The End of Democracy?
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 14 May 2018
8 May 2018 – This post is an expanded and somewhat modified version of an opinion piece published by the online publication, global-e on May 1, 2018. It seeks to raise questions and suggest different ways of conceiving of democratic governance.
As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence now dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states, questions about the core or indispensable content of democracy are more appropriate than ever. How should we understand the meaning of democracy in a variety of national circumstances? Is democracy, as properly defined, the best mode of governance under all conditions for every society enjoying sovereign rights? Or in the more reserved spirit of Churchill’s quip, is democracy just ‘the least bad?” Does China or Singapore offer the world, or at least certain societies, a preferred alternative compared to democracy as it evolved and perceived in the West?
Many states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ which means they are more accurately regarded as an ethnocracy (Israel) or theocracy (Iran). The legitimating imprimatur of democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming to be a democracy because the governing arrangements have a formal appearance that resembles what is expected in a democracy, nothing more, nothing less. Instead, it seems an opportune time to delineate the particular institutions, values, and practices that identify the distinctive features of democratic forms of governance.
It is not only a matter of taking note of the weakening of the democratic character of ‘democracies’ in recent decades. It is also the attractiveness of China as an efficient developmental model and functional problem-solving mechanism. This Chinese political system is recently being identified as ‘pragmatic authoritarianism.’ Such a comparison of political systems is currently of particular interest because of the disturbing behavior of the United States in this period, both its repudiation of liberalism at home when it comes to the protection of human rights and a kind of blustering militarism abroad that is accentuated by Trump’s retreat from responsible global leadership that had previously given American foreign policy a certain legitimacy despite being the first ‘global state’ in world history. In this regard it is notable that China has shaped its ascendancy in recent decades by mastering soft power diplomacy while the U.S. decline has been accompanied by costly demonstrations of the growing deficiencies of continued reliance on the hard power geopolitics, unsuccessfully defying the realities of the post-colonial world in the early 21stcentury.
Against this background, the remainder of this essay explores the notion of democracy from a number of perspectives, seeking to distinguish between political arrangements that serve their citizens normatively as well as materially. There are also historical questions about whether democracy can flourish in an atmosphere in which intense stresses are generated by wide inequalities in circumstances that produce hardships and resentments, creating a susceptibility to opportunistic politicians who scapegoat outsiders and vulnerable groups. Such a pattern has surfaced in the West, increasingly so after the declaration of ‘the war on terror’ that has contributed to the massive generation of refugees, especially as a consequence of prolonged warfare and chaos in the Middle East. This has itself exerted pressures on humane governance by pushing political parties and publics further and further to the right, creating a populist base for fascism if the system becomes further stressed by economic crisis or through fears of terrorism, whether real or contrived.
Procedural and Republican Democracy
The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite of a governing process in which the leadership is somehow accountable to the citizenry. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to select, without fear or interference, among a wide range of candidates of their choice, even if the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates should represent significantly divergent societal viewpoints on major issues that compete for support, that votes are counted honestly, and no obstacles are intentionally placed in the path of those in the electorate who are poor, less educated, and not fluent in the native language.
The relationship of money to the electoral process is increasingly problematic, and abetted by well-funded lobbying. As might be expected, the configuration of these issues varies from state to state. A crisis of democracy in the United States has highlighted these issues. On the one side, many, perhaps most, qualified candidates are discouraged from taking part in the political process or are subjected to defamatory treatment if they do. On the other side, NGOs such as the NRA and AIPAC distort the political process, making it politically impossible to serve the public interest, for instance, by rendering unlawful the sale and possession of assault weaponry and in the case of AIPAC making it as difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policies in the Middle East that reflect the national interest of the country and the global interest of people due to the overwhelming and often mindless pressures to follow Israel’s policy priorities no matter where they might lead. The pressure exerted to repudiate the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 illustrates the way lobbying obstructs the implementation of the public interest. In some sense, it is this interplay of money, influence, and regressive policies that raise fundamental questions about the political and moral legitimacy of governing process. A clouding of public interest in democratic practice results from this lethal mixture of private sector money and a frustrated public that poses fundamental threats to American democracy as it formerly operated, and in different ways, to other political systems that purport to retain a democratic system just because they hold periodic, free elections.
