I’m married to a passionate democrat. Prior to every election, be it presidential or midterm, she will dedicate a big chunk of time to research all proposed ballot initiatives, candidates and their policies to determine what and who deserves her vote. Me, I don’t vote. Whenever I’m encouraged to vote, that it is my civic duty, blah, blah, blah, most times I reply “vote for who?” and at times I say “I will start voting when I can afford to buy my own politician”. So you can imagine we have fervent debates in my household about democracy and whether it exists in our respective countries. I don’t think a country can be called democratic when millions of dollars (a big portion from corporate entities and moguls) are required to run for office as in the US. Nor is a country democratic when the last three Prime Ministers were not elected by public ballot as in the UK. Boris Johnson came into power because Theresa May resigned. Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak were elected by the Conservative party members. My beloved democrat tells me that I feel this way because I don’t get the results I want. She has a point. But the outcome I want has little to do with the electoral system, and more with civil liberties and justice for all that are the core tenets of democracy.
I’m often shocked and appalled by the actions of our so-called democratic governments both at home and abroad–mass surveillance of citizens without knowledge or consent; over-incarceration of black and poor people; intentional destabilization and destruction of other nations’ elected governments; the funding of terrorist groups and rogue government officials; invasion and occupation of other countries. As someone who has lived under a military dictatorship and a one party socialist state I very much favor democracy. However, I have become disillusioned by the current state and practice of democracy in the UK and in the rest of the so-called “free world”. Cynicism doesn’t sit well with me so I set a goal for the month of February to re-educate myself about democracy. Perhaps it would help dissipate some of my disaffection.
It’s been a while since my university days when I studied the works of political thinkers such as John Locke, Jean Jacque Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, etc. on democracy. I thought the first place to start would be to verify if I actually know what democracy is. The Encyclopedia Britannica provides a concise and comprehensive definition.
“Democracy is a system of government in which laws, policies, leadership, and major undertakings of a state or other polity are directly or indirectly decided by the “people,” a group historically constituted by only a minority of the population (e.g., all free adult males in ancient Athens or all sufficiently propertied adult males in 19th-century Britain) but generally understood since the mid-20th century to include all (or nearly all) adult citizens…Each of the necessary features of ideal democracy prescribes a right that is itself a necessary feature of ideal democracy: thus every member of the dēmos has a right to communicate with others, a right to have his votes counted equally with the votes of others, a right to gather information, a right to participate on an equal footing with other members, and a right, with other members, to exercise control of the agenda. Democracy, therefore, consists of more than just political processes; it is also necessarily a system of fundamental rights.”
I’m aware that our current form of democracy is far from ideal but the tenet of fundamental rights is still supposed to be at its core. At least that’s what we are told by our education, judicial and social systems. But I feel these fundamental rights are receding. I wondered if I have an exaggerated sense of doom where our democracy is concerned?
The data (click to see an interactive version) represented in the above chart tells me that I’m not imagining things. Yes, we have made big progress since the second half of the 20th century to reduce the number of autocracies in the world. In 1950 67.5% of the world’s governments were closed autocracies, by 2000 it stood at 20.3% and by 2021 it was 15.8%. In terms of democracies, again in the later part of the 20th century we saw a big growth for both electoral and liberal democracies. Electoral democracy is where citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature in meaningful, free and fair, and multi-party elections. Liberal democracy is electoral democracy and citizens enjoy individual and minority rights, are equal before the law, and the actions of the executive are constrained by the legislative and the courts. In 1950 the percentage of electoral democracy was 6.5%, in 2000 it was 27.7% and continued the upward trajectory to 33.1% in 2017, then started a downward trend from 2018. By 2021 the proportion of electoral democracy is just 31%. Liberal democracy has experienced the same trend, 1950 stood at 9.7%, 2000 at 21.4%, since 2010 when it was 23.9%, it has started declining to currently stand at 19.2%. Electoral autocracies (“citizens have the right to choose the chief executive and the legislature through multi-party elections; but they lack some freedoms, such as the freedoms of association or expression that make the elections meaningful, free, and fair.”) have become more popular. In 1950 when it was 16.2%, by 2013 it was at 36.5% and stood at 34% in 2021. The proportion that both electoral and liberal democracies and even electoral autocracies are losing is unfortunately going to closed autocracies. Even though we have fewer closed autocracies, the percentage of people living in them has started to increase again since 2016 as can be seen in the chart above.
