above all a symptom, a sign of ill health. The causes of the current passion for dismantling democracy are more deeply rooted.

The perception that democracy had triumphed over the last, supposedly most modern form of obliterating liberty – namely communism – was an illusion. The lure of the authoritarians is still alive. It has only changed its shape since 1990.

Today, it’s no longer an anti-capitalist ideology that is challenging democracy. Instead the challenge facing democracy is that confidence in it is being undermined by accusations that it’s become an ideology itself, a kind of arrogant religion that doesn’t need to justify itself to anybody. There is a tacit agreement among all those who are currently mobilizing broad sections of the electorate, from Sweden to Hungary, to nurture this suspicion. The one sentence they would all subscribe to is this: We have pushed the whole issue of democracy and liberalization too far.

Democracy always starts becoming unstable when it has to manage threats to prosperity.

If we want to fight back against this new movement, we cannot merely stick the label of “right-wing populism” on it. No, the uncomfortable question we must ask ourselves is to what extent skepticism about today’s democracy is justifiable. If the recipe for success for the prophets of doom consists of pinpointing things that objectively need repair and mixing that with hatred of the system, then the best countermeasure is to separate the two again. That is, what is purely hatred and where does a backlog of necessary reforms truly exist?

The backlog exists in three places, namely where democracy is failing to deliver on its own promises: Democracy no longer automatically means increasing prosperity. Representation no longer automatically means feeling represented. And being elected no longer automatically means having a choice yourself.

 Democracy and Prosperity Fall Apart

Since 1945, Europeans and Americans have been accustomed to democracy and a rising standard of living going hand-in-hand. This certainty has evaporated since the financial crisis, if not before. Everywhere in the West, growth is declining. Roughly speaking, it’s declined by two-thirds since the mid-2000s.

What does that mean for democracy as we know it? Is it possible it can only prosper under the conditions of accelerated growth we know from the postwar years? Not necessarily. But one thing is certain: Democracy always starts becoming unstable when it has to manage threats to prosperity. It didn’t survive the crises of the 1930s in Germany.

To compare 1933 with 2016 is certainly overstating the situation. The “Black Friday” in 1929 triggered mass poverty that has little in common with the consequences of the Lehman crash in 2008. Subjectively, however, growth is collapsing at a time when the majority of people, more than ever before, are used to having their wants and desires satisfied ever more quickly and ever more cheaply. Never in all of history have so many people for so many generations built up such high expectations of prosperity, and never before have people been so unaccustomed to being deprived of what they desire. Loss aversion is what economic theory calls the fear of losses that increases exponentially with growth in wealth.

Preferably a bit more profitable dictatorship and a bit less risky democracy is a seductive notion that’s also spreading in the West.

Growing prosperity therefore leads to even greater expectations that politicians will protect this prosperity. But politicians are meeting these expectations inadequately. In fact, the number of jobs in Germany and in the United States hasn’t declined during the last 10-year period – unlike in considerably harder-hit Southern Europe. But there are significantly more insecure job contracts around.

And just when democracy is ever less able to guarantee a sense of security, authoritarian states such as China, Russia and Turkey seem to prove that alternative paths exist. In the New York Times, Chinese book author and commentator Murong Xuecun recently quoted one of his friends as saying, “Democracy is good, but I don’t hope to live to see it.” Although his friend harbors no sympathy for the one-party Chinese government, for now he’s very satisfied with his job, income and luxurious apartment.

Since 1990, such countries joined the economic race at a low level of prosperity and are also suffering from the global stagnation of growth. But a country like China, which has the highest growth rate (6 percent compared to Germany’s 2 percent) is at the moment keeping the largest pieces of the world’s slower-growing prosperity pie. And despite the economic sanctions, most Russians are grateful to Vladimir Putin, who put a stop to the chaos of the 1990s when supermarkets sometimes didn’t even stock toilet paper.

It might still be true that long-term prosperity can only be ensured when a government provides people with the strongest drivers of growth, freedom and property. But the correlation of democracy equaling growing prosperity on the one hand and lack of freedom equaling a miserable standard of living on the other no longer holds as true as it used to.