Looked at from a different angle, a state should not necessarily jeopardize its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry on some principled basis or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This contingent dimension of democratic governance is almost always controversial. It can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits that can be imposed on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions when power becomes too concentrated, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant. To the extent that such restraints are regularized the governmental form is more precisely identified if labeled as
‘republican democracy.’ There is some concern that minorities with strong agendas can encroach on free speech by overreaching by suppressing dissident views of contested historical happenings, as with the Holocaust denial laws of several European countries and in relation to the effort by Armenian communities to make it a hate crime to question the description of the 1915 massacres in turkey as ‘genocide.’
Such restraints on the capricious exercise of power tend to be challenged, however, by technological legerdemain and excessive government classification procedures that seriously undermine political transparency and the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders if present, leaving weighty decisions in the hands of an unaccountable few. Without democratic accountability in such instances, democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. Whistleblowers, although often subjected to a criminalizing backlash, are an indispensable resource of contemporary democracy.
It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all countries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy, and the primacy that could then be again accorded ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers.’ There is growing concern that what Bruce Franklin and Chas Freeman call ‘the forever war’ can be reconciled with the political freedom of the citizenry. Security concerns are now associated with the behavior of persons not necessarily associated with formal military or Intel activities, putting the whole society perpetually under suspicion, a condition that provides pretexts for pervasive intrusions on privacy and technically feasible totalizing surveillance.
Liberal versions of democracy—especially in their republican form—almost always includes a guaranty of intra-governmental friction and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily (and likely not at all) social and economic rights. In this sense, these seemingly irresolvable tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’
To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with basic social and economic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged. This raises questions about the potential compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos has not been effectively challenged in ideologically or behaviorally even by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity pretend to be available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely analyzed, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, and normative democracy. A society should also be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security, and authorizes leaders to engage in reckless coercive diplomacy and even to make war on their own without the participation of other branches of government.
Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, and especially of those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and internal political order loses the respect and allegiance of its citizenry, the security dimension of governance can be associated with effective democracy. For without political order, and a capability to address external threats and internal disorder, no form of governance can avoid chaos, foreign penetration, and a hostile backlash from its own citizenry, although specific assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.
There are increasing critiques of democratic states for having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate the prices of pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to a grotesque degree, and allow corporations, banks, and billionaires to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric of responsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.
It becomes increasingly evident that in some political systems free elections occur, demagogues participate—and sometimes prevail—and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Walls are proposed and built; borders are militarized; and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of vulnerable and oppositional populations are ignored or even condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termed
majoritarian democracy, and contains worrisome attitudes that are pre-fascist in character. It also generates a mirror-image opposition that demonizes the leadership, as in Turkey, in ways that grossly exaggerate wrongdoing, generating a vicious circle of denunciation and abuse.
This majoritarian form of democracy tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than on reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result, the rule of law and, especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations are weakened, while deference to the ruler increases in conjunction with claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval in which the opposition is ineffectual, being demoralized, split, suppressed, and disfavored by most of the mainstream media. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Sisi, Modi, and Abe manifest the trend, remaining popular while often treating ‘citizens’ as if they were ‘subjects’, thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism when it comes to state/society relations.
In opposition to these disturbing trends are more humanistic and spiritual concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr, is being taken more seriously by those dedicated to achieving genuine democratic forms of governance.
This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr), the goal of humane governance best articulated by Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and beyond sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinate national interests to human and global interests as necessary in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No democracy of this kind has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political vision of democratic fulfillment can be understood as aspirational democracy, and might take different forms depending on the societal context and civilizational orientation.
These different forms of democracy overlap and are matters of degree, but do call attention to the various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people,’ or their representatives, should be regarded as the proper source and validation of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given or self-anointed authority figures legitimized by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized, and under all conditions, is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance for the challenges confronting their societies, yet these critics seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be restored and extended by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in ways that are sensitive to the particularities of time, place, traditions, challenge, and opportunities.
Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked to the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and attentive to threats, challenges, and policy choices.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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