Interrogating Democracy-2

By Anjum Altaf

Democracy has been knocked down from the lofty pedestal on which it was ensconced not so long ago as the endpoint of humankind’s search for the ideal form of governance. This has followed on Trump’s election in the most powerful democracy on earth, Modi’s in the largest democracy in the world, and Boris Johnson’s in the birthplace of democracy.

How should one reassess democracy in the light of these choices by electorates, choices that would have been considered inconceivable just a decade ago? Keep in mind that one is talking of democracies that pass almost all the tests of qualification — fair elections, rule of law, independent institutions, and civil liberties — although India under Modi is heading in the wrong direction. Authoritarian regimes and illiberal democracies that cloak their rule in democratic garb are excluded from the analysis. 

Also to be kept in mind is the fact that doubts about democracy are being taken seriously only when seemingly perverse outcomes have emerged in countries like the US and Britain that had been considered immune to the vagaries of less mature polities. Reservations about democracy in the latter were voiced in the 1990s, for example, by the late Richard Holbrooke who is reported to have said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.” However, such outcomes were attributed to the perversities of ignorant electorates and not to any weaknesses of the democratic system itself.

One defence of democracy would rely on the judgement attributed to Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is better to let people make choices that they have to live with for limited tenures instead of surrendering the decisions to any other agent or body that would be unaccountable for its doings. Democracy relies on collective wisdom to yield the best of a set of often bad choices. If people opt to elect a Trump or a Modi or a Boris Johnson, one has to live with that choice. Those unhappy with the outcome have room to work within the system to overturn the choices in the next round.

This, however, turns a blind eye to the mounting evidence that the collective wisdom of the electorate is not as neutral and independent as the idealization of democracy makes it out to be. There are ready examples to show that not only can educated electorates be misguided by fake news inside countries but that elections can be influenced from outside even in the best of circumstances as alleged in the case of the 2016 elections in the USA.

This erosion of the power of the electorate has long been in the making without attracting as much attention as it deserved. Modern democracy was born in a milieu in which no agent, individual or firm, was large enough to exert undue influence on the choice of others. This fundamental premise changed with the emergence of mass media and large corporations to the point where many now label the USA as a plutocracy rather than a democracy.

The transition from one-person-one vote to one-dollar-one-vote has had a number of consequences that have derailed democracy from its pristine roots. Those with the dollars have spent them to influence elections without breaking any laws so that virtually all elected representatives are beholden to the rich. The representatives, in turn, have helped to lobby for laws and rules favourable to corporate interests. As a result, the wealth of nations has cascaded up instead of trickling down increasing the inequality of income and wealth at unprecedented rates.

The resulting stagnation of living standards of the middle- and lower-income segments of the electorate and the realization that their dreams for a better future have all but disappeared has led to an unanticipated response from voters. This response has been abetted by the elite’s dismissive characterization of the left behind as “deplorables.” In earlier times this kind of a situation might have resulted in a social revolution to eliminate the elite or a socialist turn to level the field. But social revolutions are now ruled out in countries like the US and Britain and yet more promises of an egalitarian future have lost their cachet. Voters have opted for leaders promising to restore past glory by going after softer targets who they hold responsible for stealing the livelihoods of the marginalized.

One may go back to the plausible observation that democracy, while flawed, is better than any other alternative but the flaws are now so damaging that something needs be done to fix them if potential tragedy is to be avoided. It is quite conceivable that Trump might lose in 2020, that Boris Johnson might be ousted if the Brexit gamble fails, and that Modi might be consumed by the forces he has unleashed. But, at the same time, one cannot rule out the possibility that Trump could unleash a global war while in power or that Modi, before he is done, could inflict the kind of damage from which Indians would take decades to recover.

What would it take to ensure that mature democracies do not elect the kinds of individuals who can pose real threats to the survival of the world which includes people as well as the natural environment? An obvious imperative would be a return from the one-dollar-one-vote reality to the one-person-one-vote ideal that was the foundational premise of governance by electoral representation. 

However, a corollary to this imperative is what well-wishers and supporters of democracy are not willing to entertain — the fact that doing away with one-dollar-one-vote is impossible without major changes in the virtually unregulated capitalist economic order that now dominates the globe. Politics and economics are deeply interrelated and it is economic forces that are driving the political dynamic. Restoring liberal democracy without restraining the predatory aspects of capitalism is an attractive proposition for entrenched elites but one that falls short of recognizing the reality of our times.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on Monday, February 9, 2020 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer was dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS.

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4 Responses to “Interrogating Democracy-2”

  1. BILAL RAZA Says:

    I work in State Bank of Pakistan and regularly read your insightful newspaper articles. Following are my comments after reading your today’s article titled “Interrogating Democracy”:

    First, a well-functioning democracy presumes, following Locke, overall human beings are rationale and tolerant or they are “good” in their natural state. Therefore, in a free and fair system they will always elect a “good” ruler. If this presumption does not hold and/or the very criterion of “good” breakdowns, it will render democracy dysfunctional.

