Bertelsmann Foundation

Western democracies on the decline, including Germany

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Source: DPA.

A quarter-century ago, American political scientist Francis Fukuyama announced the definitive victory of liberal democracies over all other competing forms of government. Today, that winner is retreating. According to a new study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the quality of democracy in 41 member states of the European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has deteriorated significantly over the past four years.

Not only are the “problem children” of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey suffering, the United States under President Donald Trump has also dropped 9 places to 18 in the democracy ranking. “A country like the US, for which the values of democracy and freedom actually belong to the unbreakable core of its own national understanding, has recently lost quite a bit of its democratic quality,” the researchers write. “A president who, for example, calls the media ‘enemies’ and does not recognize and value their independent control function, is shameful and a danger to democracy and freedom.”

The results of the Bertelsmann study coincide with similar observations made by American think tank “Freedom House.” Democracy has allegedly been retreating worldwide for 12 years — the number of countries with democratic deficits is growing, while the rule of the people is increasingly losing ground.

Still, the study did single out a few democratic highlights — Scandinavia and Switzerland, for example, or even Germany, home to the Bertelsmann Foundation as well as its namesake media company.

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But polarization in Germany is affecting Berlin and making economic reform difficult. “The distance between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has increased. Populist parties generally reinforce the effect of polarization,” the study says. In polarized systems, it becomes more difficult to reach a broad social consensus on political solutions.

President Trump’s election has made this effect visible in the US. Although he was able to push through his tax reform and supreme court candidates, a Democratic landslide that wins back congress in the mid-term elections could lead to a political stalemate. The next presidential election isn’t until 2020.

The researchers also attribute the loss of democracy’s image to the fact that many governments do not sufficiently involve citizens in their decision-making. Governments are relying less now than in the past on broad social consultation. Countries such as Germany are also lack coherent, strategic external government communication.

However, when governments overrule the heads of their citizens, this usually leads to them finding it more difficult or even impossible to achieve their goals. The reason for this is that the better democracy works, the better the policy results will usually be. The Nordic countries are cited as proof of this, although countries such as Sweden and Finland have not been spared populism either.

The foundation had mixed feelings about French President Emmanuel Macron — despite his Napoleonic behavior, his fresh political style allows him to involve citizens at an early stage, improving the quality of government.

Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. To contact the author: riecke@handelsblatt.com

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