The decline of democracy

Themed article

Sunil Tankha
Assistant Professor of States, Societies and World Development at ISS and member of the DevISSues editorial board.

Image top: Democracy = Liberty of expression. 
Credit: Celine Marsolais

When historians write about the fracturing of democracy in the early 21st century, they will argue vigorously about which factors they believe contributed to the weakening of the liberal democratic order so quickly after it had seemed that this order would inexorably spread from North America and Western Europe to the rest of the world. 

Liberal democracy was certainly not something with long and established traditions. Even the countries with strong democratic traditions and institutions were profoundly undemocratic in their own overseas occupations, sacrificing principle for profit. Then the post Second World War period found national independence struggles rarely resulted in consolidation of popular will expressed through democratic processes. In the global south, even the longer independent countries of South America tamped democratic tendencies in domestic struggles embedded within larger global contexts of superpower rivalries. Nevertheless, it appeared that as the 20th century was beginning to give way to the 21st, the last vestiges of authoritarian rule from both right and left would soon become historical artifacts. How wrong we were. In Europe, nationalist, populist and authoritarian movements against the liberal democratic traditions are resurging, as is happening in the Americas and Asia. What could have brought about this severe weakening of the principles to which these governments and peoples still express theoretical support but subvert in practice?

Increasing populism, nationalism or tribalism, sometimes referred to as identitarianism are the primary symptoms of democratic decline. In political science, states are defined as territories under one government while nations, often used as a synonym for the state in casual speech, are references to a people, who are united on the basis of some ethnic, linguistic or cultural identity or tradition. In non-homogenous states, the differences between the nation and the state are becoming more acute. In the industrialized world, increasing immigration is coinciding with increasing intolerance manifested through debates about integration, citizenship and refugee rights. In ethnically diverse societies, minorities are being targeted and persecuted. 

If authoritarian leaders are now insisting upon co-alignment with the interests and desires of the dominant nation within the state as a guiding principle of politics, then we could reasonably infer that the dominant ‘nation’ must be feeling insecure and the cause of this insecurity must inevitably be traced to the transformation of domestic economic structures in response to global trends and the fragmentation of economic opportunity. In the advanced industrialized countries, this threatened group is that of the white (mostly male) blue collar worker who is now, as several scholars have noted, suffering increased economic insecurity. The loss of blue collar work is partly a result of changing production technologies and primarily a result of shifts in manufacturing location. While trade is not a zero-sum game, evidence suggests that the massive development of the Chinese manufacturing sector has cost blue collar jobs in the west. In the absence of social policies for dealing with these obsolescing skills, and indeed the increasing stinginess of welfare policies which are presented as unaffordable, it is inevitable that reactionary forces will manifest themselves.

… it is inevitable that reactionary forces will manifest themselves.

This situation has been exacerbated by the weakening of the traditional left which was based on the strength of collective bargaining institutions, and by the emergence of a new left which is motivated more by social and environmental concerns and is, indeed, one which is in many cases practically, if not ideologically, aligned with the old right on capitalism and freer trade. Meanwhile, the new right is gravitating towards sectarianism. Under these conditions, it is argued that these neglected people have gravitated towards populist movements and leaders. While it could be claimed that these insurgent populist movements are manifestations of a more dynamic democracy in which established political parties are forced to cede space to the manifest desires of the electorate, it should not be forgotten that the rhetoric of these movements is fundamentally intolerant, and while they do express themselves against an ill-defined global capital, they are aggressive against the more visible manifestations of globalization: immigrants and refugees. In this sense, the new populists do not promise redistribution from the wealthy to the less fortunate, but rather from the least fortunate to the less poor. Their intolerance is not restricted to minorities but to the entire democratic political process, for in their attempts to carve out space for themselves they have inveigled against the established liberal democratic order, painting their political opponents as not to be respected or negotiated with. 

If this is the case in industrialized economies, what is happening in the developing world or the global south? The global south too is being buffeted by economic insecurity, and the revelation of endemic and systemic corruption within this context of economic and public insecurity has spawned equally abusive rhetoric against the established political order. But here, where the democratic institutions and traditions are more precarious, accepting the opposition as legitimate or the idea that back-and-forth transitions of political power are positive manifestations of institutional strength and a country’s maturity are losing ground. At best, the opposition is open to corruption; at worst, it is anti-national. Incumbent leaders are loath to relinquish power, partly because of their opponents’ use of legal mechanisms to disqualify them from future contests (e.g., in Ukraine, Georgia, Brazil and Argentina) and partly because their supporters fear reversal of hard won policy victories. This is even more the case where parties coalesce more around charismatic leaders than an ideological or policy agenda. 

The situation did not necessarily have to degenerate this quickly. One of the primary causes of the weakening of democratic tendencies has been a larger government failure, particularly in the area of social and public security. This can be traced to a decades-long process of campaigning against the public sector. If government organizations are, as argued, congenitally inefficient and to be avoided and underfunded, and private organizations unsuitable for delivering public services, we will see a progressive impoverishment of the social fabric which protects communities and individuals. People’s frustration with their deteriorating quality of life results in their blaming both the government and groups of their fellow citizens, resulting in further polarization and cleavage. With increasing socio-economic insecurity, people are moving away from the very democratic traditions which are known to be more effective in dealing with such situations and taking refuge in authoritarian leaders and demagogues who are using the very deteriorating situation which they are creating to justify their tactics and gain more adherents. While strongmen are selling themselves as indispensable bulwarks against a coming anarchy, an anarchy which they themselves are fomenting, it should nevertheless be remembered that autocratic leaders are the symptom of and may exacerbate the malaise but they are not its primary cause.

… intolerance is stemming from a decline of both economic and public security

In this environment of increased polarization of public opinion and political belief, the sobering influence of a responsible media is diminishing as citizens gravitate towards prattling personalities and shrill demagogues. What were once hailed as a democratization of media and channels of communication, are now being 
vilified as manipulative echo chambers. The conflation of traditional news sources and info-tainment or even worse ‘viral’ posts which cannot be traced to a responsible source but gain legitimacy merely because of how widely they are spread, incentivizes gross exaggeration if not outright dishonesty. These sources are not credible, but we should not make them a scapegoat for the loss of trust in other institutions. Again, these phenomena are symptoms and not the cause. Regulatory approaches to social media are unlikely to bear fruit in this environment. Paper laws are poor protection from backsliding on democracy when crises hit and trust erodes. Underpinning formal institutions and their rules are informal norms and it is the undermining of these norms which have permitted the erosion of liberal democratic traditions.

To summarize, intolerance is stemming from a decline of both economic and public security, exacerbated by underlying changes in production patterns and ideas of public responsibilities. If the state’s primary task is to provide desired goods and services which the market is not able to, then hobbling governments through spurious arguments about the public versus private will be detrimental to democracy. True, democracy may not be efficient from the market perspective, but it shouldn’t be subject to that test. 


Check our website for latest news, upcoming eventsrecent PhD defences, and the ISS library for working papers, PhD theses and the journal Development and Change.