I thought I might find some insights on the state of modern democracy in the book Democracy Matters by Dr. Cornel West. Though the book is primarily concerned with democracy in the US, I felt it would have broader relevance since the impact of actions and decisions made within the US political system is felt throughout the world. Dr. West explains that the problems facing democracy in the US aren’t only ones of disaffection and disillusionment. They are far greater threats, and he identified three. The first is free-market fundamentalism–the glorification of an unregulated and unfettered market, “where the most powerful corporations are delegated magical powers of salvation rather than relegated to democratic scrutiny concerning both the ethics of their business practices and their treatment of workers.” (Democracy Matters (pg.4)). A good example of this phenomenon is the massive bailout of banks and financial services corporations during the 2007-2008 financial crisis. The crisis was caused because of the banks’ over-exposure to subprime loans assets created from subprime mortgages. Many banks faced unprecedented losses and even bankruptcy, and one bank, Lehman Brothers went under. The remaining major banks were deemed as “too big to fail” so the US and other governments ponied up billions and billions of dollars to save them. Meanwhile, millions of ordinary people that had subprime mortgages lost their homes because they couldn’t keep up with the loan repayments since the majority held adjustable-rate mortgages. No bankers or banks faced any repercussions for the subprime loans disaster since they acted within the legal regulations or lack of them. Prominent economists such as Joseph Stiligtz say that the partial repeal of the Glass Steagall Act of 1933 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLBA), also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 caused the crisis. The GLBA removed barriers in the market among banks, securities companies, and insurance companies that prohibited any one institution from acting as any combination of an investment bank, a commercial bank, and an insurance company. The removal of these barriers enabled banks to create and sell risky financial assets such as the subprime mortgages and loans.
The second threat he named is aggressive militarism. This dogma “posits military might as salvific in a world in which he who has the most and biggest weapons is the most moral and masculine, hence worthy of policing others. (Democracy Matters (pg.5)).” In practice, this dogma takes the form of unilateral intervention, colonial invasion, and armed occupation abroad. It has fueled a foreign policy that shuns multilateral cooperation of nations and undermines international structures of deliberation, and favors unilateral intervention, colonial invasion, and armed occupation abroad. The expansion of NATO, the invasion of Iraq, and the occupations of Afghanistan and Syria are examples of this. From a domestic policy perspective “this dogma expands police power, augments the prison-industrial complex, and legitimates unchecked male power (and violence) at home and in the workplace. It views crime as a monstrous enemy to crush (targeting poor people) rather than as an ugly behavior to change (by addressing the conditions that often encourage such behavior).” According to the ACLU, the US, despite making up close to 5% of the global population, has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Since 2002 the US has had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Since 1970, its incarcerated population has increased by 500% far outpacing population growth and crime.
The prevailing third danger is escalating authoritarianism. Dr West asserts this dogma is rooted in understandable paranoia toward potential terrorists, traditional fear of too many liberties, and deep distrust of one another. The Patriot Act and NSA surveillance of citizens are examples of manifestation of this dogma.
Dr. West is optimistic that democracy can be saved in the US due to Americans’ deep love for democracy. He asserts that the preservation of democracy in the US and the rest of the world rests on three crucial traditions that fuel deep democratic energies. The first comes from the ancient Greek creation of Socratic questioning—questioning of ourselves, of authority, of dogma, of parochialism, and of fundamentalism. The foundational teachings of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions that preach justice for all peoples, are the second tradition. The third is tragicomic, “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy—to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy—as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair.”(Democracy Matters (pg.16)). The latter can be seen in the artistic works of writers such as Cervantes, Chekhov, Mark Twain, and in the African American invention of the blues in the face of white supremacy. Dr. West’s hopefulness wasn’t infectious. By the time I got through the first chapter I could feel my despair rising up. The thought of reading the next chapter about nihilism in America filled me with dread, which is odd since I’ve always really appreciated hearing Dr. West’s thoughts. I decided I would take a break from this book and go on to my next one on democracy.
“Blatant dictatorship—in the form of fascism, communism, or military rule—has disappeared across much of the world. Military coups and other violent seizures of power are rare. Most countries hold regular elections. Democracies still die, but by different means. Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves (How Democracies Die (p. 5))… This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy—packing and “weaponizing” the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence), and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy—gradually, subtly, and even legally—to kill it (How Democracies Die (p. 8).”
The above is how democracies now die as explained by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their book How Democracies Die. The authors are both Professors of Government at Harvard University who have for years been thinking, writing and teaching about failures of democracy in other places and times, but in recent years have found themselves disconcertingly, turning their attention to their own country, the US. They put the reason behind the weakening of democracy in the US to the erosion of democratic norms. That is “the mutual toleration, or the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals, and forbearance, or the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives. (How Democracies Die (p. 10))”. And the root of this erosion is extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture. Thus their book was written to alert of the warning signs and share lessons from around the world that could be used to avert the demise of democracy.
I got further in this book than in the previous one. However, as I read about how Benito Mussolini, Hugo Chavez, Adolf Hitler, Alberto Fujimori, et. al. came to power the words from the book’s introduction: “History doesn’t repeat itself. But it rhymes. (How Democracies Die (p. 10))” kept humming in my head and it made it ache. I was overcome with sadness and I felt impotent. I realized it is because I have lived some of these warning signs first hand. Then it was under a blatant military dictatorship, now I’m witnessing these alarm bells in a supposedly liberal/electoral democracy. I couldn’t read any more of the book. I still have this nagging question: how do we save our democracy beyond voting for the same morally corrupt political parties? One day I will sum up the stamina to read the final chapter in both books dedicated to answering this question.