Our Shifting Understanding of Democracy Is Fueling Populism and Culture Wars

Our Shifting Understanding of Democracy Is Fueling Populism and Culture Wars

For more than a century, the idea of democracy has meant a liberal democracy, where we vote for our leaders and our government rests on a defining document like the U.S. Constitution. In a liberal democracy, there is also a separation of powers between the different arms of our representative government and rule of law.

However, this is not the only way in which democratic government can be conceived and lately, we have been drifting away from that ideal.

For example, in countries like Turkey, Russia and Hungary, people have elected with large majorities authoritarian leaders who have shown a growing disdain for the norms of a liberal democracy. Despite these leaders’ claims that they uphold democracy and democratic ideology, they routinely ignore attempts to limit their power and they exert pressure on independent media to limit the public’s understanding of their decision-making. Yet for the most part, these leaders regularly seek, and often obtain, public approval of their plans through popular vote. In Turkey, for example, despite economic woes and what many people call an inadequate response to a catastrophic earthquake, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still running a tight race against Kemal Kilicdaroglu. These countries represent illiberal democracies, where power is concentrated in the executive branch of government while checks and balances of other branches are absent or severely weakened.

While the liberal aspects of democracy are disappearing in many Eastern European and South Asian nations, the relevance of the democratic vote is fading in the ones where their ideals first took root. On both sides of the Atlantic, the people who live in traditionally liberal democracies are unhappy. They feel that their votes do not matter, and that politicians ignore the issues that matter most to them. In a global economy regulated by agreements, rules and supranational institutions, the space left to democratic deliberation at the national level is shrinking. This disconnect is fueling culture wars that predominate in daily life in so many western countries, and those culture wars are leading to further erosion of liberal democracy. Akin to climate change, our societies are getting hotter, more reactive and less stable.

If it is too late to turn back the clock to legislatures that focus on policymaking and more tempered executive decision-making, then the idea of democracy will have to adapt to respond to citizens’ demands. Otherwise, we will see the collapse of the societies we have built.

The shift of the foundation of citizen-involved government in the West began in the years after the cold war. At that time, the leaders of democratic nations set in motion a seemingly irreversible process of delegating power to external rules and autonomous technocratic agencies, like the many agencies of the European Union developed in response to the deepening of the internal market in the 1990s. It was as if the fall of the iron curtain, and of the ideological confrontation that went with it, had liberated our leaders from a big chunk of political responsibilities to their electorates. This process was only nominally democratic, in the sense that democratically elected politicians were responsible for the decisions, but they rarely explicitly campaigned on them amid a generalized lack of interest for these seemingly mundane procedures of public governance in times of economic boom led by private-sector spending and private-sector employment.

In the case of the European integration, this phenomenon, labelled “permissive consensus,” was best described by the former European Union commissioner Pascal Lamy as “the people weren’t ready to agree to integration, so you had to get on without telling them too much about what was happening.” By now, EU-wide regulations, fiscal rules and a common monetary policy imply that economic policy is increasingly made in Brussels and Frankfurt, by bodies unaccountable to the citizenry, while politics, in the absence of real political integration, remains anchored to national capitals.

At the global level, nowhere is abdication of power clearer than in the decision to replace the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) with the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. The countries joining the WTO also signed into so-called trade-related intellectual property rights incorporating stringent patent and copyright rules that severely limited space for antitrust policy. They accepted the institution of international investor tribunals that notably reduced their margin to adopt policies that could affect profits of multinational corporations. And more generally, they abdicated to external rules a significant share of domestic policy responsibilities related to trade, technology and investments. The crux has been the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda in many Western democracies, creating a veritable democratic backslide.

The end result of this is the spread of populist ideas in Western countries by politicians trying to curry favor with the disenchanted masses that some of their predecessors’ decision-making created. Brexit is the perfect case in point, as the discontented among British voters were seduced by the idea of regaining a say on policy decisions that were beyond their control and the prerogative of communitarian institutions.  At the same time, the loss of authority of national governments over economic policy forced politicians to campaign over noneconomic wedge issues based on values, morality and lifestyle, which progressively became more and more salient in the public debate. It is a sense of violation of these core values that engenders culture wars, and it is the centrality acquired by noneconomic cleavages in the public debate that explains their surge after the turn of the millennium.

In the U.S., culture wars are hardly new. During the 1960s, religious conservatives and liberals—as well as nonbelievers—split along attitudes toward social and racial justice, religion and science. These divisions, rooted in profound disagreements based on culture and creeds, have largely endured. Cultural divides, however, have risen nowadays to a role in the public debate never seen before, and the January 6 invasion of Capitol Hill by a pro-Trump mob exemplifies the mutual resentment among Americans.

The ideological divide over vaccination during the COVID emergency illustrates the political relevance that noneconomic wedge issues have begun to carry. During the first cycles of the U.S. vaccination campaign, almost every blue state reached a higher vaccination rate than almost every red state, amid political interference and attempts at manipulating people.

Social media are closely associated with the diffusion of these and other divisive ideas. Their algorithms consciously amplify dangerous misinformation and privilege the most divisive content posted on the network, since this content is more frequently shared by users and foregrounding it maximizes traffic on the platform and turnover—but it inevitably breeds further division. This modus operandi, which was denounced by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, generates perverse incentives, pushing even relatively moderate users to sharpen and polarize their content to obtain visibility, and ultimately fomenting anger and distrust in institutions.

Reconciling liberalism with democracy is the challenge ahead. “Mitigating” the effects of the sensational changes in the functioning of our democracies that took place in just a few years, and returning power to the people through the bodies they elect, would represent the first-best solution, but this requires institutional transformation on a scale difficult to frame in the current fragmented societies. And it is a move that no individual country could undertake in isolation.

The only way forward, at least in the short term, is “adapting” our democracies to the new circumstances, returning full autonomy to elected governments at least in a few critical areas, such as industrial and innovation policy. This would leave our governments more freedom to experiment in economic policy, which is of great importance to absorb the multiple economic and noneconomic shocks that characterize our turbulent times. In parallel, democratically elected leaders should seek to adopt a policy framework more rooted in production and job creation. Only a framework explicitly designed to generate jobs, increase wages and reduce those inequalities that are contributing to the overheating of our societies would reduce discontent, bring citizens closer to institutions and contribute to preserving our model of democratic coexistence.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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