Crisis of Democracy.

One way of telling the history of the Twentieth Century is to describe the Triumph of Democracy.  In 1900, only11 countries that could be described as political democracies: they granted all adult male citizens the right to vote and they applied the same laws to all citizens.[1]  The “War to Make the World Safe for Democracy” only somewhat advanced their cause: by 1920, there were 20 democracies and many of them had granted women the vote.  The interwar crisis and the Second World War centered on the defeat of aggressive tyrannies.  Thereafter, however, democracy advanced by leaps and bounds.  Western colonial empires were dismantled.  Democracy expanded its meaning from the purely political to social democracy, and legal protections for civil rights were greatly extended.  The Cold War ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire.  By 2003, there were 86 democracies in a world of 190-odd countries.[2]   

            Rather than continuing its advance, however, democracy has been in retreat since the mid-2000s.[3]  Where democracy continues to exist, “democratic norms and institutions” are being hollowed-out.  What has caused democracy to fall into disrepute?  What has caused dictators and would-be dictators to gain a new credibility? 

            The crisis arises both from specific personalities and from larger and more long-term systemic changes.  On the level of personalities, one can point to the interaction of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.  Many of the successes for democratization owed at least something to American government backing for democratic movements and institutions from the of Jimmy Carter’s administration through the Reagan-Bush era.  Donald Trump’s administration has largely abandoned the “bully pulpit” on behalf of democracy in the shit-holes of the world.  A host of minor-league wannabe-tyrants draw inspiration from Chinese and Russian aggression. 

On the level of systems, two different sorts of problems exist.  On the one hand. regularly-held elections in which citizens choose their own leaders are not enough to make a country democratic.  Real, living democracy requires also a widely accepted “liberal” mindset.  It requires independent institutions like courts, business, media, and non-governmental associations.  Finally, it requires institutions of government (from the civil bureaucracy to the military to the intelligence services) that serve the nation, rather than any individual leader.  These are the “democratic norms and institutions” that are being hollowed around the world. 

On the other hand, all of these ills arise from the interaction of sclerotic political systems with increasingly indifferent citizens.  Here it becomes difficult to solve the chicken-or-the-egg problem.  Do frozen-up political systems foster citizen alienation?  Does they shift citizens into wavering between solving their own problems through ad hoc means or hoping for a strong-man who can burst the dam?  Does citizen alienation and indifference allow political systems to congeal around dead issues, rather the forcing them to address live issues? 

Neither answer holds much promise for revived democracy. 


[1] This bald definition invites enough qualifications to make your head spin.  For example, women didn’t have the vote; many representative governments hedged-in responsive government to serve an anti-democratic distrust of “the mob”; and democracies ruled over-seas empires in an undemocratic fashion. 

[2] Larry Diamond, “The Global Crisis of Democracy,” WSJ, 18-19 May 2019. 

[3] That is, it began during the years of the Obama-Biden administration.