Has democracy reached a breaking point?


Across the world, experts say democratic states are facing their biggest test in years as they attempt to cope with a loss of trust in public institutions and growing disenchantment with the political elite, CNN reports:

From Brexit to the US election and beyond, recent exercises in democracy have been driven by divisive political rhetoric, delivered razor-thin margins of victory, and led to the results being contested not only in the courts but in the streets.

“The reputations of the world’s largest democracies have been tarnished,” Arch Puddington, Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies at Freedom House, told CNN. “There may not even be a clear solution to the problem.”

“I would say that democracies have had to confront a number of important crises,” he added. “And for some of them there is no single answer.”

Mainstreaming populism

Whether populist parties win or lose depends not just on the level of popular support — which appears surprisingly consistent across countries — but also on the nature of the political system, the New York Times reports:

Even if populist parties are often too small to take power, when the correct forces align, they are powerful enough to reshape politics. This is how the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, helped bring about the British exit from the European Union.

In the wake of the French presidential election, reports of populism’s death are premature, The Economist suggests.

If we add up the votes for populist candidates in the first round – that is, all votes except those for conservative François Fillon, socialist Benoît Hamon, and centrist Emmanuel Macron – they make up at least 50%, notes Luc Rouban of Sciences Po – USPC.

This is in line with a French electoral survey carried out April 16-20 by Cevipof, demonstrating the extent to which populist ideas have taken root in the French collective imagination. The survey included five statements that allowed us to measure populist attitudes among those surveyed, he adds:

  • Parliamentarians in the National Assembly should follow the will of the people
  • The most important political decisions should be taken by the people, not by politicians
  • The political differences between ordinary citizens and elites are greater than those between ordinary citizens themselves
  • I would rather be represented by an ordinary citizen than a professional politician 
  • Politicians talk too much and do not take enough action.

“Each of these statements garnered various rates of positive answers (four or five on a scale from zero to five),” Rouban adds. “The vast majority of people agreed with the statement that parliamentarians should follow the will of the people, and that politicians talk too much and do not take enough action (80% and 84%, respectively).”

The triumphalist narrative following the French election is in danger of blinding us to the radical transformation of politics that is taking place right in front of our eyes, argues Yascha Mounk, a contributor to the [National Endowment for Democracy’s] Journal of Democracy.

Idealism beats populism?

But idealism eventually beats populism, argues Pierpaolo Barbieri, a Senior Associate at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Applied History Project. Ultimately, political parties come and go; so do ideologies, he writes for Foreign Affairs:

What is at stake in Europe’s busy 2017 electoral calendar is not merely the overhyped rise of populism, but also the electoral relevance of social democratic values in the post-industrial age. …. Yet the most likely electoral result in France, and potentially in Italy within a year, suggests that it is not yet time to throw social democracy to the dustbin of history. Deserting the center seems like a worse strategy than energizing its base with reformist, uncorrupted, future-oriented leadership.  RTWT

Populists, whether in Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, or elsewhere, have many local flavors, said Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton University who wrote a powerful essay called “What Is Populism?” in 2016, Carnegie’s Caroline de Gruyter notes:

But all have one thing in common: they claim that they, and only they, represent the people. Those who don’t agree are seen as not being part of the people. They are considered traitors and must be excluded.

“The antipluralist attitude is where the danger to democracy lies,” Müller said. “We’ve seen several attacks on the judiciary, the parliament, and other democratic institutions in the UK, France, and the Netherlands.” According to Müller, the best opposition to populists is for others to make clear that they are part of the people, too. “I am surprised how seldom this argument is used. In many countries, populists only score 20 or 30 percent, not more. . . . Sorry, that is not ‘the people.’”

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