Democracy in Decline
Written by Mario Gomez
The terms of freedom and democracy are often perceived as interchangeable, and yet are no more synonymous than rich and poor, or liberal and conservative. Democracy is a slippery term for which there is no clear consensus. And how it should be defined and measured is a strongly contested debate around a political system that appears to be in decline.
According to the most recent Democracy Index, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit for The Economist, democracy—the political system we swear by—is under substantial stress and declining in popularity. Many of us take democracy for granted, and are comfortable with the vast interplay of interests jockeying for our attention through the media, public presentation and showmanship. Most of us would probably agree that the fundamental features of democracy are centered around concepts like majority rule, free consent of the populace, free and fair elections, access to public records and data, protection of basic human and civil rights, due process, equity before the law, political pluralism, as well as the right to free expression. So it may surprise us to learn how few of our fellow world citizens enjoy these privileges.
The Democracy Index categorizes the vast majority of the world population— approximately seven billion, divided among 165 independent states and two territories— into one of four types of regimes: full democracies; flawed democracies; hybrid regimes ; and authoritarian regimes. Only 11.3 percent of the world participates in “full” democracies, and nations like the US, the UK, and Spain are hard pressed to even qualify for their low category scores on Functioning Government, Political Participation, and the over all Political Culture.
Authoritarian regimes dominate the world, as they represent 37.6 percent of the global populace. We can only say that the majority of the world is democratic if we buy the hype that a “flawed” democracy (37.1 percent of GP) is something more than a catch all category so as to help democracy save face.
A glance at the category scores under flawed democracies shows 53 countries where the populaces are neither involved, well-informed, or confident in the electoral process and the functionality of government. Electoral frauds and violence are common. Policies in some euro zone governments are no longer being determined by national legislatures and elected politicians, but by official creditors—i.e., the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. A pattern that only serves to further diminish public confidence in democratic institutions as a whole.
If the thought of a dictator frightens us, a flawed democracy should terrify us. Dictators who reside over authoritarian regimes are precisely what they seem—long serving, geriatric leaders who oppose dissent. Typical for these regimes are human rights abuses and the absence of basic freedoms, rampant corruption and nepotism, with small groups or politburos who control most of the nation’s assets. Speech and artistic
expression are censured, and due process of law is often subject to the dictator’s whims.
On the one hand authoritarian regimes are easy scapegoats for all that is errant in the world—terrorism, poverty, mass genocide, all the way to economic stagnation and war. On the other hand in authoritarian situations like Hosni Mubarak, who ruled in Egypt for
29 years, or Zine El Abidine Ben Al, who ruled in Tunisia for 23 years, or Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled in Yemen since 1978, or Muammar al-Gaddafi, who ruled Libya for more than 40 years, or finally the Castro brothers of Cuba who have been around for more than half a century, despite all their failings, at least the citizens under these regimes could and can put a name and a face to their oppressors. Whether their affairs flourished or floundered they knew precisely who to celebrate or blame. A claim that most democracies, flawed or full, cannot make.
The idea of democracy is liberal and beautiful for its strong associations to freedom, equality, and possibility, unhindered by the restraints of coercion and censorship. But democracy, like the global economy, adheres fervently to The General Theory of Second Best. A theory that convincingly demonstrates that the attainment of a paretian optimum—i.e., the essential inputs that make democracy desirable and actual—requires the simultaneous fulfillment of all the optimum conditions (e.g., free and fair elections, informed populace, political pluralism, etc.). According to this general theorem for a second best optimum position—a mediocre or “flawed” democracy—if they are introduced into the general equilibrium system a constraint which prevents the attainment of one of the paretian conditions, the other paretian conditions, although still attainable, are generally no longer desirable.
If we determine that democracy is dependent upon the nine fundamental features discussed earlier, and if for whatever reason these features become corrupt, then the attainment of the other features will not deliver us to a second best scenario of democratic bliss. In fact there is no path to second best other than to acknowledge that once we depart from one paretian condition, that we must then depart from all others.
The populace under an authoritarian regime main lack many of the liberties we take for granted, but they at least understand who is to blame for their social ills. Despite popular opinion there is indeed justice under a dictatorship. Just ask Hosni Mubarak. His democratic equivalent is entrusted with all the state’s powers and none of the responsibilities. Democracy engenders a form of limited-liability leadership that leaves the public feeling bamboozled every time their elected-officials steal, lie, or cheat their way into office or out of disgrace. Under democracy the public forfeits their revolutionary card, their only viable threat and power to keep leaders honest.
We could protest and strike, on occasion exercise a recall, but because we are bound by necessity and we don’t control the media, the fact that we can say what we want doesn’t necessarily make us better off than the Cubans, Chinese, or the Egyptians. It’s all relative to our expectations, and whether or not we as the majority are able to control the heading of our government.
Ironically, despite our democratic failings, democracy as a value still celebrates strong universal appeal worldwide. Surveys show that most people in most places still want democracy. In other words, we sell it well even if we don’t know how to use it. As the report states, “Democracy means more than holding elections; it requires the development of a range of supported institutions and attitudes.” The argument is that even an imperfect or flawed democracy would be better than authoritarianism, but the global democratic decline doesn’t suggest as much.
Democracy’s popularity from 1974 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had many believing that it would sweep the globe. There has been, however, a decline in democracy across the world in recent years. The decades-long global trend has met a sort of “democratic recession” as Larry Diamond expressed in 2008.
The last five years, in particular, have seen backsliding on previously attained progress in democratization. The global financial crisis in 2008 only served to exacerbate the trend. Media freedoms are trampled upon by monied interests not only across Latin America, but throughout most of the democratic world, due in part to the consolidation of media conglomerates.
In the developed West, we see a precipitous decline in political participation, weakness in the functioning of government (Congressional stalemates and manufactured crisis), and security-related violations on civil liberties, that have us questioning whether we are living under a form of democratic oppression, suffering under the illusion of freedom.
Gallup polls and other findings indicates that even in full democracies less than one fifth trust political parties or the politicians they parade before us. And personally I have never been given or shown a reason to trust politicians or statesmen.
I have spoken to several—as a professional financial guru; or as a philanthropist and critic—and have arrived at the conclusion that people typically enter politics because they have little talent for anything else, are hypnotized by the democratic facade of righteousness and equality, or because power is the aphrodisiac to life.
Either way I am always reminded that in our century the state has given us most of our nightmares. As Anthony Burgess recently wrote for The New Yorker, “War departments think in terms of megadeaths, while it is as much as the average man can do to entertain dreams of killing the boss. The modern state, whether in a totalitarian or democratic country, has far too much power,”—and as I will add, ‘and none of the responsibility’—and we are probably right to fear it.
About the Author: Mario Gómez is a multinational participator in the world. He often refers to himself as a capitalist and opportunist turned humanist; and other times as a warrior in search of his personal legend. He is spiritual but not religious; an aficionado of debate; an advocate of social reform towards all that is self-sustaining, responsible and egalitarian; and, ultimately, a man who knows Defeat as well as he knows himself. Professionally his expertise resides in finance—brokerage, asset management, estate planning, and venture capital—from NYC, Mexico City, to Medellin. An abbreviated career that introduced him to the obdurate underworlds of the Western Hemisphere, a world of survival by dominance. A culmination of experiences he brought forth in his first novel, The Consigliere (2011).