President Barack Obama has called on Americans to defend democracy in his farewell speech in Chicago, warning “democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted.”
“Democracy can buckle when it gives into fear,” he said. “So just as we as citizens must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against weakening the values that make us who we are.”
“A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism …. are testing our democracy,” Obama added. He also took note of overseas threats including “violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam” and “autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power.”
His words echoed concerns expressed earlier in the day at a forum organized by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, which heard Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk argue that recent political trends in Europe and the United States raise fresh concerns about the fragility of advanced liberal democracies. Building on his article, “The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect,” in the July 2016 Journal of Democracy, co-authored with Roberto Foa, Mounk previewed survey evidence from the January 2017 Journal of Democracy indicating that citizen disillusion with democratic governance – especially among younger citizens – serves as an “early warning sign” even in states where analysts insisted democracy had been fully “consolidated.”
The threat to democracy is even worse than Mounk suggests, said Stanford University’s Larry Diamond (left). The conventional academic wisdom that “democracies are impregnable and can be expected to live forever” once countries attained per-capita income of $6000 (in 1985 purchasing power parity dollars), associated with Adam Przeworski, et al., had come back to haunt us, he suggested.
The celebrated sociologist and political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset had highlighted the close relationship between democratic legitimacy and government effectiveness, Diamond noted. While legitimacy could be held in reserve during periods of poor performance, it can prove to be exhaustible resource in the face of consistent government dysfunction. The changing nature of work in the face of automation and artificial intelligence, hyper-inequality and a slew of other factors highlighted in the NIC’s Paradox of Progress report were further threats to democratic governance, Diamond added.
Brookings analyst William Galston (right) adopted a slightly more optimistic tone, drawing a distinction between principle-based and performance-based legitimacy. While Americans have good grounds for dissatisfaction with government performance across many fields, US history suggests that principled commitment and institutional checks and balances tend to counter illiberal shifts in public opinion and to correct or veto leaders’ authoritarian inclinations.
The NED panelists expressed frustration at the degree of political polarization and the deterioration of civic discourse, issues that were addressed by Obama in his farewell speech.
“Politics is a battle of ideas. That’s how our democracy was designed. In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them,” the president said. “But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other,” he added:
A faith in reason and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, that allowed us to build a post-World War II order with other democracies. An order based not just on military power or national affiliations, but built on principles, the rule of law, human rights, freedom of religion and speech and assembly and an independent press.