Combatting a Taboo: considering Alternatives to Democracy? – By Mathias PENGUILLY @ Georgia State University
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have been conditioned to believe that democracy was eternal and that no other system could triumph against it. The Western powers also consider that morally, no other political model can top the people’s self-government and therefore no democracy can be totally replaced by another regime. However, we have studied different phenomena, from the rise of populism to the extreme political polarization, which, as we saw, feed into a global trend of Democratic Backsliding. This concept represents the fear of many citizens all over the world that their system is failing progressively. They do refuse to admit that the democracy they live in has already been “de-democratized” to an extent and when confronted with the idea that they are transitioning towards another model, they cannot even conceive it. We have considered Democracy to be an ideal to achieve for every country in the world but perhaps, a new system is possible and more efficient… What if democracy was just a step in the History of political regimes?
In 2004, Colin Crouch described the trajectory of many nations, which are transforming into post-democracies, that is to say a political system that has become a “shell” of a democracy, keeping democratic institutions but betraying its ideals. In this system, the policies are crafted by technocratic elites behind closed doors. Although Crouch argue that we have not attained this stage yet, I would differ with that statement. The American political system has become an exclusive machine with a remarkably low voter turn-out and a certain isolation from the elites in Washington and the rest of the population.
Pretending that the United States is not a democracy anymore would be quite radical but it is certainly much different from the model the founding fathers had in mind. The lack of willingness to even consider changing the institutions is alarming. Everybody seems to agree that it fails at representing correctly its population, yet no politician comes up with ideas to remedy to that issue.
In that battle, the United States is far from being alone. As a matter of fact, many observers worry that the rise of Populism all over the Western democracies undermine their values. If these factions are so successful though, it is because they propose a new vision of politics that is closer to the essence of Democracy in the sense that it correspond to a better attention given to the citizens. In its book What is Populism? Jan-Werner Mueller highlights all the threats posed by the rise of such political forces. He also demonstrates however, that Democracy as a whole can benefit from them, by forcing a better communication between the citizens and their leaders as well as giving the power back to the people. Populists are using the democratic institutions with savviness and I am not sure that their rise is more worrying that the development of technocracies everywhere in terms of undermining the Democratic ideals. If Democracy must end through populism, at least the people would support it and be responsible for it, unlike an erosion impulse by a technocratic elite.
Furthermore, we usually fail at considering the benefits of other political systems and highlight their success. The West has severely criticized Vladimir Putin’s reelection in 2018, calling out the manipulation of the elections and attacking the state of Democracy in Russia. They fail however to highlight the Russian president’s ongoing popularity: according to the Levada Center, 80% of Russian citizens approve of his leadership as of March 2018.
The same goes on with the Western treatment of the People’s Republic of China. For a long time, the United States believed that the opening of the country would place the nation on an ideological slippery slope towards democracy. This is far from what we have observed as the Communist Party’s grip on the Chinese society has been maintained over the years and as President Xi Jinping has solidified its position at the head of the State. We cannot seem to understand why Chinese citizens would not want another system. Besides, when confronted to a Chinese citizen that does not have interest in politics, we usually consider this attitude as a cope-out while we seem less worried about the lack of political conscience of our own neighbors. Many Chinese believe in the wisdom of their leaders and that is not something the West accepts eagerly.
Certainly, a world where all nations would be democratic and live at peace would make international relations easier but as years go by, it looks more and more like an unattainable utopia. If we pay attention to the recent trends, it is clear that a large number of democracies have been attacked as the concept of democratic erosion keeps producing an important literature. Yet, it is taboo to argue that, maybe, Democracy as we know it, is just a phase in the trajectory of our political systems.
I am obviously not arguing in favor of a return to authoritarianism. Instead, I believe that our political systems have a lot to learn from the successes of foreign illiberal forms of government as well as in the recent events causing a democratic backsliding “from within”. The Western powers have been at the forefront when it comes to the development of both Populism and Technocracy. According to Sheri Berman, those two phenomena “are two evil twins” because they defend a system that is only liberal, or only democratic instead of both. This type of remarks is typical of the way we erect Liberal Democracy as a perfect system that every nation should aspire to. We seem to voluntarily make ourselves blind to the fact that our ideal is flawed and that other regimes are also efficient.
For a long time, the Western nations have been at the forefront when it comes to the development of successful systems of governance. It might be time for them to take a step back and facilitate a transition to a new era.