Preferably a bit more profitable dictatorship and a bit less risky democracy is a seductive notion that’s also spreading in the West, most of all where wealth inequality has reached grotesque proportions. In the United States between 2009 and 2012, the income of the richest 1 percent of citizens increased by 31 percent, while for the other 99 percent it barely grew by 1 percent. Someone like Donald Trump only has to reap the frustration and promise to bring back the production of iPhones to America.

To sum up: During the last 70 years, democracy hasn’t been under such suspicion of instability as it is today. In the worst case, the oldest protection ideologies that exist to fight the world’s problems abandon their rivalry and join forces: nationalism and socialism.

Representation Disconnects From Its Ability to Convince

Thanks to the Internet, people no longer have to make an effort to express themselves in public. This revolution is accompanied by a loss of prestige of the established authorities: mainstream politicians, academic experts, journalists. A charge against the media that has become common is that of being culturally synchronized, of no longer supervising politics but, together with the government, checking opinions to make sure they’re politically correct.

That could basically be chalked up as a positive sign of public opinion becoming more critical  – but healthy distrust can quickly turn into pathological contempt. According to a recent Allensbach survey, 39 percent of Germans believe there is something to the accusation of a “lying press.”  (Twenty-eight percent of readers of the national weekly Die Zeit think so as well). Not only doesn’t Mr. Trump care about the blessings of the media – in the eyes of his supporters, every condemnation by “mainstream journalists” even serves to ennoble him. Forty-six percent of Germans (and 71 percent of the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party voters) agree with the statement, “Politicians have no clue,  I could do better than them.”

The question making the rounds among these voters is: Who do their supposed representatives really represent? Voters? Or perhaps the supposed representatives themselves: a narcissistic elite, the people  who will see their left-wing liberal doctrine of salvation fulfilled only when even the last person living in the boondocks believes that Conchita Wurst, the transgender singer who won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, is the greatest thing European culture has brought forth?  The Alternative for Germany party (AfD) speaks of a “Left-Red-Green polluted 1968-generation Germany.” The Polish foreign minister is attacking a “mix of cultures and races, seemingly a world of cyclists and vegetarians who use only renewable energies and fight against any form of religion.”

Democracy has itself at times assumed authoritarian traits in recent years.

Apart from the culturally militant slant of such criticism: It’s understandable that many Germans have the basic feeling of an oppressively large coalition, an “elitocracy,” when looking at politics and public opinion. In Germany, the formation of a so-called grand coalition coincided with an unprecedented journalistic consensus on the chancellor’s policies. Almost all of the major media outlets gathered behind German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Ukraine crisis as well as the refugee issue.

That this was done out of conviction and not allegiance doesn’t change the fact that such a basic harmony between the first and the fourth estate not only appears suspicious. It’s also in basic contradiction to our democracy’s principle of checks and balances.

Added to that is the fact that democracy has itself at times assumed authoritarian traits in recent years. Crucial decisions were made in an aristocratic fashion. For example: The heads of governments as well as the leadership of the European Union and the International Monetary Fund discussed key issues during a dinner in the council building in Brussels, the de-facto E.U. capital. In their home countries, the governments may swear by the requirement of parliamentary approval, but in reality the role of the German Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, was confined to nodding through euro bailout packages. E.U. summits are often held under a mantra that Gerhard Polt once described as: “I don’t need any opposition, because I am already a democrat.” It might be that government representatives actually do act in their nation’s best interest. It’s just that many citizens no longer have that faith. The best example is talks involving the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP): What’s negotiated in secret becomes suspicious.

Governing No Longer Means to Decide Everything

In fact, through the solidification of international ties – both political and financial – governments have lost room for maneuver. In many cases it means serving mechanisms in bodies whose names sound like types of engines: E.U., WTO, IMF, ESM etc. In many people’s eyes, these ciphers merge into an overriding evil acronym: TINA – There Is No Alternative. Democracy? Okay, Damnocracy! If the high and mighty are doomed to their decisions, what say do voters have?

