Democ­racy and the Arc of Progress

The Review - - OPINION - Adam Goldin Colum­nist Adam Goldin is a Philadel­phi­abased econ­o­mist with master’s de­grees in both eco­nom­ics and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs. He re­sides in Chester County.

Democ­racy, as a gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy, has en­joyed a spec­tac­u­lar run since the end of World War II. In 1946, demo­crat­i­cally run coun­tries com­prised just 29% of the to­tal, com­pared with 58% to­day, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

As one might ex­pect, the lion’s share of that progress oc­curred af­ter the Ber­lin Wall came down in 1989, with democ­racy’s share of the to­tal ris­ing by more than 20 per­cent­age points in the sub­se­quent 27 years.

The pre­vail­ing op­ti­mism rip­pling through pub­lic opin­ion af­ter the Ber­lin Wall fell was en­cap­su­lated most suc­cinctly in Fran­cis Fukuyama’s 1989 es­say “The End of His­tory?” in The Na­tional In­ter­est. In it, he fa­mously pos­tu­lated that “what we may be wit­ness­ing is not just the end of the Cold War, but the end of his­tory … that is, the end point of mankind’s ide­o­log­i­cal evo­lu­tion and the uni­ver­sal­iza­tion of Western lib­eral democ­racy as the final form of hu­man gov­ern­ment.” The in­ter­ven­ing years ap­peared to val­i­date his bold claim, as democ­racy’s spread looked in­ex­orable.

How­ever, sev­eral in­ter­na­tional watch­dog re­ports have dis­abused us of the be­lief that his­tory’s arc bends un­mis­tak­ably to­wards progress. Ac­cord­ing to both Free­dom House and The Econ­o­mist In­tel­li­gence Unit, the num­ber of coun­tries post­ing demo­cratic set­backs in 2017 out­num­bered those that im­proved. Wor­ry­ingly, Free­dom House’s re­port in­di­cates this has oc­curred for the 12th year in a row.

Mean­while, a Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion anal­y­sis in­di­cates that democ­racy’s vigor in emerg­ing na­tions has also sunk to a 12-year low.

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs ex­perts at­tribute this slide to many fac­tors. Stag­nant wages ef­fec­tu­ated by tech­nol­ogy and glob­al­iza­tion, the trauma of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 at­tack and grow­ing fears of Is­lamic ter­ror­ism, 2008’s fi­nan­cial cri­sis, and in­creased im­mi­gra­tion are most widely blamed for democ­racy’s stum­ble.

Voter dis­af­fec­tion with to­day’s po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship and in­sti­tu­tions stem from the lat­ter two’s ap­par­ent in­abil­ity to im­prove peo­ple’s stan­dard of liv­ing, pro­tect them from for­eign ad­ver­saries, and up­hold their cul­tural sovereignty. As a re­sult, Pew re­ports that 24% of vot­ers sup­port mil­i­tary rule and 26% sup­port “rule by an un­con­strained leader.”

Ex­am­ples abound. Turk­ish vot­ers ap­proved con­sti­tu­tional changes that cen­tral­ized and en­hanced pres­i­den­tial pow­ers at the ex­pense of the leg­is­la­ture, ju­di­ciary and press, and then re-elected Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. (Weak­en­ing the leg­is­la­ture, ju­di­ciary and press are in­te­gral to sti­fling demo­cratic norms and pur­sued by po­ten­tial au­to­crats ev­ery­where.) Hun­gary and Poland have be­come in­creas­ingly au­thor­i­tar­ian; in fact, Hun­gary’s prime min­is­ter has bragged that his coun­try prac­tices “il­lib­eral democ­racy.”

And here in the U.S., Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers nom­i­nated a man who la­bels the press “en­e­mies of the peo­ple” and Mex­i­can im­mi­grants as rapists (“… and some good peo­ple”), be­lieves im­mi­grants “in­fest” our coun­try, and ac­cuses mem­bers within the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies as be­ing part of a ne­far­i­ous “deep state” that must be de­feated, rather than one of 15 main­stream Repub­li­can can­di­dates.

What can be done to re­vi­tal­ize sup­port for lib­eral democ­racy?

The so­lu­tions vary by coun­try be­cause the ori­gins of voter dis­af­fec­tion vary. Where stag­nant wages drive right-wing pop­ulism, pol­icy mak­ers should take a page from Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt’s play­book; his sup­port for New Deal pro­grams par­tially stemmed from his de­sire to in­oc­u­late the U.S. politic dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion against metas­ta­siz­ing Eu­ro­pean fas­cism and com­mu­nism. Sim­i­larly, to help those singed by glob­al­iza­tion and au­to­ma­tion, to­day’s pol­icy mak­ers should strengthen the so­cial safety net and help mod­ern­ize work­ers’ skills.

Where im­mi­gra­tion fears dom­i­nate, in­te­gra­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion ef­forts should be adrenal­ized. Re­gard­less of the coun­try specifics, with luck the world’s cit­i­zenry will awaken from its com­pla­cency and mobilize to de­fend demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions, norms and mores.

The al­ter­na­tive is too sad to con­tem­plate

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