Can Democracy Be Saved … from itself?

November 14, 2021.  Published on Medium – By Jon Constable, a democratic individualist.

Ambitious despotic leaders who covet being “monarchs” of their democratic “domain” feed on chaos, as do the despotically inclined political party elites.  To the delight of these despotic types, chaos is plentiful today.  They welcome the onslaught of chaos related to disease, climate change, human rights, poverty and migration, food and water shortages, race, inclusivity, et al.  And, the people rightly protest the evident failure of governance as the political party elites would rather focus on re-election than good governance.  The chaos and the voter unhappiness have revealed a vulnerability.  Democracies are vulnerable to the insidious actions of the political bullies who recognize chaos as an opportunity – a base from which to launch a plan employing the electoral system to further their authoritarian goals. This takeover strategy is not the only vulnerability.  Think about January 6, 2021, when the constitution of the United States of America, a bastion of democracy, was in jeopardy.  The disgruntled, sore presidential election loser, his despotic plan off the rails, attempted to overturn the 2020 election result.  There is a great deal of evidence supporting the notion democracy may be in trouble in many countries.

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Deficient dishonest democracy has spawned increasing numbers of citizens who protest regarding a wide range of subjects – human rights and climate change amongst the many.  Voters, and soon to be voters, have found their voices.  The world-over they are demonstrating against the way things are, and demand change.  Viewed from the political level, it could be concluded most protests result from the failure of the democratic process to otherwise give voice to the people.  The protests demonstrate that the expectation the elected representatives will deliver their message to the legislative process is misplaced.  It is a recognition of a reality; the political party elites “call the shots”.  The representatives dutifully carry the party message back to the constituency, and the voters are expected to vote for the party, the needs of the constituency notwithstanding.  Emasculation of the elected representatives highlights the most significant shortcoming of “representative democracy”.  In many countries democracy is no longer sufficiently representative of the people.   Without meaningful democratic representation, the populace is likely to continue to protest with increasing volume, disruption, and hopefully no escalation of violence.

For practical reasons western democracies utilize representative democracy.  The voters elect their constituent choice to represent them in the legislative process.  Given the party elite domination of political parties, representative democracy has become “exclusive democracy” in many nations – the elites are authoritarian.  The next phase of this evolutionary democratic process appears to be “bastardized democracy”.

Bastardized democracy is operational in some countries.  To wit, the head of the party in power assumes the title of national leader and proclaims the democracy is healthy – After all, the country does continue to hold regular elections.   However, to remain in power the “leader” relies on such tools as controlling electoral outcomes, interfering with the opposition by jailing their leaders, and by suppressing the media.  From the position of majority power, by decree, the leader can “amend” the constitution to his/her advantage.  Examples include, setting term limits, appointing “friends” to the judiciary, and friendly appointments to key positions in other institutions.  Most would recognize this form of democracy as “de facto autocracy”. 

Zack Beauchamp, Vox – Sep 13, 2018, wrote “The last half of the 20th century was the golden age of democracy.  In 1945, according to one survey, there were just 12 democracies in the entire world.  By the end of the century there were 87”. While the expansion of democracy continued into the twenty-first century, growth seems to have peaked with the occurrence of the Arab Spring in 2010.  The “spring” turned to “winter” as revolutionary actions were put down, often violently, by various intervening forces.  It can also be demonstrated the number of existing democracies may be declining.  Populist leaders of majority parties have assumed, or covet the assumption of, power in many nations.  Those include Brazil, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the United States, Poland, Hungary, Belarus, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.  That said, recognition of a bastardized democracy can be difficult in its early stages.  It is a purposeful process which some pundits refer to as “Soft Fascism”.  Voters are often not aware the transition is underway until it is too late.

Anne Helen Petersen, in a December 2020 article, America’s Hollow Middle Class, stated, “This is what a vulnerable collapsing society may look like: Prolonged, catastrophic declines in standards of living point to badly, fatally broken structures and institutions.  Which structures are broken?  Society’s structure itself — the middle class in America, once vaunted and famous, is now one giant under class … The cost of living has risen, wages have not, and debt just keeps on accumulating”.

Worrisome is the evidence of the slippage of democracy in two Euro-block countries, Poland and Hungary, the evident threats of populous supremacy in Britain and the United States, and a democratic death in Venezuela.  Two examples are very telling.  In the case of Hungary, despite Orbán’s claims to the contrary, most outsiders no longer view Hungary as a representative democracy.  It didn’t happen over-night as in a coup.  It was planned and purposeful.  In Venezuela Democracy appears to be “dead”.  Maduro became president in 2013 following the death of President Chavez.  As the already chaotic economic situation worsened Maduro consolidated his position by arresting opposition representatives, shutting down news websites, and detaining journalists. 

