Democracy is at crossroads. For various reasons it didn't become as successful as it should have. Shouldn't we worry about the path, it is likely to take?
Democracy originated as a political idea in the 20th century and has been enjoying unparalleled success ever since. But, of late it is running into trouble, and unless we do something to revive it, its future is rather bleak.
If we stand farther back and examine, the triumph of democracy does not look all that great. After its birth, the fall of Athens, where it was first developed, brought an end to its brief life. It remained dormant till the period of enlightenment, when one by one, countries started adopting this as the chosen form of government.
But, by the beginning of 20th century nascent democracies started collapsing. (Germany, Spain and Italy). By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and “the great flame of democracy could not be saved from the blackout of barbarism”.
In the second half of the 20th century, democracies had taken root in Germany, which had been traumatized by Nazism, in India with a significant part of its population being poor people, and, in the 1990s, in South Africa, which had been blemished by apartheid. Further, end to colonialism created a host of new democracies in Africa and Asia, and autocratic regimes gave way to democracy in Greece (1974), Spain (1975), Argentina (1983), Brazil (1985) and Chile (1989). Soviet Union, in its collapse gave shape to many fledgling democracies in central Europe. And a large part of the world happened to exist as democracies.
Democracies happened to be richer than non-democracies, where citizens could enjoy a better life. These states are less likely to go to war and have a better record of fighting corruption. Moreover, democracy, by letting people speak their minds, enabled each one to shape their own and their children’s futures. So many people in so many different parts of the world are prepared to risk so much for this idea should be testimony to its enduring appeal.
Yet these days a troubling pattern has repeated itself in capital after capital. The people mass in the main square. Regime-sanctioned thugs try to fight back but lose their nerve in the face of popular intransigence and global news coverage. The world applauds the collapse of the regime and offers to help build a democracy. But removing an autocrat turns out to be much easier than setting up a viable democratic government. The new regime stumbles, the economy flounders and the country finds itself in a state at least as bad as it was before. This is what happened in much of the Arab spring, as well as in Ukraine.
As far as established democracies like USA, UK or India go, situation is slightly different. People are selecting the most undemocratic among the available options, both while choosing a government and while abiding by it.
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. And 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.
This feeling is largely due to the stream of successes it encountered. But stand farther back and the triumph of democracy looks rather less inevitable. After the fall of Athens, where it was first developed, the political model had lain dormant until the Enlightenment more than 2,000 years later. In the 18th century only the American revolution produced a sustainable democracy. During the 19th century monarchists fought a prolonged rearguard action against democratic forces. In the first half of the 20th century nascent democracies collapsed in Germany, Spain and Italy.
The progress seen in the late 20th century is showing signs of slowing down. Even though much of world’s population, more people than ever before live in countries that will hold free and fair elections this year, it looks like, democracy’s global advance has come to a halt. Will there be a reverse?
Many democracies are already sliding towards autocracy, though maintaining the outward appearance of democracy through elections. Notably, the rights and institutions that are the important aspects of a functioning democratic system is slowly giving way.
Faith in democracy is constantly in doubt, when the overthrow of unpopular regimes takes place only to sputter out once again. Unnoticed by its champions, democracy has been becoming associated with debt, dysfunction, and lack of progress at home and overreach abroad. Democracy has always encouraged its critics, but now old doubts are being treated with renewed respect as the weaknesses of democracy, even by some of its proponents. What has caused democracy to lose its forward momentum?
The most significant challenge to democracy, what Plato mentioned as a great ill of democracy, that citizens would “live from day to day, indulging the pleasure of the moment”, has proved to be the cause. Democratic governments will get into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course. They will have to necessarily borrow to give voters what they want in the short term, to ensure their own survival. In such circumstances, not many of them can think of long-term investment.
People finally will lose faith, electing one group after the other and finding not much change. Now the thing to watch will be the growing cynicism towards politics. Peoples' direct involvement with political activities is declining across the developed world, I think, thanks to the general belief: “politicians tell lies all the time”. Meanwhile, the seriousness attached to politics, is fast eroding. (The win, in Iceland of a party that promised open corruption, or, in Italy of a comedian party, or, in USA, of the growing disregard for modern scientific findings, may be cited as examples.) The result is an unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to over expand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy. Doesn't it bring up the memories of aristocratic dysfunction of yesteryears, the time prior to democracy?
The stars of democracy, America and Europe seem to have lost their appeal as role models and their appetite for spreading democracy. Aren't they paralyzed by the fear that democracy will produce rogue regimes or empower 'jihadists'. The threat I think is real, all other democracies are also finding themselves with 'excess of democracy' and opting for tighter regimes, of course, for valid reasons.
Madison said after American Revolution, “great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” The failure to do this, I think has rekindled the fear of tyranny. Whether in the growing size, or the relentless expansion of government, the state is reducing liberty and handing ever more power to special interests, and a natural tendency to overreach is clearly visible. We need to introduce fresh, more appropriate checks and balances on the power of elected government. And if not, what John Adams, America’s second president, once pronounced, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself", will take place soon.
What will happen then? Those progressives, who are constantly remaining in a lazy, lethargic state fueled by the technological success induced excess of self confidence, will be shaken to the core. The rest will be anything but predictable.