Democracy in trouble

DSC_0425 (2)First time published in Dagsavisen 23 April

In the broader picture, democracies are still the richest, most peaceful and least corrupt countries in the world. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, when nearly 100 countries suddenly embraced democracy, most people believed that we would soon experience a world of peaceful democracies. Instead we ended up with a number of “hybrid-regimes” – which in practice are very many different regime types that are neither totalitarian nor completely democratic. It is enough to point to Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and Venezuela to get the point.

The mediocre West
The Economist has singled out two main causes for why democracy is in trouble: the financial crisis from 2007-2008 and China’s explosive economic growth. Where democratically elected leaders of the West have led their countries into historical economic difficulty, China’s undemocratic leaders have done the complete opposite. Most Chinese people are happy and shake their heads over how democracies in the West slow down economic growth and produce war-mongering, promiscuous and mediocre leaders.

In large parts of Africa we see clearly how more and more political leaders lean towards the east. While the “western” World Bank demands extensive reforms to provide loans, one can far more easily get loans from China. While the “western” tradition for human rights and prosecution wants to arrest African leaders, China wants to cooperate. In short, the democratic role models from the West seems outdated, dysfunctional and at the same time morally know-it-all’s. New and weak states will generally follow the example of the one who currently does best, and as for now that is China.

Disconnected Political Parties
In Europe, political parties have lost their roots to the people. Political parties have always been democracy’s most important instruments to integrate and mobilize the population in political development. In the UK the British Caravan clubs have more members than all the political parties combined. In Norway only five percent of the population are members of political parties. It is till above the European average.

At the same time it is apparent that the few political parties that are actually vital is more ideologically extreme than before. Increased support for xenophobic parties in France, the Netherlands and Greece is a widespread backlash in Europe against what many consider to be an undemocratic technocratic takeover by EU of countries such as Greece and Italy.

The parties’ decline has several causes. Increased welfare, increased individualism that produce faithless voters, decline in collective engagement such as unions and religious groups, and political think thanks with an urban elite recruitment that deals with the development of most political ideas. At the same time it is unrealistic to believe that most people will get involved and commit to entire party programs.

However, it is important to remember that political parties have always changed. From being elite-driven in the early 1900s, through being class-based mass parties in the postwar era, to being so-called catch-all parties that dimmed down ideology and focused on good governance for all- but according to the recognized scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair the main cause of the split we observe between the political parties and the grassroots is what they call “cartel parties”.

Because of a tremendous increase in state funding of parties (in Norway about half a billion annually) the parties no longer need to be concerned with membership fees and ideological engagement of the grassroots. The parties currently in power have developed a financing system that ensures their existence anyways and that also makes it difficult for new parties to fight their way up. Thus all the prevailing parties have a vested interest in continuing this “cartel system”.

According to Katz and Mair, political parties today are more an integral part of the state apparatus than responsive instruments of civil society. Politics are shaped by political consultants, hired PR-people, exclusive think thanks and professional politicians with similar backgrounds and whom all benefit from the current arrangement. If the political dynamic stop flowing from the grassroots and civil society and only circulates on the top, trust and engagement for democracy may deteriorate and fade away. Politics have also shifted from being about mobilizing voters to questions about persuasion. Thus one uses millions of state aid to hire communication agencies that apparently master this. It is perhaps not too surprising that more and more former politicians ends up in precisely the communication industry.

In other words, both the geopolitical power shift towards the East, and the internal development in the West, has put democracy under pressure. Future cuts in welfare services and increasing competition from emerging states will continue to challenge democratic values in the West. Russia’s indifference towards the UN Charter and our shared values is the final blow. What can be done to revitalize democracy?

Dire need for innovation
Some advocates making political parties more dependent upon their members. Others believe the case is lost and that one needs new democratic mechanisms to engage the people directly. In a time where one can easily express own opinions to tens of thousands of people online and vote in various surveys in seconds, traditional voting may seem static and outdated. One will have to find new mechanisms that bridge the gap between popular engagement and the political structures that exist today. But finding the balance between strong institutions and safeguarding human rights, elected politicians and technocrats, democracy and effective governance is exceptionally difficult. Add to this that many of the worlds new democracies operate in unstable regions, with little control over own territory, weak economies and great needs, democracy may seem unrealistic.

Democracy – both as system and norms – does not sell as well as it did twenty years ago. The Arabic Spring’s shattered illusions only reinforce this impression. Democracy is not “an established fact” and it is about time that we realize just how fragile it is – both at home and abroad.

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