Is Democracy in Retreat?

A Harvard academic explains why some kinds of democracy are becoming less popular.

Too often we discuss ‘democracy’ without defining the term; too frequently the result is talking at cross-purposes. This confusion has become acute in recent years when discussing whether ‘democracy’ is in retreat (the subtext being that it was in an expansionary phase not so long ago).

It would take a lot more than a column to define ‘democracy’ rigorously. So here I confine myself to Yascha Mounk’s The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It. The book is much better than the subtitle (I found the ‘how to save it’ chapters not very original).

Perforce I use Mounk’s definition of liberal democracy:

      "A democracy is a set of electoral institutions that effectively translates popular views into public policy.

      Liberal institutions effectively protect the rule of law and guarantee individual rights such as freedom of speech, worship, press and association to all citizens (including ethnic and religious minorities).

      A liberal democracy is simply a political system that is both liberal and democratic – one that protects individual rights and translates popular views into public policy."

Notice he has sneaked in the adjective ‘liberal’. He wants to recognise another type of democracy, – popular democracy – which has the electoral institutions but not the liberal ones. Examples are the regimes of Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia. Its leaders win elections by popular majority (usually of voters but in Putin’s case of adults) but curtail liberal rights.

(Mounk points out that a government can be liberal but not democratic, citing the European Union.)

Sitting behind this is an account of the citizen relative to the state. I have long known I was in a minority of one. (Jack Shallcrass articulated this for me in his 1965 essay ‘The Right to Dissent’.) Since I am not solipsistic I accept that my views – which many may think are eccentric although sometimes they become the conventional wisdom – are not the centre of the universe.

(Actually that is true to for you too, dear reader. If you think everyone, or everyone who matters, agrees with you, you are not quite in touch with reality – and a very boring person.)

Because we live in communities which have to make collective decisions, the minority has to be frequently overridden. But how to make the collective decisions? The best way we have found is the regime called democracy. Actually, it is a terrible way of making collective decisions; it’s just that all the other ways are worse.

We may think liberal democracy important for various reasons – including that the minority may be more right or more forward looking than the majority – to ensure minorities and eccentrics can function in a majority dominated political regime.

Sadly, some political regimes deny dissent, intolerant of the minority and undermining the protections while proclaiming they are a democracy.

The rulers want to secure themselves. One of the critical features of a liberal democracy is that there are changes of rulers. (I love the story about how in the 1960s some boys asked a man in Parliament grounds whether he had a job there. He answered that he had but it was not permanent. The speaker was the then Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake.)

So democracy is the rule by the majority (with caveats, since it is rare for those who elect the government to be a majority of adults). However, popular democracy gives total rights to the voting majority (woe betide you ceasing to be a part of it, as many behind the iron curtain learned when they fell out with the leadership). Liberal democracy preserves the rights of minorities to be in a minority.

In terms of Mounk’s distinction, democracy is not in retreat, but liberal democracy is. He suggests three reasons.

First, throughout the West the majority’s material prosperity has been stagnant over the last few decades (and especially since the Global Financial Crisis). That was true for many New Zealanders for years after the introduction of neoliberalism in the 1980s but has not been so true recently. What has distinguished New Zealand from elsewhere is its rising terms of trade (better prices for our food exports) which add to income prosperity without increasing productivity.

I am a bit pessimistic about the prospects for Western economic growth (that’s for another column, as are the caveats for the previous paragraph) but I am optimistic that we can manage a better quality of living even if the material output indicators do not improve. However, that is hardly the way policy settings or public rhetoric are headed (told you I was an eccentric).

Second, Mounk cites increased social diversity. While growing ethnic diversity (in Europe especially from refugees) and religious diversity (including secularisation) are part of the story, there are other forms such as generational diversity. While acknowledging the phenomenon, I am cautious about the exact argument. There was a lot of diversity in the past (e.g. by regions and gender) but channels for its expression were limited. The ‘rise’ of women – they became easier to observe – has unsettled older men, already suffering from income stagnation, although this fact does not explain that in America a goodly proportion of women voted for Donald Trump. As Mounk argues, the liberal democratic answer is to be tolerant of diversity. Popular democracy has uglier solutions; a liberal democracy which adopts them drifts towards popular democracy.

Third, Mounk cites social media which exacerbate the discomfort with diversity but also change the process of government. Before we get hysterical, recall that mass newspapers in the nineteenth century and television half a century ago  presented similar challenges. It is clear that social media were a disruptive force in a number of recent elections (and allowed external disrupters a leverage they previously did not possess). At issue is whether we can regulate social media’s excesses, a task not helped in New Zealand where so much activity is offshore. (In any case, how likely are we to take initiatives until it is too late?)

Mounk is right to identify these three factors as explaining much of the retreat of liberal democracy. What is not clear is whether the retreat is permanent or a check in a longer upward trend. Only time will tell, but he and others are right; the end of liberal democracy may not be inevitable if those who support it actively respond; otherwise the retreat will continue.