    Second, democracy is favored over other systems not for its ability to always elect good rulers but for its system of checks and balances that contains side effects if any bad ruler is elected. Despite all problems, democratic systems are still better when it comes to imposing checks on populous tendencies and gaining space back from populists.

    Third, there is an interesting parallel in history to understand present crisis of liberal democracy. Like today, monopoly capitalism and plutocrats characterized gilded-age (Carnegie, Vanderbilts and Morgans VS Bezos, Gates and Buffets). J.K Galbraith in “The Affluent Society” points out that from 1930s onward progressive taxation and rise of welfare state deprived BIG MONEY of its basic functions i.e. influence on peoples’ economic and political life. Therefore, outcome of democratic system, like market system, depends on rules of the game. Instead of going away for popular democracy, humanity will be better served if it can make the game fair. However, the problem is that post-war capital-labor-state compromise functioned well because of high growth rates that is the cure for all ills of capitalism. In the absence of high growth rates, it seems very difficult to make the game fair without radically increasing economic democracy and popular political democracy is the best possible way to achieve this goal.

    Four, and last, today’s crisis of liberal democracy is significantly rooted in emerging demands of globalization some of which are not consistent with politics based on nation state ( e.g. Dani Rodrik’s Trilemma of democracy, national sovereignty and global-integration). Those who want to preserve national sovereignty have no option other than scientific denial and populism because actively solving today’s problems demands even stronger global collaboration. I think humanity is going through a phase where hierarchy of multiple identities is changing (or have to change) and it will not be without disruptions. Liberal democracy still seems the best way for these tumultuous times (as you mentioned Churchill’s reasoning).

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Dear Bilal,

      Thank you very much for your very thoughtful comments. Here are some responses, in order. Feel free to continue to engage with the arguments and continue the discussion.

      To me it seems strange to assume that all human beings are rational, tolerant and good. I doubt that Locke made such an assumption or premised the success of democracy on it. Democracy is supposed to be a system that resolves conflicts in society through give-and-take without resort to violence. Its success depends not on the goodness of human beings but on the checks and balances that can prevent irrational, intolerant and bad people from upending the system. If everyone is assumed good, whey would one need the articles of impeachment in the English and American Constitutions?

      You are right about the parallel with the Gilded Age but while there were very rich Robber Barons at that time their ability to influence electoral outcomes and legislation was nowhere compared to the present. Consider the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission ruling of the US Supreme Court in 2010, the rise of media power, and campaign management techniques.

      In any case, the ills of capitalism were kept in check not by high growth rates alone but the countervailing power of capital and labor that ensured a socially acceptable distribution of the gains. Since the 1970’s, once the power of labor was broken, economic growth has caused the problems of rising inequality that have undermined the social contract on which the legitimacy of democracy rests. You are quite right that what is most important are the rules of the game and you can see alternate set of rules being proposed in the ongoing electoral campaign in the US.

      You are quite right that globalization has an influence on developments within nation-states which is why there are commonalities and parallel phenomena emerging across very different types of societies and cultures. I am not sure that liberal democracy is the best for these times but we really do not have an alternative to electoral representation as a system of governance. We have to fix it to deal, as well as we can, with the pathologies that have surfaced in this era. The spectrum of liberal democracies is quite wide and some variants have handled the crises better than others.

  2. Faizaan Qayyum Says:

    I think you would appreciate that I just finished reading Steven Pinker’s romanticized descriptions of enlightenment institutions like democracy. Have forces of ignorance finally defeated the institutional achievements of enlightenment? Or are recent outcomes a natural result of the development of these institutions – in which case, were democratic institutions and social contracts just self-defeating entities?

    The influence of free-for-all capitalism is easy to see in North America. But I’m troubled by the claim that Modi and Boris found power because of the one-dollar-one-vote environment. How was democracy supposed to treat basic tribal instincts that have encouraged communal pogroms for centuries? Maybe one-man-one-vote democracy’s main weakness was a complete lack of acknowledgement (let alone recognition or treatment) of ethnic, racial, religious, or other collectivist tribal forces.

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Faizaan: There are many issues of definition and judgement in your comment.

      What exactly were the institutional achievements of the Enlightenment?
      Why do you label the forces that have emerged dominant as those of ignorance?
      Why should recent developments be a natural result of anything? Could they have been predicted ex-ante? What about human agency?

      As for the UK and India, just look at the amount of money spent on the elections. In India, it exceeded the outlay in the US with the big corporate interests contributing directly as well as controlling the media. In the UK, financial intervention came from outside the country as well.

      Your substantive question relates to how democracy was expected to deal with tribal instincts. Here, I feel, the Enlightenment’s faith in the supremacy and power of reason has been disproved. Democracy was not expected to deal with tribal instincts which were supposed to fade away with the rise of individualism. But we find that emotions and feelings remain a powerful driver of behavior.

      It is somewhat disconcerting to think, at the end of one’s life, that all we have been taught has been wrong. Reason and methodological individualism are highly over-rated. Our models of behavior are completely off-the-mark and highly misleading. They prevented us from recognizing what was before us all the time.

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