Upheaval could lead to ‘more vibrant’ democracies – eventually


The current confrontation in Romania exemplifies the “new politics” in the era of global populism, where pushback against democratic norms by incumbent politicians is met with popular resistance, according to Isabela Mares, professor of political science at Columbia University.

But the Arab Spring’s failure to convert protests into power, the demonstrators’ inability to institutionalize indignation, highlights the shortcomings of the politics of emotional spasm.

“We can’t continue assuming that politics is something which is decided elsewhere by distant leaders in a distant capital,” says journalist Anne Applebaum (right), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Protest is insufficient too. If people who are willing to put time into demonstrations also prove willing to work on behalf of candidates in local elections — or to become candidates themselves — they will achieve far more. If all of this upheaval provokes more involvement, then we have a slim chance of ending up with more vibrant democracies eventually. The alternative, as you’ve hinted, is that democracy fails altogether.”

Democracy for losers?

If the weather vanes of political change are read correctly, we are approaching the end of a long period of biased participation, writes Jan W. van Deth, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Mannheim (Germany) and the author of “What Is Political Participation?” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics:

  • First, a “crisis” of democracy requires more than the election of some populist politician or the surprising outcome of a referendum. What seems to be refuted is the optimistic but rather naïve idea that all political development is a long march towards democracy.
  • The second issue is that even in established democracies, parts of the population have always supported authoritarian ideas. Empirical political science scrutinized this phenomenon as early as the 1950s. Recent populism largely overlaps with this old-fashioned authoritarianism.
  • Third, democratic participation is not disappearing but remains increasingly popular, especially among “critical citizens.” By now, the repertoire of participation is virtually infinite and includes actions ranging from voting, to posting blogs, and buying fair-trade products.

“Curing the most serious failure of liberal democracy—its enduring inability to involve permanent losers—is a reason for contentment,” he writes. “Yet the often xenophobic, intolerant, and ignorant nature of the present remedies can’t be neglected.”

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