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Saturday, January 27, 2018
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The NY Times recently posted a video entitled “Is There Something Wrong With Democracy?“, and its worth a look. Throughout the 20th Century, it seemed as if more and more nations were casting aside their autocratic forms of governance and assuming the path of western enlightenment by adopting the institutions of representative democracy (e.g., free elections open to all adults, written constitutions and codes of laws, independent courts, limited executive powers directed by the will of legislative bodies, etc.). The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the new freedoms granted to its many constituent nations seemed to mark the final chapter of democracy’s victory.

Recall the attention that Francis Fukyama’s 1992 book “The End of History and The Last Man” gained, based on his claim that western democracy was the logical endpoint of humankind’s historical struggle to find the best way to govern nations and peoples. History was now over, the end had been reached (or was clearly in sight); liberal democracy turned out to be what sociocultural evolution had been working towards since the dawn of civilization 10,000 years ago. And yet, today, with populism on the rise throughout the world and right here at home in the USA, and with more and more developing nations affiliating themselves with an unrepentingly autocratic China, we see more and more think-pieces like the Times video and a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “How Democracies Fall Apart“.

What makes me scratch my head about all of this is that the usual suspected cause of strong-arm governments, i.e. declining economic and living conditions, isn’t really happening. For example, in 1981, 44% of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty. Today that figure is about 10%. The world economic picture in 2018 is better than it has been for quite some time. Growth is expected in almost every region. So why are so many people in the world today either unhappy as to how democracy has been treating them, or uninterested in adopting the democratic systems that not so long ago had been so good to so many?

A 2012 article from the Center for Global Development gives some strong hints why that can happen (and now IS happening!). According to a smart guy from Harvard named Ethan Kapstein, democracies

do not generally fail, for example, because of poor economic performance. In fact, the democracies that are overthrown have, on average, higher growth rates than those that are sustained over long periods of time. Some recent examples of fast growing democracies that have reversed include Russia, Venezuela, and Thailand.

However, when good economic performance is tied with increasing income and wealth inequality, the warning flags start to come out:

young democracies are often weakened by extreme levels of income inequality. Rising income inequality indicates a dysfunctional democratic state in which economic power is concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than one in which economic opportunities are widely shared and diffused.

Also, there is the problem of increasing political polarization and fragmentation, which has been getting worse and worse ever since modern communications technology popularized the internet and cheap, miniaturized computing and communicating devices tied everyone into it (although the overall problem goes beyond partisan news sources and social media and the “bubbles of political belief” they help to fuel). Kapstein talked of ethnic fragmentation and the instability created by “insider” and “outsider” tribes, but the same dynamics apply to the increasing political and economic fragmentation happening in America and other developed nations:

democratic states that are ethnically fragmented face severe challenges of institution building [that] they may be unable to overcome. Such societies are often characterized by “insider”-“outsider” tensions that are not easily resolved. As the “insiders”—the ethnically dominant group—centralize political power, the “outsiders” may find they have no alternative but to try and overthrow the regime.

So, in the USA today (along with the various nations of Western Europe where populism is shaking the foundations of democratic governance), we don’t have a problem of ethnic or religious fragmentation, as many of the younger democracies in Africa, Asia or Latin America have. However, we do increasingly have a problem of economic fragmentation caused by technology and internationalization (favoring highly educated urban populations at the expense of less educated communities in rural areas, where farms and factories are either gone or highly mechanized), along with the political fragmentation that is being made worse by communications and media technology — internet, social media, and the partisan belief-bubbles that result.

I am old enough to remember when everyone accepted the truth of what you saw and heard from the 7 o’clock news shows on CBS, NBC or ABC. Now we have hundreds if not thousands of news sources, which usually affiliate themselves into the liberal or conservative camps, and which claim their news to be accurate and the other camp’s stories to be “fake news”. Today, it has reached to the point where the phrase “fake news” has itself become fake; the whole idea has been so overused as to become meaningless. More and more words and ideas are going that route. And when that happens, how can people who disagree with each other communicate and discuss their differences? Increasingly, they don’t.

I hope that things really aren’t as bad as I am making them seem here; but recall that Hitler rose in the 1930s in the context of democracy. Democracy might be more of a “hot house flower” than the experts had suspected. It might not work so well under the social, economic, political and technological conditions that are emerging in the world today. If so, the world could be tending towards a lot of dictatorships or oligarchies like China, authoritarian states. It is at least arguable that democratic states have been less prone to using war to assert their interests, whereas kingdoms and strong-man states find it easier to use force to accomplish their goals (or go down trying). Admittedly, however, it is hard to say for sure that democracy has promoted peace, since hasn’t been around all that long, maybe 250 years, and since there still has been plenty of war involving democratic nations.

