Comment: The Sad Decline of Democracy
ROME -- The last world survey on the strength of democracy went totally ignored, except for the New York Times, which did publish a special report. And yet the World Values Survey, a respected research association with the United Nations, conducted the survey and the data of the 2015 survey are extremely worrying.
In the United States, the number of Americans who approve the idea of “having the arm rule”, has gone from one in 15, in 1995, to one in six. And while, among those born before World War II, a strong 72% assigned living in a democracy the highest value on a scale of one to ten, for those born after 1980, less than 30% did.
The proportion of Europeans was scarcely greater at 32%, among those also born after 1980. And it was even smaller in Eastern Europe (24%.). The main concerns were the level of income, a secure job, a possible pension, all of which rated as more important than the type of regime under which to live.
To this, there is of course a generational explanation. Democracy was a victory, a treasure on which to build, for those who lived the horrors of the Second World War. Younger generations have only an intellectual idea of what it means to live under a dictatorship, not a living experience. As Altiero Spinelli said, now everybody sleeps without fear of being woken at night.
But in fact the debate is much more complex. It is taken as a self-evident truth that once a country becomes democratic, an alternative system of government is no longer possible, because citizens look to democracy as the only legitimate form of governance. And democracy is perceived as synonymous with economic and social growth.
Once China will have a consistent middle class, went the theory, it will necessarily go into a multiparty system. But in fact, there is now a growing school of thought about the shortcomings and inefficiency of democracy.
After the Chilean military government, periodically someone commended the advantages of the “Chilean model”, and now does the same over the “Chinese model”, much more efficient and productive than the cumbersome process that democracy requires.
In Europe itself, we have a Prime Minister of an ex-communist country, Viktor Orban of Hungary, who makes public statements proclaiming the obsolescence of parliamentarian democracy. And Orban has been elected in free elections.
Russia of course, is a more strident case. Putin, who is the paramount model of autocracy, enjoys popular support close to 80%. And it is under reported that the right wings leaders of Europe, from Le Pen to Salvini, look to Putin as a model, and make public statements to that effect.
It is high time to reflect over the causes for the decline in the credibility of political institutions. Is it just a generational problem, or is it also that the legitimacy of the political system is more and more under question?
When you look at the cost of the presidential campaign of the United States, which will be close to 4 billion dollars, and you learn that a small pool of rich donors dominates election giving (130 families and their business have provided more than half of the money raised through June by Republican candidates), it is difficult to see there the vibrant democracy, the lighthouse of the world, that American rhetoric claims at every moment.
A survey quoted by the NYT, by the political scientist Martin Giles and Benjamin I. Page over the past 30 years, found that while interest groups and economic elites were very influential, the views of ordinary citizens had virtually no impact. Their conclusion: “In the United States, the majority does not rule”.
In the World Values Survey, one third of Americans now tend toward the low end of the 10 point scale on the statement: the United States of America is ”not at all democratic”. And the original challenge between the two scions of political dynasties, Hillary Clinton and Jeff Bush, has been overtaken by outsiders, like a completely unpredictable and unrestrained Donald Trump for the Republicans, and a socialist candidate (an anathema in the US), Bernie Sanders.
This unprecedented development shows the growing disconnect between citizens and traditional politics. The same surprises have come in Europe with Corbyn in England, Tsipras in Greece, and it is doubtful that the traditional parties will be a majority in Spain. Until now, only the right wing parties kept increasing. The fascist Golden Dawn is not third in Greece...
The two fault lines in the European Community – the divide between North Europe and South Europe over the model of economic governance, (austerity versus development), and the divide between West Europe and East Europe over solidarity (refugees) – is obscuring the problem of legitimacy of the European institutions.
The fact that at night in Brussels a few people decide the destiny of millions of citizens, without any consultation (the referendum of its citizens cost Greece dearly), is creating a third divide, deeper and more serious than the other two.
The case of Greece was preceded by Cyprus, which was an example of lack of accountability and transparency. Embarrassed Eurocrats (among them Draghi) had to acknowledge that they took a wrong decision, and make a U-turn, always by twisting the arm of the government.
And the fact that the two first Greek bailouts were basically conceived to bail out the French and German banks, with very little going to the Greek economy, has increased the perceptions of citizens that banks are more important than people.
This year, the number of bankers who received over a million euro was 3,178, and of those 2,086 were in Great Britain. But in reality the majority got over 2 million euro. Nine, in Great Britain, made over 10 million euro...And if we look to millionaires, they reached 920.000 in 2014. The people with a liquid wealth (in addition to house and other properties) of over 1 million dollars in the last Report on Wealth in the World, went to 14.6 millions in 2014, an increase of 7% over 2013.
What is new is that in the last years, very conservative institutions, like the international Monetary Fund have been warning that the growth of a social gap constitutes a brake on economic growth, echoing a study by the OECD.
The last study of the IMF warns about the reduction of the middle class and the increase of poor and rich, but of course in very different numbers. And interestingly, the World Values Survey, found out that 40% of rich Americans approve of having a “strong leader who doesn't have to bother with Congress or elections”; they numbered 20% in 1995.
This decline of the middle class is accompanied by a polarization in politics, and the constant growth of extremist and xenophobe parties, which now gather votes from workers and the less fortunate, who once voted to the left. And this is completely changing the political landscape.
Who would have believed that Denmark, one of the few countries in the World that dedicated 1% of its budget to development aid (United States is at 0.2%), would reject any refugee on its soil, under the pressure of its right wing party? And that Hungary would resort to actions that are reminiscent of Nazi times? And that all Eastern Europe openly declares they are in the European Union to get, but not to give anything?
The democratic system took its legitimacy from its ability to support values like justice and solidarity, and the general development of Society. There are no historical precedents to tell us what will happen when citizens go into a social and economic decline over decades, and youth do not see a clear future.
But there are historical precedents to tell us that Society in crisis slips easily into populist and authoritarian regimes, especially if the rich elites support that road.
It should by now be clear to all that the system is broken, and clearly needs fixing. But will this declining democracy, with so few statesmen and so many politicians, be able to provide the fix? This a question that we need, unfortunately, to start to address...
*Founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News