Liberal Democracy Under Threat?

Two studies suggest that liberal democracy may no longer be the panacea it was thought to be.
In a paper due to be published in January in the Journal of Democracy, University of Melbourne political scientist Dr Roberto Stefan Foa and Dr Yascha Mounk, from Harvard University, show the public dissatisfaction with democracy we are seeing in surveys across the US and Europe was also present in public surveys in Venezuela and Poland years before their democracies were undermined by authoritarian regimes.
While democracies can be resilient in the face of great upheaval few would have suggested Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 as a real possibility. Prior to the election in a New York Times article Dr. Foa and Dr. Mounk warned of the falling support for democracy in the United States.
Their data is mainly based on the World Values Survey, based in Sweden, that polls people across 100 countries. The US 2011 survey result showed that the proportion of people describing democracy as a “bad” way to run the country was increasing and running at over 20 per cent among 16-34-year-olds. Support among Americans for military rule over democracy had risen from under 10 percent in 1995 to 16 percent by 2011.
What they found is evidence that waning public support for democracy can be an early indicator that democracies are becoming vulnerable to populist takeover, despite traditional indicators suggesting that civil freedom and democracy are healthy in a country. It is a radical idea that casts serious doubt over previous notions that once established and consolidated, a liberal democracy is here to stay. They coined the term “deconsolidation” to describe the process that is going on when public support for democratic systems is falling.
One example they point to of where the survey data had appeared to indicate a later erosion of democracy is Venezuela. In the 1980s Venezuela was seen as a successful two-party democracy, scoring highly on the Freedom House score and Polity indices. But by 1995 the Latinobarometer survey was finding that 46 per cent of Venezuelans agreed that democracy wasn’t solving the country’s problems and 81 per cent said they’d welcome a “strongman” leader. A note here is the 1980’s US was led by Ronald Reagan and he worked to increase the US military presence around the world exploding the debt and making the US the world’s police force.
In 1998 left-wing populist Hugo Chavez was unexpectedly elected and democratic freedom in the country has gone backwards. The story is similar in Poland where Lech Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party clamped down on media freedom and the courts. Hungary and Greece have gone down the same path.
Across Europe and elsewhere the World Values Survey shows support rising for authoritarian leadership, most markedly in countries including Germany, Spain, Argentina, South Africa and Taiwan.
A separate German survey found that more than 20 per cent endorsed the view that “what Germany now needs is a single, strong party that represents the people”. According to a French survey last year, 40 per cent of respondents believed the country should be put in the hands of “an authoritarian government”. Some 66 per cent supported the idea of having unelected experts enact unpopular but necessary reforms. With the recent election of Emmanuel Macron and the repudiation of Marine Le Pen’s hard-right policies, the French appear to have stemmed the rise of far-right populism perhaps in reaction to Donald Trump’s election.
Dr. Foa says the hostility to democracy that the surveys are picking up reflects a real and justifiable frustration with the state of liberal democracy in the West.
“I think there is a process that has been taking place for 20-30 years now where people have disengaged from formal types of politics such as joining political parties and even turning out to vote,’’ Dr. Foa says.
“Over the period of a generation, the political elites have become very detached from the people. We now have career politicians and we have lobbyists and special interest groups having privileged access to our representatives. So people are justified in feeling frustrated, and in a real sense justified in feeling that Western democracies are less democratic than they use to be.”
He argues that the UK’s decision to put Brexit to the vote and the decision by the US Democratic Party to back an establishment Presidential candidate in Hillary Clinton are both examples of politicians failing to read the signs of frustration in the electorate.
For Dr. Foa and Dr. Mounk, the prospect of populist and authoritarian movements might be the trigger that is needed for politicians to finally free themselves from special interest groups and pursue reforms to reinvigorate democracy. “In that sense, the dangerous age of populism may harbor an opportunity for righting the ship of state after all,” they write.
“There is no consensus on what the drivers of populism are, or on how public policy might effectively combat them. That makes it all the more urgent for political scientists to study both the origins of democratic deconsolidation and the public policies that may potentially provide an antidote to it.”
Has democarcy seen its heyday? Are we headed to another wave of populism and far-right governments, have the elites learned from the lessons of 2016?

Portions reprinted from Pursuit Magazine

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