Democratic Decline: Real or Imagined?

by William Milam July 5, 2019

I have written much in the past few months about what academics have been calling “democratic decline” or what more recently some academics have renamed “autocratization.” No matter what one calls it, clearly there are a number of countries which have moved away from a more liberal democratic political system to one in which governance is more centralised and behaviour more controlled (which is perhaps the most gentle way of putting it). That mixture of top-down and bottom-up governance that one sees in countries that are closer to the liberal-democratic model changes as these countries move away to a much more top-down, restrictive system. As they move toward autocracy, often most, if not all, power becomes lodged in one person. Inevitably, significant freedoms are cut back or even done away with. In particular, freedom of thought and expression are diminished if not totally suppressed.

If the entire world was like that, we would all live in the Orwellian dystopia I wrote of in my most recent article – a world of perpetual war, pervasive surveillance, gargantuan government, and constant government alternative fact (untrue) propaganda. But the entire world is not – at least not yet – like that. There are a large number of gradations, “competitive authoritarian” states, as some scholars call them, in which civilian regimes use formal democratic institutions to gain and keep power and erode the opposition over time. The primary institution used for this is, of course, elections which the regime controls and thus, by hook or crook, never loses.

As I wrote last time, I think that Bangladesh, after the most recent election which was so grossly stolen (no other word can describe it) among the South Asian countries, has now moved to the stage that most closely resembles that Orwellian dystopia. Pakistan, less so, but still creeping in the wrong direction – wrong at least, if you are hoping that democracy can make a comeback. Countries of the West have nothing to be proud of in respect to a democratic revival – some, like Hungary are already replicating Orwell’s dystopian imagination. Others, like the US and UK, are certainly not inspiring examples right now of how democracy should work.

The US is no better model for those who yearn for democracy to flourish. To begin with, there is the uncomfortable fact that President Trump won the 2016 election by getting 4 million fewer votes than his opponent

I make the above observations after a few days in the United Kingdom this week visiting friends. While I am here primarily for pleasure and not as a political observer, one can’t help becoming entranced by the political crisis – or is the proper word circus – taking place here. Among other reasons, this crisis is all most people talk about (my friends being notable exceptions), and all the media blares about as far as I can tell. The BREXIT crisis is center stage right now in the UK.

The media is making the best of the freedom of expression that still exists in the country, not only to increase the melodrama of this “political crisis,” but to create the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds it and by implying that like circuses everywhere, the clowns are running the show.

Those who look from outside at the UK, in an effort to see how well-worn democracies handle serious crises, will be disappointed or confused (or both) to learn that the UK is going to choose a new leader ostensibly to resolve this BREXIT crisis which affects all its citizens through an election that is really not democratic at all.

The previous prime minister failed to secure parliamentary approval for the agreement she had negotiated with the European Union (EU). A new prime minister is needed, but since the last one failed because she couldn’t convince parliament to approve the agreement, you would think that a different party and a new agreement would be needed too. But no, it seems that a new prime minister from the same party will have to take the same, already-rejected agreement back to parliament. Both of the candidates are dedicated to leaving the EU, and unlikely to give much credence to polls which show that the voters are almost evenly divided on this issue. The election itself is within the governing party and involves, evidently, 180,000 registered members of the party selecting the leader who will be charged with achieving an end that affects the entire 60 million people of the UK. This is, by my calculation, 0.004 percent of the eligible voters of the nation. In other words, instead of solving a crisis by more democracy, the UK is trying to solve it by much less democracy.

Most pundits predict failure of one sort or another. The scariest scenario, as far as I can tell, is that the UK comes to the October deadline with no agreement. The elected prime minister will likely want to leave despite the extensive economic damage, some short-term, some long term, that would ensue to the country. But would that be the choice of a majority of those 60 million voters. Maybe, but do they know the full extent of the implications of leaving without an agreement? We might never know. Of course, as of now, the parliament has decreed that any agreement must get its approval before it can be implemented.

It is not clear to me whether the parliament could be bypassed or not, but it seems possible that either candidate might try.

The US is no better model for those who yearn for democracy to flourish. To begin with, there is the uncomfortable fact that President Trump won the 2016 election by getting 4 million fewer votes than his opponent. The anomaly in the US constitution that derives principally from the fact that the nation’s founders really didn’t believe in democracy. We have to live with that, and for 240 years had managed to do so without much threat to the evolving democratic structure – one which erratically but continuously expanded democracy, from the limited franchise of 1790, to the expansion to all white males in the 1830s, to the post-civil war amendments bringing the nominal franchise to former slaves, to the 1920 constitutional amendment bringing the franchise to women, to the civil rights acts of the 1960s which endeavoured to bring make real the promise of the post-civil war acts regarding the voting rights of minorities, especially African Americans. On paper, at least, the system has moved slowly – too slowly for many – in the direction of more, not less democracy. But the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has brought worrisome signs of retreat from that ideal. I think it is clear that Trump’s instincts are authoritarian, and I don’t have space here to provide the great mountain of evidence documented in the press and in the Mueller Report and in much of his behaviour. His politicisation of many of the institutions of the executive branch, such as his attempts to turn the Department of Justice into his personal law firm (and does he ever need lawyers) are there for all to see.

But there is a greater threat than Trump, and it is one that seems also mirrored in the UK; it is the failure of the two-party system in the US, and – I am on less firm ground here – to some extent in the UK, to rise to the occasion of making democracy work for the countries rather than just for political parties. Political parties are the guardrails of democracy, and I believe they must understand that and exercise restraint to protect democracy if it is to survive. This does not seem to be happening in either country. In the US, this is the major threat, I believe, to democracy, and it is primarily the Republican Party that has gone off the rails. It has grown increasingly authoritarian in the view of political scientists and analysts whose specialty is the worldwide decline of democracy. One such widely read and respected analyst, Steven Levitsky notes that “…from the 2016 stolen Supreme Court seat to the legislative shenanigans that followed the gubernatorial defeats in North Carolina and Wisconsin (the Republican held legislatures passed legislation severely limiting the authority of the newly elected Democratic governor just after the elections) to voter suppression efforts across numerous states suggests a party whose commitment to democratic politics has weakened.” Since I have been pounding on this theme for several years now, I have to say that Levitsky wins the understatement of the year award.

I believe this Republican tendency goes back a decade or two, but has become painfully obvious in the last two years with Trump in office.

The problem is different I think in the UK, in that I don’t see that the basic commitment to democracy of either major party has significantly weakened, and the problem is that both parties are unable to resolve their own internal divisions over the monumental issue of BREXIT. But both have avoided trying more democracy instead of less to resolve the BREXIT deadlock. More democracy suggests, of course, that instead of an election in which a small minority of one party, most of which are elderly and white, are consulted, why not consult the 44 million or so voters whose lives will be affected by however the BREXIT crisis is resolved. It seems that both parties are afraid that they will lose a general election. So while both parties cannot yet be accused of a weakened commitment in principle to democracy, they both can be accused of being afraid of democracy when it does not seem to guarantee their getting their way on BREXIT. And I suppose that is because neither knows what exactly is its way in this crisis. But in the end, if this crisis is not resolved through a clearly transparent and inclusive process, which in my view means a general election, it will remain a thorn poisoning British politics for many years, and could possibly lead to a breakup of the United Kingdom.

The writer is a diplomat and Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The article was published in the Friday times on July 6, 2019

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