How sta­ble are democ­ra­cies?

‘Warn­ing signs are flash­ing red’

Lesotho Times - - International -

WASH­ING­TON — Yascha Mounk (pic­tured) is used to be­ing the most pes­simistic per­son in the room. Mr Mounk, a lec­turer in govern­ment at Har­vard, has spent the past few years chal­leng­ing one of the be­drock as­sump­tions of Western pol­i­tics: that once a coun­try be­comes a lib­eral democ­racy, it will stay that way.

His re­search sug­gests some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: that lib­eral democ­ra­cies around the world may be at se­ri­ous risk of de­cline.

Mr Mounk’s in­ter­est in the topic be­gan rather un­usu­ally. In 2014, he pub­lished a book, “Stranger in My Own Coun­try.”

It started as a mem­oir of his ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up as a Jew in Ger­many, but be­came a broader in­ves­ti­ga­tion of how con­tem­po­rary Euro­pean na­tions were strug­gling to con­struct new, mul­ti­cul­tural na­tional iden­ti­ties.

He con­cluded that the ef­fort was not go­ing very well. A pop­ulist back­lash was ris­ing. But was that just a new kind of pol­i­tics, or a symp­tom of some­thing deeper? To an­swer that ques­tion, Mr Mounk teamed up with Roberto Ste­fan Foa, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne in Aus­tralia. They have since gath­ered and crunched data on the strength of lib­eral democ­ra­cies.

Their con­clu­sion, to be pub­lished in the Jan­uary is­sue of the Jour­nal of Democ­racy, is that democ­ra­cies are not as se­cure as peo­ple may think. Right now, Mr Mounk said in an in­ter­view, “the warn­ing signs are flash­ing red.”

Early signs of de­cline Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists have a the­ory called “demo­cratic con­sol­i­da­tion,” which holds that once coun­tries de­velop demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, a ro­bust civil so­ci­ety and a cer­tain level of wealth, their democ­racy is se­cure.

For decades, global events seemed to sup­port that idea. Data from Free­dom House, a watch­dog or­ga­ni­za­tion that mea­sures democ­racy and free­dom around the world, shows that the num­ber of coun­tries clas­si­fied as “free” rose steadily from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s.

Many Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries tran­si­tioned from mil­i­tary rule to democ­racy; af­ter the end of the Cold War, much of East­ern Europe fol­lowed suit.

And long­stand­ing lib­eral democ­ra­cies in North Amer­ica, Western Europe and Aus­tralia seemed more se­cure than ever.

But since 2005, Free­dom House’s in­dex has shown a de­cline in global free­dom each year. Is that a sta­tis­ti­cal anom­aly, a re­sult of a few ran­dom events in a rel­a­tively short pe­riod of time? Or does it in­di­cate a mean­ing­ful pat­tern?

Mr Mounk and Mr Foa de­vel­oped a three-fac­tor for­mula to an­swer that ques­tion. Mr Mounk thinks of it as an early-warn­ing sys­tem, and it works some­thing like a med­i­cal test: a way to de­tect that a democ­racy is ill be­fore it de­vel­ops full-blown symp­toms.

The first fac­tor was pub­lic sup­port: How im­por­tant do cit­i­zens think it is for their coun­try to re­main demo­cratic?

The sec­ond was pub­lic open­ness to non­demo­cratic forms of govern­ment, such as mil­i­tary rule. And the third fac­tor was whether “an­ti­sys­tem par­ties and move­ments” — po­lit­i­cal par­ties and other ma­jor play­ers whose core mes­sage is that the cur­rent sys­tem is il­le­git­i­mate — were gain­ing sup­port.

If sup­port for democ­racy was fall­ing while the other two mea­sures were ris­ing, the re­searchers marked that coun­try “de­con­sol­i­dat­ing.”

And they found that de­con­sol­i­da­tion was the po­lit­i­cal equiv­a­lent of a low-grade fever that ar­rives the day be­fore a full-blown case of the flu.

Venezuela, for in­stance, en­joyed the high­est pos­si­ble scores on Free­dom House’s mea­sures of po­lit­i­cal rights and democ­racy in the 1980s. But those demo­cratic prac­tices were not deeply rooted. Dur­ing that ap- par­ent pe­riod of sta­bil­ity, Venezuela al­ready scored as de­con­sol­i­dat­ing on the Mounk-foa test.

Since then, Venezue­lan democ­racy has de­clined sig­nif­i­cantly. In 1992, a fac­tion of the Venezue­lan mil­i­tary loyal to Hugo Chávez at­tempted a coup against the demo­crat­i­cally elected govern­ment.

Mr Chávez was elected pres­i­dent in 1998 on a wave of pop­ulist sup­port, and he im­me­di­ately passed a new con­sti­tu­tion that con­sol­i­dated his power.

