The Reprisal Of Democracy During The Last Decade

Increase in power of the executive branch, the judiciary becoming politicized, various offensives towards the independent media, using public office to obtain personal benefits—the signs of democratic recession are well known. What is surprising is where we are seeing this phenomenon. As Fareed Zakaria put it, “We’ve read this book before, just never in English”. By more than one measure, democracy around the world is declining. Trust in political institutions – including the electoral process itself - are at an all-time low. 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. Western states are worrying about the health of democracy for the first time since perhaps the end of World War Two. 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. One can point to the undeniably poor performances of new democracies in delivering even the most basic services for their people, like health-care, jobs, security etcetera. Poor governance is restraining young democracies across the globe and undermining their legitimacy.

Therefore, the question that hangs in the air is, what is causing the reprisal that democracy has been experiencing during the last decade? There have been many renowned political scientists who have taken upon themselves to answer the aforementioned question. Many of them, have reached differing conclusions. However, there seem to be three reasons that most scholars rely the most in explaining the decline that democracy has been experiencing during the past few years. The first school of thought focuses on a term known as “bad governance. ” Francis Fukuyama’s (2014) elaborates and explains further on the term. Firstly, he refers to the failure of many countries, that have started implementing democracy, to build modern successful liberal democratic countries. As a result of this failure, a decrease in economic growth follows. This, coupled with poor public services, absence of personal security and widespread corruption, makes the citizens of that country judgmental towards democracy and more prone to regime change. Fukuyama claims that “the legitimacy of many democracies around the world depends less on the deepening of their democratic institutions than on their ability to provide high-quality governance. ” The views of Fukuyama are shared by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa, who, on their paper, argue that democracies have gotten worse at delivering economic growth and the other fundamental perks that come with democracy, whereas authoritarian regimes have gotten much better at doing so, especially regarding the economic growth and stability.

The arguments used by this school are very strong and relevant in today’s political environment, however, they do not take into account a very important variable, which is geopolitics, something that the next school is based on and explains perfectly. The second school of thought looks more at the weight of geopolitics, claiming that the west, including the US as its main image, has been in a state of retrenchment, whereas great- power autocratic regimes like China and Russia have taken the center stage in international affairs. Thereof, it should not come as a surprise that one of the side effects of these geopolitical shifts has been the weakening, and in some cases, collapse of democracies (Kagan 2015; Amy R. Poteete 2014; John Keane 2009). A similar approach outlines how the 1989 revolutions, followed by demographic changes, particularly the departure of “the most liberal and educated eastern Europeans”, laid the groundwork for the current democratic backsliding that the region is experiencing, particularly Poland and Hungary. Talking about the voters’ “welcoming” of illiberal democracy, it creates a form of authoritarianism born within the framework of democracy itself, and this is what makes it particularly dangerous (Ivan Krastev 2018). What is convincing about this school is that geopolitics has been the main variable for the widespread of different regimes throughout the history of civilization, however, with globalization, geopolitics has slightly lost its influence while other variables have gained tremendous importance, and this school solely focuses on geopolitics. The third, and final approach focuses on populism. Democratic systems have no automatic barriers against populism. In consequence, it easily becomes vulnerable to populism propaganda and criticism (Pasquino in Albertazzi and McDonnell 2008; Fluerbay 2016; Galston 2018). In contrast with populism during the 1960s, which proposed “more participation, less leadership”, populists now want more leadership, less participation”. The same view is shared by University of Michigan professor, Ronald Inglehart, who warns that democracy around the world, is experiencing the most severe setback since the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and this has come mostly due to the dramatic increase of support for “authoritarian, xenophobic populist movements”. He argues that the cause for the immediate increase of support that we are seeing for these movements is “a reaction against immigration (and, in the United States, rising racial equality)” (Inglehart, 2018). The main advantage that this school has over the other two is that it takes into consideration the people, while the other two focus mostly on the institutions and the people who are in office.

However, the obvious disadvantage is that populism does not have the same strength in democracies as it does in authoritarian regimes, meaning that amassing people to overthrow a liberal democracy can be rather difficult. While each of these three schools of thought do a very fine job in back their arguments, the school making the most compelling arguments seems to be the first one. This school, with the term of “bad governance” in its center, does a fine job of organizing the salient facts that account for the current phenomena that democracy is experiencing. However, throughout my research, I am going to add arguments from the other two schools as well, considering they are both extremely relevant and, when put together, they help to paint a clearer picture.

15 April 2020
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