Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. Why has it run into trouble, and what can be done to revive it? The Economist asks in a must-read analysis:
Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, their opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife. Yet just a few years ago democracy looked as though it would dominate the world.
“China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail,” it suggests.
Why has democracy lost its forward momentum?
The two main reasons are the financial crisis of 2007-08 and the rise of China, it asserts:
The damage the crisis did was psychological as well as financial. It revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West’s political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of their great assets. Governments had steadily extended entitlements over decades, allowing dangerous levels of debt to develop, and politicians came to believe that they had abolished boom-bust cycles and tamed risk. Many people became disillusioned with the workings of their political systems—particularly when governments bailed out bankers with taxpayers’ money and then stood by impotently as financiers continued to pay themselves huge bonuses. The crisis turned the Washington consensus into a term of reproach across the emerging world.
“Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress….China’s advance is all the more potent in the context of a series of disappointments for democrats since 2000,” it adds:
The first great setback was in Russia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 the democratisation of the old Soviet Union seemed inevitable. In the 1990s Russia took a few drunken steps in that direction under Boris Yeltsin. But at the end of 1999 he resigned and handed power to Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative who has since been both prime minister and president twice. This postmodern tsar has destroyed the substance of democracy in Russia, muzzling the press and imprisoning his opponents, while preserving the show—everyone can vote, so long as Mr Putin wins.
“Autocratic leaders in Venezuela, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere have followed suit,” The Economist continues, “perpetuating a perverted simulacrum of democracy rather than doing away with it altogether, and thus discrediting it further.”
“The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves,” the paper contends:
Plato’s great worry about democracy, that citizens would “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment”, has proved prescient. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy.
Democracy has “been on the back foot before,” it notes:
In the 1920s and 1930s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in 1931, Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. In the mid-1970s Willy Brandt, a former German chancellor, pronounced that “western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship”. Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail.
“Democracy was the great victor of the ideological clashes of the 20th century. But if democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young—and carefully maintained when it is mature,” the analysis concludes.