It’s true that the E.U. founders had a thoroughly functionalist understanding of legitimacy. France’s Jean Monnet was among the founders of the united Europe. He believed every step toward integration and every shift of decision-making power away from individual nations would initially be met with resistance; but when people finally noticed the benefit they have from the new hyper-institution, they wouldn’t think the deficit in democracy was all that bad.

This idea of output legitimacy hasn’t been working for some time. What benefit do the Europeans ultimately get from the euro – outside of the convenience of being able to pay everywhere with the same currency? That’s something no one can seriously gauge. But this doubt is enough to erode the output legitimacy.

The "elite" have led people to believe that you can have Europeanization and national self-determination. You can't.

This principle of incrementally surrendering sovereignty to a supranational authority appears to a growing multitude of citizens to be like being forced into a tight shirt, sown by post-war politicians for the politicians of what has since become a completely different world. Criticism of globalization, both from the left and from the right, also always contains criticism of the lack of democracy. You’re not protecting us enough from the world that you have embedded us in. You promised us the world and what did we get? The loss of control over our own fate.

Norbert Hofer would have liked to have “looked after our wonderful country.” The Freedom Party of Austria leader wrote that after losing the Austrian presidential election by an ultra-close  margin. And when Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London and one of the leaders of the “Brexit” campaign, recently gave a firebrand speech, taped to his speaker’s stand was the hashtag #Take-Control.

The “elite,” politicians and the media alike, have, in truth, made a fundamental mistake in the past decades. They have led people to believe that Europeanization and globalization are like Diet Coke – you can have both, the sweetness and be calorie free, transnational control and the accustomed national self-determination. A sales argument for the Treaty of Lisbon was that it would make the E.U. bloc “more democratic and more efficient.” There was hardly a journalist at the time who pointed out this obvious contradiction.

The truth is, you can’t have both. You can have democracy and effective cooperation of nations together only to a limited extent. You can’t make majority decision in Brussels with 28 governments without the influence of the parliaments at home suffering. You can’t conclude a free trade agreement as a bloc of nations with countries that have different principles of consumer protection and leave the customary domestic standards untouched.

The failure to clearly present this cost-benefit analysis of Europeanization and to consult the people about whether they are ready for this grand deal has stirred up a lot of anger. And this pent-up fury is making itself felt.

What can be concluded from all of this? Dare to turn up the heat!

Certainly, one conclusion from all these causes of crisis would be to elect people who promise a retreat to the world the way it looked 50 years ago. But indulging in nostalgia for times past won’t change anything about the problems described.

That’s something that can only be achieved by tackling the difficult alternative: A constructive critique of the mistakes and a reshaping of democratic structures that have become more complex. It will never again become as simple as 1960. But also never again so narrow and stuffy. Today, for example, we can debate over whether it really wouldn’t make more sense to restore certain international responsibilities back to the nations. We could consider introducing online voting on certain issues that people are arguing about, like the TTIP trade agreement, for example. We could also punish routinely the governments that we don’t think are capable of improving our lives. Four years after the 2012 outbreak of the financial crisis, the Europeans chased nine of the 17 heads of euro countries out of office. How many was it Russia, China or Singapore?

Yes, democracy may have its flaws. But of all the political systems, it is the one that becomes stronger through internal criticism, not weaker. But the more complicated democracy becomes, the more precise the criticism must be. Just as no car engine can be repaired with the tools from 1960, the system security of long ago offers little leverage against today’s uncertainties.

At the same time, there is certainly something that can be learned from yesterday. Democracy needs a certain operating temperature for it to remain fluid. Not everyone who has doubts deserves being labeled a heretic. And not every heretic deserves to be burned at the stake. Shouldn’t Germany be pleased, for example, that Ms. Merkel has a trustworthy adversary in Horst Seehofer, even if the way they go about it sometimes gets on your nerves? If you ramp up every difference of opinion into a disruption of the political peace, don’t be surprised when it is precisely this peace that the voters are rebelling against. Democracy lives on doubt. That is why too little doubt within it leads to the growth of too much doubt about it.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: redaktion@zeit.de

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