So, Where to Now? A Short Reflection on Democracy

Democracy is by far the dominant political regime in today’s world. Pew Research Center reports that in 2017, 96 out of the 167 countries with a population of at least 500,000 were democracies, while 46 had a hybrid system with aspects of both democracy and authoritarianism. Despite enjoying quantitative prosperity, the qualitative progress of democracy has been increasingly in question. Both scholars and non-scholars are asking if democracy is in crisis.

While the answer would depend on one’s definition of “democracy” and “crisis”, given that this is a casual reflection such rigorousness will be bypassed and reduced to the intuitive. Yet, the topic is not of superficial nature. Hopefully, the theoretical overview in the first two parts and the empirical evaluation in the following two will be able to give readers both familiar and unfamiliar to the social sciences the chance to reflect on what we sometimes take for granted. The objective of the article is to ask the usual – is democracy in crisis? – and if it is, what can be done about it?

Democracy’s Inherent Practical Flaws

Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle and Socrates had very critical views on democracy. Of course, democracy as they experienced it is very different to its modern form. For these Greek philosophers the power of decision making could only be attributed to a group of people who had expert knowledge on the matter that was being decided on. This way, the decision was likely to be more sensible and suitable than if it was shaped through a collective, unlearned endeavor.

With the coming of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century and the gradual acceptance of the people as the only legitimate source of sovereignty and hence governance, the Greek perspectives were dismissed as elitist and obsolete, but not entirely irrelevant. Early Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and John Dalberg-Acton all articulated concerns about democracy becoming a “tyranny of the majority”. To avoid such pessimistic destiny and for electoral regimes to yield democratically viable outcomes, the citizens need access to as much unbiased information as possible regarding who and what they are voting for, in addition to a platform for political deliberation and reflection. Jurgen Habermas argues that this platform is the public sphere, which is being eroded by consumer capitalism.

Relatedly, a further aspect of democratic attrition was implied by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, illustrating how the will of the majority – to be distinguished from volonté générale – could be “manufactured” through a complex system interconnecting the media, corporations and government, gathering with self-interest to find mutual benefit in deluding the citizens through filtered information. If the people, the core of democracy, are unable to carry out their role of deliberation, reflection and correction due to reduced opportunities and distorted media, then the problem is an institutional one and democracy is in a crisis.

Blooming Ideational “Pluralism” Concerning Democracy

Democracy’s practical flaws provoke the following, somewhat clichéd, question: is democracy the ideal political regime? The 1990s saw the failure of most communist regimes and since then the world has converged around the democratic model, albeit this phenomenon can be credited more to the liberal capitalist feature that is commonly associated with democracy.

Then, is liberalism inseparably tied to democracy? Not strictly. The world has witnessed the rise of illiberal democracy – democracy devoid of constitutional liberalism – in Southeast Asia. Authoritarian systems of democracy have settled in this region, successfully represented by Singapore, a country with remarkable socio-economic standards and citizen satisfaction alongside a highly censored media and adamant political domain. A plausible explanation for such counterintuitive development was voiced by Lee Kuan Yew himself, claiming that there exists certain “Asian values” that makes authoritarian attributes more compatible with Asian communities. Amartya Sen retorts that dichotomizing Eastern and Western values not only fails to add to the comprehension of democracy but rather confuses it, shallowing the literary debate and even threatening democratic adaptation.

Nonetheless, it is clear that democracy cannot be understood with the same orientalism as before, and the understanding of the very concept must be expanded beyond the Western conception of the term. A crisis of democracy, then, could be a label enclosed by parochial cognition, only existing for those who pursue an idealized, overestimated, and essentially obscure version of democracy. Thence, asking whether democracy is the ideal regime is the wrong question.

The “Particular” Case of COVID-19

The latest challenge to the world’s democracies is the COVID-19 crisis. The widespread failure of the West in handling the virus have been guided by economic miscalculations at policy level and social irresponsibility at a grassroots level, the two frequently interplaying. Contrastingly, authoritarian-esque sanitary measures in Eastern societies reaped impressive results.