Planet Earth may be headed today towards the worst of both worlds – more war-like authoritarian states, existing in times of increasing prosperity and burgeoning technology. Under those two conditions, deadly weapons become increasingly plentiful and deliverable mass destruction weapons widely available, and there is less and less constraint on using them at will. No wonder that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists clock is now so close to midnight.

So is the prophecy of Yeats correct — can the falcon of democracy no longer hear the falconer? Can the center no longer hold? Anarchy and the blood-dimmed tide will soon be loosed upon the world?

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats wrote that poem (The Second Coming) in 1919, amidst the intellectual pessimism following the First World War. Almost one full century has passed since then, and for a period during that century, democracy and technology seemed like the lights that would end the darkness and the nightmare from which Yeat’s rough slouching beast would spawn. Are those lights now going out?

Let’s hope that something somehow reverses this trend. Let’s hope that something can re-kindle the spirit of humankind, something that can help us all to see that this is ridiculous, this spectacle of human-kind self-destructively ripping itself into shreds. I hope that it doesn’t take an undemocratic nuclear war to awaken whatever and whoever would be left after that war.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 2:54 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I too have been thinking about the U.S. and what place it will have in the world during/after Trump. But I do not necessarily think democracy has failed.
    First of all, it seems to me that “democracy” as we think about it usually has been a gov’t that has been/is a white male only dominated ruling group, no blacks, browns, or women need apply. Not necessarily the best thing, only the thing we’ve been used to and something different always brings on panic in the tho’ts and hearts of people.
    Second, I read a recent article about 11 countries in Europe getting together for some “summit” type thing and low and behold the U.S. did not participate but the meeting went on very well without Trump leading the rest of the world.
    That set me to thinking that what really may be happening is that perhaps it’s time for the U.S. to step back from the leadership role and let other countries test themselves being leaders of the world. That is not necessarily a bad idea; in fact, it may be a good idea – to give other nations a chance to lead and let the U.S. take a lesser leadership role in “ruling the world”.
    I think that if the U.S. steps back a bit, it can only help the rest of the nations (perhaps one by one) take and feel their own role in helping the world become a “one world” place instead of sit back and let the U.S. lead and the rest follow, “dumping” the major burden of decision making and leading on one country, the U.S. We are used to it; but that does not necessarily lmean it’s right and the best thing.
    This is not to say that DJT necessarily has the right approach to how he’s governing; but he may be contributing something to the entire world that he’s actually unaware of.
    Further, re the whole “populism” idea: I find myself wondering if there are not a lot of people in the world who have been used to being told what to do; as a result, they think they want to have a say in how their various countries are run; but then, when it gets right down to it, they would rather leave the decision making to the ruling elite and not take the responsibility for choices a country might make; so perhaps the ordinary people need some practice in helping to rule their countries, which would not be a bad thing.
    In addition I think as far as the U.S. is concerned: It was just too much to have had a Black leader in Obama and THEN a female leader. As I read about the leaders during my own time, I find that Black people (or Brown for that matter, to say nothing of various ethnicities), have never really been “noticeable” as leaders in the country and people are not “used” to seeing these other groups lead our country. We ourselves need some practice in seeing other groups than white males rule the country. When it comes to females seeing a female lead our country is even more different and thus not easily accepted by the general public.
    Perhaps the best thing for the U.S. would be to get rid of the electoral college and put the full burden of electing leaders of the U.S. in the votes of the general public.
    In addition, yes, I agree that democracies are weakened when the rulers are the 1% and the 99% have little or nothing to say. So, why not give the general public chance to have the burden of actually themselves electing the president?
    All this together leads me to wonder if all this “chaos” that seems to be going on in our country may not be an indication of a change coming in the form of a one-world/one-earth, global rule; and we are privileged to be those who get to see the very beginnings of such a movement.
    I’m currently reading Michael Wolff’s (sp?) book Fire and Fury on the last election and many of those who have come and gone in the first year of the new administration. While, yes, I agree that anything can happen, even the worst; yet I also think that there is much currently going on that may be a good thing for the world as a whole, whether DJT and the rest of the country are aware of it all. I prefer to cast my hopes and energies toward a positive result emerging eventually. After all, every real change that has taken place in any area of life always has its moments of chaos, which brings on anxiety and fear that things will not work out. I hope it is the very beginning of something good happening. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 28, 2018 @ 10:51 pm

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