Democracy’s Challenge

November 28, 2016

All peoples aspire to democracy.  Regardless of the level of respect they have for fundamental rights and freedoms all regimes claim to be democratic in some form because it remains the ultimate source of legitimacy to govern.

Notwithstanding its worldwide appeal, democracy as practiced in the West has faced some challenges in recent years. Interventions in the Middle East have not only adversely affected West’s public discourse on promoting democracy but also led to serious questioning of related violations of domestic and international law.

Moreover, the global economic crisis has given rise to strong criticism of the existing economic order on both sides of the Atlantic. Long before, but especially since the collapse of communism, free market economy had become the twin sister of democracy. In other words, failures of the free market also had a negative impact on the perception of democracy.

The collapse of communist ideology was rightly celebrated. In retrospect, however, one may say that there was also a downside to it. Despite its failures communist ideology’s public discourse on social justice, equitable income distribution had a sobering effect on West’s socioeconomic policies. With that gone, the capitalist system started to display its excesses. European center-left lost ground. This is why for years now tens and tens of thousands of people have been on the streets in Europe protesting. The middle class has been thinning out. In the US, the top one percent’s share of national income has been on the rise. “Populist surge” has become an issue.

The world economic crisis, impact of globalization, lower levels of employment, relations between big business and politics, dwindling incomes have thus led to a widening fault line between groups considered “the governing elites” and a majority heretofore silent and grudgingly reconciled with the current state of affairs.

On his last foreign trip as President, Mr. Obama visited Greece. The following are passages from his speeches and remarks in Athens:

“… A suspicion of globalization, a desire to rein in its excesses, a suspicion of elites and governing institutions that people feel may not be responsive to their immediate needs.  And that sometimes gets wrapped up in issues of ethnic identity or religious identity or cultural identity.  And that can be a volatile mix.  

 “What we’ve also seen is that this global integration is increasing the tendencies towards inequality, both between nations and within nations, at an accelerated pace.  And when we see people — global elites, wealthy corporations — seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes — when the rich and the powerful appear to game the system and accumulate vast wealth while middle and working-class families struggle to make ends meet, this feeds a profound sense of injustice and a feeling that our economies are increasingly unfair. 

“This inequality now constitutes one of the greatest challenges to our economies and to our democracies…” 

In brief, while a winner-take-all mentality has wreaked devastation upon the Middle East, it seems that a “winner-take-more than his fair share” mentality has led to political, cultural shifts and identity problems in the US and Europe.

According to a PEW survey conducted prior to the US presidential election, 56% of registered voters said that Mr. Trump has little or no respect for the “nation’s democratic institutions and traditions,” compared with 43% who said he has a great deal or fair amount of respect for democratic institutions and traditions (*).  He won.

The current system fatigue should not be interpreted as a failure of democracy. On the contrary, political elites in the West should engage in some serious self-reflection about their responsibility in creating the populist challenge. Their failure to do that will only encourage others elsewhere to offer alternatives to democracy. What has been in decline is not the concept democracy but standards of government.


(*) Pew Research Center, As Election Nears, Voters Divided Over Democracy and ‘Respect’, October 27, 2016.





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