Although policy can be lauded, it would be fallacious to credit or blame them exclusively. In a democratic society, be it liberal or illiberal, policy is not merely top-bottom – although definitely more so in the latter and increasingly so in the former – but reflects the national socio-political culture, actively altered and shaped by dynamics between the government, public and private. The absence of or non-cooperation with appropriate sanitary measures is a form of tyranny of the majority where the healthier majority endanger the sick and vulnerable minority. Likewise, defying masks for the sake of freedom is not true liberalism, but a mutation of neoliberal self-indulgence. Underneath the commonly quoted liberal principles of individual rights, liberty and freedom, liberalism is about maximizing respect for oneself by means of equally respecting all others. Regarding democracy, amidst perpetual crises, it is the capacity of self-correction that enables the assessment of its efficacy. COVID-19 is a particular crisis that traditional democracies failed to address. In this aspect, it was the seemingly illiberal policies that ironically promoted liberal democracy.

This is not to suggest that Eastern democracies are superior or more prospective in any sense. There is substantive danger of these democracies being entrenched in authoritarianism. Even the successful handling of COVID-19 may be attributed more to technological development and institutional readiness than value differences. What should be acknowledged is that there are particularities distinguishing certain democracies from others and each from another, but also that many commonalities exist in the challenges faced by democracies around the world, and that certain crises are better addressed with a heavier hand. Most democracies have in their constitution an article conditioning the evocation of emergency law to tackle immediate threats, but presently most real threats to democracies are not immediate. To ensure their smoothest functioning and avoid a dramatic climax, different democracies – policymakers and the people – should remain flexible to adopting retrofitted crisis-specific solutions and not have their apparatuses restricted by dichotomized vainglory.

Climate Change as a Mirror to Democratic Short-fallings

The primal example of a common and seemingly non-immediate threat to democracy is climate change, an issue of multidisciplinary nature. For certain scholars, the cause of the moribund climate is rooted in liberal democracy, the promotion and deregulation of economic activity having changed not only the ecological equilibrium but also the political one. As Wolfgang Merkel puts it, political institutions are ever more reliant on financial institutions both directly and indirectly. The expansion of such networks through globalization results in the “tragedy of commons”, where no state has the incentive to initiate much-needed radical green policies through institutional reforms.

Now, here is a crisis of democracy. Inequality is aggravated nationally and globally; entities with the will to act do not have the means to do so, while those with the means lack will. Human rights are threatened by natural processes. Most importantly, the ability of self-correction has diminished. Even with deliberative mechanisms such as citizen assemblies, the power of correction is conditional on government endorsement and still scattered unequally across the globe.

To resolve this crisis, a collective rethinking of democratic values seems necessary, perhaps in the Arendtian concept of “enlarged mentality” to encourage cross-border sensitivity and responsibility. But, if the problem is truly intrinsic to democracy, then a more dramatic solution can be found through a transition to intellectual authoritarianism, in which case the crisis of democracy would be solved through dissolution. Nonetheless, such a path seems improbable and its proposition presumptuous.

Conclusion: Juxtaposition of Crises and Inspirations

Upon brief inspection, it feels that the “crisis of democracy” is neither purely intrinsic nor exogenous, but aggregated. Democracy is not a definitive concept, but an evolving one. The beauty of the coexistence of different forms of democracies is that one can learn from others. As parts of the world go into their second lockdown, the government and people are given space to reflect upon what went wrong; why so many people could not be protected from the virus and why they had to resort once again to extreme measures to address it. Simultaneously, those experiencing more authoritative democracies can contemplate to what extent such attributes can be tolerated before infringing upon democracy itself. Congruently, a brief but serious crisis such as COVID-19 gives democracies the chance to begin progressively rehabilitating their relationship with the marginalized population, the natural world, and ultimately itself, by rethinking economic and institutional normalcy.

Additionally, democracies can further reinvigorate themselves by reflecting upon the archaic discussion on its practical flaws, rationalizing the relationship between professional influence and popular adamancy while precluding any return to oligarchy or full authoritarianism. Finally, democracies can take inspiration from the democratic movements in non-democratic states. The struggles in Hong Kong and Thailand are not far cries but reflexive of the crises of democracy. There, protestors are demanding for the very virtues that have been diminishing in democratic societies; governmental accountability, individual autonomy, and collective respectability, amongst others. These are the values that should first be recovered in striving to leave a better world for posterity.

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