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2017 Year of Action: The Dangers of Democratic Rollback and our Responses

2017 Year of Action: The Dangers of Democratic Rollback and our Responses

The repudiation of establishment authority and the rise of populist forces have prompted many liberals to worry that democracy is in decline. Is there a basis for real concerns or are these quibbles of “sore losers”? After all, isn’t political turnover—whether it’s the Democrats in the U.S. being ejected from power or the UK choosing to jettison the EU project—part and parcel of democracy? You win some, you lose some. Everyone gets a chance in the next cycle. Yes, it hurts being on the losing side. But Republicans have felt it for the past eight years. Seeing that democracy is the only game town, what are we to worry about… right? 

On the contrary, we should be very worried.

It is fallacy to think that democracy, once established, will persist for time immemorial. As globalization commentator Moises Naim observed, democratic systems can be dismantled and degraded—meaning that the “core,” “liberal” and “self-governing” features of democratic systems such as civic participation, civil society, rule of law, and institutional checks and balances can be constrained and manipulated by political winners. Citing the example of Venezuela, Naim points out that while in the 1990s commentators lauded the consolidation of democracy there, political actors reengineered the rules of democracy to be less democratic in order to help the incumbent stay in power. Politics can influence the quality of democratic systems.

The danger is not so much of ruling governments replacing the political system–although that could be dangerous, too—for it requires too much political capital. Many countries adopt some form of democratic system, whether liberal or illiberal, mainly because among other things, they see the utility of legitimacy in the system. Democracy scholar Thomas Carothers even pointed out that democracy remains the preferred choice of political systems among people globally. In fact, the number democracies have remained relatively constant since the late 1990s and early 2000s – with the caveat that we include liberal and illiberal democracies. The real danger is that political regimes qualitatively adulterate democratic systems—that is, liberal democracies back slide into illiberal democracies and illiberal democracies further slide into authoritarian tendencies.

Democracy is not in decline, but being challenged. We can already see this rollback against democratic institutions globally. In the U.S., the Trump agenda threatens the equality and dispensation of peoples’ rights, the ethical norms of executive office, and the freedom of the press to hold government officials accountable. But other countries don’t experience the potential of democratic rollback occurring, they experience it actually occurring. India, lauded as the world’s biggest democracy, has employed laws to regulate and stifle the work of civil society organizations. Malaysia, a hybrid regime, is leaning less towards democratic tendencies as exemplified by intensified crackdown on political dissent and opposition using sophisticated legal mechanisms to detain and jail civil society leaders and opposition politicians. In Kenya, police have been reported using excessive force with limited culpability, and there has been selective constraints on freedom of the press and assembly.

A clear trend emerges: the inner sanctum of a democracy—citizens participating in civic action, equality under law, and political expression—risks or is being hollowed out from the electoral shell of democracy. Journalist Fareed Zakaria noted this danger: “In the West, two traditions — liberty and law on the one hand, and popular participation on the other — became intertwined, creating what we call liberal democracy. It [is] even clearer now, that in a number of countries — including Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Iraq and the Philippines — the two strands have come apart. Democracy persists (in many cases), but liberty is under siege. In these countries, the rich and varied inner stuffing of liberal democracy is vanishing, leaving just the outer, democratic shell.”

There are strategic reasons why governments have of late been assaulting the soft underbelly of democracy. Firstly, their mandate, ideology and constituents may be incompatible with the potential products democracy brings. Democracy entails diversity and decision-making, and is often associated with liberalism, the progressive arc of history, international economic integration and multiculturalism. But diversity may be an affront to conservatism, homogeneity and traditionalism. As new gatekeepers, governments can redesign the gates in order to mitigate what comes in and out.

Secondly, it helps ruling governments tilt the political system towards their favor in order to retain power. Tilting the level playing field—whether changing electoral maps or limiting civil society space – can advantage ruling regimes in electoral competitions.

Some quarters may push back and assert that “tweaking” the democratic system is part of the democratic process, reflects the will of the “majority”—or Electoral College—and has been done by previous governments, both liberal and conservative. After all, didn’t the previous Democratic administration undertake measures to alter the democratic contours of the country as well? Two recent incidents come to mind: the 2013 Senate decision to allow simple majority votes to thwart filibusters on executive-office and judicial nominees; and the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to recognize same-sex marriage.  

Let’s be clear: Republicans have their policy priorities on health care and immigration. Fine. But presidential overreach, transgression of transparency laws, and singling out and discriminating against opposition and segments of the population – actions that disregard the standard behavior and norms of democracy – merit resistance. As Dartmouth political science professor, Brendan Nyhan, points out: “These aren't Democrat-versus-Republican issues. They're about the norms of our democratic system in contemporary American society, and I think we always have to keep that distinction in mind.”

So established democracy can be rollbacked. How do we respond? By galvanizing the features that enamored Alexis de Tocqueville to American democracy: taking civic action, engaging in our communities and civil society, and exercising political power. Democracy works and is strengthened when the “self-governing” features are functioning. Participation in protests, discussions, community activities, civic responsibilities and political organizing enriches the public discourse, puts political pressure on public officials, and puts a human touch on an otherwise increasingly media-centric and elite democratic system. The latter is important because people increasingly feel that democracy no longer works for them and that their role is to fill in the ballots every few years with no real effect on the system. Democracy is a dynamic configuration made up of many constituent parts, and people have the agency to reclaim and reshape the system according to the needs of times.  

Of course, being more active in civic and public life is not the panacea against potential and actual democratic rollback. Democracy is an inherently political game. Taking up memberships of advocacy groups or volunteering at cooperatives will not do much to guard against the erosion of democratic institutions. Combining civic participation and politics do. If you’re not happy with certain policies or conducts of political leaders, reach out to your elected representatives and let your thoughts be known. Need more bang for the buck? Get groups you’re associated with to engage with your representatives. It is by combining active citizenry participation and political calculus that potent results can be achieved. We all want optimal policies, democratic system and way of life, but we need effective strategies to get there.    

President Obama’s farewell address couldn’t be more timely in assessing the imperfect conditions and challenges to a liberal democratic system. While he mentioned the need to respect the norms of the peaceful transfer of power and honoring electoral outcomes, most importantly Obama pointed out that the civil liberties and rights accorded to America’s liberal democracy are not self-executing. His parting words best encapsulates the work that needs to be done: “None of this [rebuilding democratic institutions] happens on its own. All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging.”

So for 2017 and beyond, let us—concerned individuals—act with thoughtfulness, purpose, political savvy and civility.


TL;DR: Democratic systems can be dismantled, and the rollback against democracy (liberal and illiberal) and its institutions are very real. To guard against it, we need to actively participate in civic activities, civil society and political action.

The views reflected in this piece do not reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.

Photo: "2016.11.12 Anti-Trump Protest Washington, DC USA 08693." by Ted Eytan on Flickr.

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