Is Western democracy ‘threatening suicide’?


Credit: Intelligence Squared


The decline of Europe’s center-left has allowed populists to make inroads, which is a problem for democracy, argues Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College and the author of the forthcoming “Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Regime to the Present Day.” During the postwar decades, social democracy promoted solidarity and a sense of shared national purpose so as to avoid the fractures that undermined European democracy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she writes for The New York Times:

In contrast to Communists, who exclusively focused on class conflict, the center-left built bridges between workers and others. And in contrast to the individualism of classical liberals and many conservatives, the center-left’s emphasis was on citizens’ obligations to one another and the government’s duty to promote the good of society.

By the late 20th century, however, this understanding of social democracy’s goals had been largely abandoned. Some failed to address concerns generated by social and cultural change, either out of lack of understanding or out of a hope that solving economic problems would make them disappear. Others uncritically embraced these changes, promoting both cosmopolitanism and the interests and cultural distinctiveness of minority groups. This camp became associated with the politically deadly idea that strong national identities were anachronistic, even dangerous, and citizens made uneasy by their erosion were bigots.

“If the Social Democrats and other center-left parties are unable once again to offer voters solutions to the challenges their countries face, their decline will continue, populism will flourish and democracy will decay,” adds Berman, a frequent contributor to the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy.

Democracy is also confronted by an authoritarian resurgence, analysts suggest. Authoritarianism Goes Global explains how Russia, China, and other authoritarian countries have used the soft-power and multilateral coalitions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to change the global norms contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, notes one observer.

Democracies and autocratic regimes like have witnessed an upsurge in protests driven by a diversity of issues, grievances and popular concerns, notes a prominent analyst. Some protests aim very directly to eject a government or regime from power – think of the on-going revolts in Venezuela that have been seeking a ‘recall referendum’ on President Nicolas Maduro’s continuation in office, argues Richard Youngs, senior associate on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy and Rule of Law program, and professor of international relations at Warwick University in the UK

Some revolts push for other types of less dramatic democratic reforms – like the protests in Iraq in 2016 that pressed for a fairer power-sharing democracy or those in Latin America seeking more extensive rights for indigenous minorities, he writes for Open Democracy:

Some focus more on cases of corruption – recent Brazilian and Indian protests being two of the best-known such examples. Many protests in the West have been primarily against austerity cuts – those in Greece and Spain being emblematic of this type of mobilisation. Others are less precise and more generically against capitalism and neoliberalism – like the various national versions of the Occupy movement. In contrast, some protests are responses to very specific, local grievances and have relatively modest aims – a growing number of protests in Russia fit into this category, for example.

There remains a tendency for activists and analysts to see protests through the prism of their own particular set of concerns. For those working on or exercised by corruption, the current protest surge represents a global struggle against corruption. For democracy campaigners and experts, it is a new uprising in favour of democracy. For critics of capitalism and neo-liberalism, it is part of a growing anti-capitalist revolt. For environmentalists, it tends to be interpreted as an outgrowth of campaigning on natural resource exploitation and mining rights.

“Western Democracy Is Threatening Suicide.”

The casual indifference to democracy’s virtues that I saw in Russia and Iraq is gaining a foothold, and also in some of our fellow democracies as well, as some 24 percent of millennials (polled in 2011) consider democracy a “bad” or “very bad” way to run things, while 26 percent consider it “unimportant” whether people can “choose their leaders in free elections,” notes John Donvan of Intelligence Squared:

That argument will be put forward by French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy and Harvard’s Yascha Mounk (right), who, of course, will meet stiff resistance, and a counter-argument. The Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake and Bloomberg journalist Clive Crook are two confirmed believers in the resiliency of American and European institutions of democracy. Listen, think, and vote this Tuesday, at 7PM ET.


Regrettably, many Americans have lost faith in their fellow citizens and their capacity for democracy, said David Skaggs  (D-CO, 1987-1999) upon receiving the Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Former Members of Congress (left):

Just one in three Americans say that they have at least a “good deal of confidence in the wisdom of the American people when it comes to making political decisions,” down from 57% in 2007 and 64% in 1997. An increasing number of our fellow citizens dislike, or even loathe, supporters of the other political party. Respect for the First Amendment rights of others is fraying. When you combine distrust for major institutions with distrust of our fellow citizens, the result is a declining support for the concept of democracy itself.

“What can we do to heal the divides, overcome this polarization and distrust and so have a chance to increase civic participation? How will people come to understand and respect that a necessity for compromise is built into our constitutional system?’” Skaggs asked.

“One very important potential remedy is to restore to the nation’s schools their core civic mission,” he suggested. ‘For nearly two hundred years, public education has had a special responsibility, equal in importance to preparation for higher education and a career. That was, and should still be, to teach the knowledge and skills needed to be good citizens.” RTWT

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