 The threat of populous actions in Britain are not yet so evident.  However, as Jonathon Freedland wrote in The Guardian on November 6, “the Paterson Fiasco confirms the threat Boris Johnson poses to British democracy … this is how the slide to authoritarianism begins.  … with cronyism and special treatment; with the enforcement of law for ‘them’ and exemptions for ‘us’; with the steady weakening and the eventual removal of the constraints on government power”.  The same might be said about the USA but for the overt actions of the former president and his supporters on January 6.  The attempt to overthrow by “insurrection” was a near success at the time of the transition to the Biden presidency.  This stepped-up threat to USA governance still lurks in the dreams and actions of much of the “Trump party”, and hopefully in the minds of the general population.  The evident vulnerability is worrisome indeed.

In countries where democracy is at risk of collapse, or has collapsed, the real drivers of democratic decline are often domestic.  For example, far-right parties can take advantage of ethno-religious divides and public distrust in the political establishment.  They plan to gain power electorally and then to twist the rules and entrench their hold on power.  This stealth method of supplanting representative democracy is time honored.  For example: in the 1930’s Nazism was born in Germany as it replaced the Weimar Republic.  During the short-lived 21st century Orbán in Hungary has created an evidently autocratic government that he claims remains a democracy.  Upon the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared its independence as a presidential republic.  The first president was elected and remains the elected leader of this autocracy today.

It can be difficult to identify countries that may transition from “exclusive” representative democracy to bastardized democracy.  The general state of a nation, as indicated by a measure of social progress, may provide a clue.  In a 2020 document, the Social Progress Imperative reported that amongst the “Group of Seven” countries the United States is last on the list.  It was the only country of the seven to suffer regression in social progress from 2011 to 2020.  Ranked at 28 overall, it is a “tier two” country.  For comparison, Canada is first in the G7 group, a tier one country ranked at number 7 overall.  This multi-variate lagging indicator may indicate the declining health of a democracy.  It may also foreshadow the possible impending arrival of an autocratic regime. 

The tools used to undertake an over-throw are numerous, varied, and needn’t be applied sequentially.  What is helpful, a scene setter, is chaos in the population of the nation.  The 2008 financial crisis, the 2020+ coronavirus pandemic, and the ongoing climate change catastrophe are examples that may have provided an advantage to a plan to over-throw a democracy.  Controlling the press is a tool often employed.  A USA example, that may be happenstance (or not), was the subject of an article published in the November 2021 issue of The Atlantic – The Men Who Are Killing America’s Newspapers.  As reported, Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund, engineered the take-over of two hundred newspapers.  Their “model is simple: gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up the subscription prices, and wring out as much cash as is possible”.  Under Alden Global Capital, with intended malice, these newspapers typically deteriorate until they are no longer profitable and are shut down.  Elimination, or control, of the press is an important goal of the insurrectionists.  As the Washington Post masthead states – “Democracy Dies in Darkness”.

During the aforementioned period of the growth in the number of democracies following the second world war, there was a concomitant improvement in the standard of living, most notably in the western democracies.  Looking back, we can see that toward the end of the twentieth century cracks in the efficacy of exclusive democracy began to appear.  The political party elites increasingly asserted their influence.  The party elite focus centred on party re-election, while the needs of the general population received insufficient attention.  The change in focus contributed to rising economic and social inequality.  A result has been the evident decline in the standard of living of the middle class.  As well the political parties, led by the party elites, became tribal and went to “war”.  The war has become so acrimonious that proposed worthwhile new legislation is often rejected without any debate in the legislative process.

In many countries the voice of the protesting people has become very loud, tribalism has infected the general population, and extreme polarization, aided by social media, is evident.  Band-aid solutions will not repair the exclusive party-elite dominated system of governance as it moves toward extinction.  The critical need is the determination of a democratic solution that will fill the impending “political system vacuum”.  The prospect of an otherwise autocratic world is not a solution, but rather a surrender.

Evolve to Inclusive Democracy

“How can we achieve representative democracy in a world dominated by party elites and a multi-party system, where each party has staked out and defends its prescribed territory on the political continuum?  The evidence suggests we cannot and that the tribal multi-party system is becoming increasingly entrenched and damaging, if not ruinous of representative democracy. 

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Evolving to an inclusive system of governance, that respects Democratic Individualism, is a solution – Inclusive Democracy.  With a unicameral legislature, no political parties, and independent elected representatives, democracy can be returned to the people.  Major surgery and patience will be necessary.  But it just may be possible to bring new life to democracy by evolving to a solution that subscribes to an Inclusive Democracy model”.