Who gives a damn about democracy?

Politics
Democracy
this isn't democracy

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The last world survey on the strength of democracy went totally ignored, except by the New York Times, which published a special report. And yet the 2015 data collected by the World Values Survey, a respected research association with the United Nations, is extremely worrying.



In the US, the number of Americans who approve the idea of ‘having the army rule’ has increased from 1 in 15 in 1995 to 1 in 6 now. And while a strong 72 per cent of those born before World War Two assigned living in a democracy the highest value on a scale of 1 to 10, for those born after 1980, less than 30 per cent did.

The proportion of Europeans opting for democracy was scarcely greater, at 32 per cent among those born after 1980. And it was even smaller in eastern Europe, at 24 per cent. Their main concerns were income level, job security and a possible pension – all of which rated higher than the type of regime under which to live.

To this, there is of course a generational explanation. Democracy was a victory, a treasure on which to build, for those who lived through the horrors of the Second World War. Younger generations have only an intellectual idea of what it means to live under a dictatorship, not a lived experience. As founding father of the European Union Altiero Spinelli said, now everybody sleeps without fear of being woken at night.

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Cumbersome, inefficient?

But in fact the debate is much more complex. It is taken as a self-evident truth that once a country becomes democratic, an alternative system of government is no longer possible, because citizens look to democracy as the only legitimate form of governance. And democracy is perceived as synonymous with economic and social growth.

Once China has a consistent middle class, went the theory, it will necessarily move to a multiparty system. But there is now a growing school of thought about the shortcomings and inefficiency of democracy.

From time to time, someone used to commend the advantages of the ‘Chilean model’ (based on Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 military dictatorship); now they do the same about the ‘Chinese model’, considered much more efficient and productive than the cumbersome process that democracy requires.

In Europe itself, we have a Prime Minister of an ex-communist country, Viktor Orban of Hungary, who makes public statements proclaiming the obsolescence of parliamentary democracy. And Orban was elected in free elections.

Russia, of course, is a more strident case. President Vladimir Putin, who is the paramount model of autocracy, enjoys popular support close to 80 per cent. And it is under-reported that rightwing European leaders, from France’s Marine Le Pen to Italy’s Matteo Salvini, look to Putin as a model – and make public statements to that effect.


It is high time to reflect on the causes for the decline in the credibility of political institutions. Is it just a generational problem, or is it also that the legitimacy of the political system is more and more in question?

When you look at the cost of the US presidential campaign, which will be close to $4 billion, and you learn that a small pool of rich donors dominates election-giving (130 families and their businesses provided more than half of the money raised by Republican candidates in the first eight months of the campaign), it is difficult to see the vibrant democracy, the lighthouse of the world, that US rhetoric claims at every moment.

A 30-year survey, quoted in the New York Times, by political scientists Martin Giles and Benjamin Page, found that while interest groups and economic elites were very influential, the views of ordinary citizens had virtually no impact. Their conclusion: ‘In the US, the majority does not rule.’

Growing disconnect

In the World Values Survey, a third of Americans now tend toward the high end of the 10-point scale on the statement: ‘The US is not at all democratic.’ And the original contest between those scions of political dynasties, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, in the presidential race has been overtaken by outsiders, including the completely unpredictable and unrestrained Donald Trump for the Republicans, and a socialist candidate (until now an anathema in the US), Bernie Sanders.

This unprecedented development shows the growing disconnect between citizens and traditional politics. The same surprises have come in Europe, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour Party leadership in Britain, Alexis Tsipras’s leftwing Syriza party governing in Greece, and anti-austerity Podemos heralding the death of two-party politics in Spain.

The two fault lines in the European Union – between northern and southern Europe over the model of economic governance (austerity versus development) and between western and eastern Europe over solidarity (refugees) – are obscuring the problem of legitimacy of the European institutions.

Democracy was a victory, a treasure on which to build, for those who lived through the horrors of the Second World War

The fact that a few people in Brussels decide the destiny of millions of citizens, without any consultation (the referendum of its citizens cost Greece dearly) is creating a third divide, deeper and more serious than the other two.

The case of Greece was preceded by that of Cyprus – an example of lack of accountability and transparency. Embarrassed Eurocrats (among them head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi) had to acknowledge that they took a wrong decision in managing the Cypriot financial crisis, and made a U-turn, by twisting the arm of the government.

And the fact that the first two Greek bailouts were basically conceived to bail out the French and German banks, with very little going to the Greek economy, has increased the perceptions of citizens that banks are more important than people.

Political polarization

In 2015, the number of bankers who were paid more than €1 million was 3,178. Of these, 2,086 were in Britain. The majority received over €2 million; nine made over €10 million.

And if we look to dollar millionaires, globally they reached 920,000 in 2014.

What is new is that in recent years, very conservative institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been warning that the growth in social inequality constitutes a brake on economic growth, echoing a study by the OECD.

The most recent IMF study warns about the reduction of the middle class and the increasing numbers both of the very poor and the very rich. Interestingly, the World Values Survey found that 40 per cent of rich Americans approve having a ‘strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with Congress or elections’. In 1995, they numbered 20 per cent.

The decline of the middle class is accompanied by a polarization in politics, and the constant growth of extremist and xenophobic parties, which now gather votes from workers and the less fortunate, who once voted to the Left. This is completely changing the political landscape.

Who would have believed that Denmark, one of the few countries in the world that dedicated one per cent of its budget to development aid (the US figure is 0.2 per cent), would reject any refugee on its soil, under the pressure of its rightwing party? Or that Hungary would resort to actions that are reminiscent of Nazi times? Or that eastern European countries openly would declare that they are in the EU to get, but not to give anything?

The democratic system took its legitimacy from its ability to support values like justice and solidarity, and the general development of society. There are no historical precedents to tell us what will happen when citizens go into a social and economic decline over decades, and youth do not see a clear future.

But there are historical precedents to tell us that a society in crisis slips easily into populist and authoritarian regimes, especially if the rich elites support that road.

It should by now be clear to all that the system is broken, and clearly needs fixing. But will this declining democracy, with so few statespeople and so many politicians, be able to provide the fix? This a question that we need, unfortunately, to address.

Roberto Savio is the founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News. This article originally appeared in Other News and is reprinted with permission.

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