His govern­ment cracked down on dis­sent, im­pris­oned po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents and shred­ded the coun­try’s econ­omy with a se­ries of ill-planned eco­nomic over­hauls.

Like­wise, when Poland joined the Euro­pean Union in 2004, it was hailed as an es­pe­cially strong ex­am­ple of a post-com­mu­nist coun­try mak­ing the tran­si­tion to con­sol­i­dated democ­racy.

But Mr Mounk and Mr Foa found strong signs of de­con­sol­i­da­tion dur­ing that pe­riod: As early as 2005, nearly 16 per­cent of Poles said they be­lieved democ­racy was a “bad” or “fairly bad” way of run­ning the coun­try.

By 2012, 22 per­cent of re­spon- dents said that they sup­ported army rule. And in the mid-2000s, a se­ries of an­ti­sys­tem par­ties be­gan to gain trac­tion in Pol­ish pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing Law and Jus­tice, Self-de­fense of the Repub­lic of Poland, and the League of Pol­ish Fam­i­lies.

To­day, that fever is start­ing to look a lot like the flu. Law and Jus­tice, which won the pres­i­dency and a par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity in 2015, has sys­tem­at­i­cally weak­ened demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

The govern­ment’s at­tempts to un­der­mine the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tional tri­bunal, for in­stance, set off an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Euro­pean Union. The re­sult­ing re­port warned that the govern­ment’s ac­tions “en­dan­ger not only the rule of law, but also the func­tion­ing of the demo­cratic sys­tem.”

Warn­ing bells? Ac­cord­ing to the Mounk-foa ear­ly­warn­ing sys­tem, signs of demo­cratic de­con­sol­i­da­tion in the United States and many other lib­eral democ­ra­cies are now sim­i­lar to those in Venezuela be­fore its cri­sis.

Across nu­mer­ous coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, Bri­tain, the Nether­lands, New Zealand, Swe- den and the United States, the per­cent­age of peo­ple who say it is “es­sen­tial” to live in a democ­racy has plum­meted, and it is es­pe­cially low among younger gen­er­a­tions.

Sup­port for au­to­cratic al­ter­na­tives is ris­ing, too. Draw­ing on data from the Euro­pean and World Val­ues Sur­veys, the re­searchers found that the share of Amer­i­cans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, com­pared with 1 in 16 in 1995.

That trend is par­tic­u­larly strong among young peo­ple. For in­stance, in a pre­vi­ously pub­lished pa­per, the re­searchers cal­cu­lated that 43 per­cent of older Amer­i­cans be­lieved it was il­le­git­i­mate for the mil­i­tary to take over if the govern­ment were in­com­pe­tent or fail­ing to do its job, but only 19 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als agreed.

The same gen­er­a­tional di­vide showed up in Europe, where 53 per­cent of older peo­ple thought a mil­i­tary takeover would be il­le­git­i­mate, while only 36 per­cent of mil­len­ni­als agreed.

In the United States, Don­ald J Trump won the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion by run­ning as an an­ti­sys­tem out­sider. And sup­port for an­ti­sys­tem pop­ulist par­ties in Europe, such as the Na­tional Front in France, Syriza in Greece and the Five-star Move­ment in Italy, is ris­ing. Of course, this is just one pa­per. And the re­searchers’ ap­proach, like all data-driven so­cial science, has lim­i­ta­tions.

It is only as good as the sur­vey data that un­der­lies it, for in­stance, and it does not take into ac­count other fac­tors that could be im­por­tant to over­all sta­bil­ity, such as eco­nomic growth. At least one prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist ar­gues that Mr Mounk’s and Mr Foa’s data is not as wor­ry­ing as they be­lieve it to be.

Also, of course, cor­re­la­tion is not the same as cau­sa­tion. Although the re­searchers found a re­la­tion­ship be­tween de­con­sol­i­da­tion and demo­cratic in­sta­bil­ity, that is not the same thing as prov­ing the root causes of ei­ther fac­tor.

“That’s only one mea­sure,” Mr Mounk ac­knowl­edged of his own re­search. “But,” he added af­ter a pause, “it should have us wor­ried.”

He fears that the minu­tiae of pol­i­tics can eas­ily dis­tract from these more fun­da­men­tal dan­gers.

“It’s not just about what Trump will do to the E.P.A.,” he said, re­fer­ring to the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency.

“It re­ally is that Trump may try to un­der­mine lib­eral democ­racy in the United States. “Look, this stuff is al­ready go­ing on in other places,” Mr Mounk added.

“If there’s one task that we have as jour­nal­ists, as aca­demics, as thinkers, it’s to drive the stakes of this home for peo­ple.” —

Don­ald J trump won the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion by run­ning as an an­ti­sys­tem out­sider, and sup­port for an­ti­sys­tem pop­ulist par­ties in europe is ris­ing.

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