These were the underlying themes behind the recent headlines around the globe: coordinated terrorists strike in Belgium; xenophobic rhetoric and bigotry dominate nomination process for president of a major political party in the United States; corruption scandals in Brazil threaten political and economic stability; thousands flee Syria and create a refugee crisis in Europe; organized crime continues to penetrate many countries; the dominance of gangs and violence in many urban centers around the world becomes a challenge for national and local governments; and despite economic growth and human development expansion inequality persists.  While each of these headlines has its own story line, there is a common thread across all of them: all are a product of some form of governance failure.  Democratic and other forms of governance, whether old or new, are facing these enormous challenges.  That is an easy observation.  More difficult is to identify what type of political configuration is best suited to take on the challenges being faced today by a great majority of countries and societies in the world.

The proliferation of democratic institutions over the past century is an undeniable phenomenon. Only a handful of countries still cling to more authoritarian forms of government, although almost all over the world support for democratic rights and freedoms remains relatively high.  However, this almost universal aspiration for more democratic values has not been accompanied by the consolidation of democratic institutions, a deepening of a culture of democracy, and/or by the recalibration of elements related to authority, ideology, political systems and personal aspirations.  Moreover, while there is a general consensus that people would prefer to live in societies with basic human and political rights, this aspiration is also closely linked to well-being.  When democratic regimes fail to deliver and/or meet expectations for majorities of people, it is more likely to arouse discontent, disillusionment and mistrust.  Immediately, people begin to think of authoritarian, populist, and other non-democratic regimes as having the quick solutions or the magic recipe.  But there is strong empirical evidence showing that non-democratic regimes do not necessarily fare better that democratic regimes on the long run, both in terms of economic and political performance.

Like no other time in history, humanity is enjoying living in the most democratic period of its history, with more rights, resources, and opportunities.  While many societies are still struggling with armed conflict and tyrannical regimes, undeniably substantive progress has been made towards more democratic governments. This can be seen both at the national and the sub-national level, where people have a chance to vote in national and local elections.  There are also some improvements (as well as recurrent setbacks) in the protection of human rights, and identity-based groups that have historically faced exclusion and deprivation have become more visibly engaged in political and social action.

In spite of that progress, in the Twenty-first Century, the process of governing has been the most challenging enterprise yet.  And at the center of this debate is the capacity of democratic governments to navigate through the rough waters of governing amidst high levels of risk, uncertainty, diversity and complexities never before seen in the history of governance.  The realities of a more complex and heterogeneous context are shaping expectations and demands, in particular as related to the role of governments in promoting accountability and equality.  From the perspective of citizens, these are the main two areas where democratic governance seems to have fallen short, and as a result discontent ensues.

Like any political theory, democratic governance departs from particular assumptions. For example, the presence of effective State institutions, a political and policy ability to satisfy the demands of various groups in society, the transparent use and allocation of resources, and active participation of civil society in the decision making process.  These can be considered essential resources, and if weak, misused and/or misallocated, they could have corrosive effects on the democratic governance system and could cast doubt and mistrust.

While these essential ingredients of democratic governance undeniably shape expectations among the governed, in practice these are not easy to operationalize.   Moreover, as the role of government and the State has continued to expand across the world, populations have grown more diverse as well as their respective expectations.  The State continues to be sovereign over a recognized territory, although today it embodies principles and aspirations of democracy, equity and sustainability.  As such, and in contrast to the past, legitimacy of the State and government today depends not only on the sovereign authority of the State to guarantee identity, security and rule of law, but also on the State institutions’ capabilities to engage with a variety of citizen networks and communities. Against that backdrop, we can establish the following postulations relevant to today’s complex and multi-dimensional context for governance:

  • To govern well is a difficult task;
  • To govern well, and to do it democratically is more difficult;
  • To govern well, democratically, and in contexts with rising inequalities, diverse political enclaves and with high well-being expectations/aspirations is even harder;
  • To govern well, democratically, in contexts with raising inequalities and with high well-being expectations/aspirations, and with weak and/or without proper institutions is even harder;
  • To govern well, democratically, in contexts with raising inequalities and with high well-being expectations/aspirations, with weak and/or without proper institutions, and without proper decision making processes is complex and even harder; and
  • To govern well, democratically, in contexts with raising inequalities and with high well-being expectations/aspirations, with weak and/or without proper institutions, without proper decision making processes, and without citizenry engagement is unsustainable.

From a strictly human development perspective, the State and governments are significant means through which change in society and communities occur to enhance people’s well-being across generations— expanding their choices in health, education and income and expanding their freedoms and opportunities for meaningful participation in society.  Now let’s be clear, on the one hand not all democratic governments are the same, as each one has different capacities, tools, political and institutional configurations, as well as different conceptualizations for the democratic aspects of governance.  There are wide variations among regimes that are generally recognized as democratic.  Diamond, O’Donnell, Zakaria, Rodrik & Mukand and others have described some democratic governments as illiberal democracies, or delegative democracies and as hybrid zone regimes between autocracy and democracy. On the other, communities and constituencies have divergent expectations of the role of the State and government in their lives. For some the State and its government should be able to deliver “all,” from security to basic public services, for others the less presence the State and the government have in their lives the better.  But these two positions are two extremes in a broader continuum.

As can be seen in the Figure 1 below, the dynamics of democratic governance rest around dilemmas in a number of areas.  For example, the dichotomy between having a totalitarian State and having no State at all; between pluralist and authoritarian ideologies; between political systems that are polyarchies (following Dahl’s classic book) or oligarchies (government by the few); and by personal aspirations to be useful and participate in collective action or to be rich and self-interested.  Over the past two centuries countries and societies have constantly moved along these continua always trying to find an ideal equilibrium for democratic governance. Ideally, democratic governance should move within a narrow articulated space near the center, although some countries and societies have moved away for the center. Tocqueville already identified these dilemmas in his writings, as he feared two other extremes in the continuum of democratic governance: anarchy and tyranny.  The challenge is not only how not to make these extremes illustrated in the Figure 1 below inevitable, but also what to do to avoid democratic governance sinking into the stratosphere of any of these governance catastrophes.

Slide1

Figure 1 above also helps to illustrate that sustaining democratic governance involves a number of conditions and factors. My former professor Adam Przeworski and his colleague researched back in the 1990s more than 130 countries and produced a series of empirical findings that provide a glimpse about conditions for sustaining democratic governance. In a nutshell, it has to do with expanding affluence and human development, sustained economic growth, expanding and nourishing a culture of democratic values and principles, effective institutional arrangements (check and balances, decentralization), and the type of political systems (presidential or parliamentary).

A key related question becomes who is supposed to take a leading role in promoting democratic governance?  It is highly unlikely that the State and governments will take the initiative on their own.  It is more likely that to avoid anarchy and/or tyranny work has to be done by both governments and the State, and by the governed and communities.  Tocqueville argued that the more government takes the place of communities, the less probability of communities coming together to understand their problems and finding solutions.  Similarly, the less engaged communities are in the affairs of their governments, the more probability policy will not reflect their demands and/or aspirations. It is a vicious circle of cause and effect.

In the current anti-political climate, too often democratic governance is idealized without politics, or at least the kind of politics that are prevalent today in democratic societies.  Politics is mostly disliked. But good politics is and has been an essential feature of democratic governance, as it involves not only able politicians, but also other actors and factors engaging in deliberation and consensus.  What remains to be answered is what type of politics is needed for today’s democratic governance?  It is important to establish that the democratic governance framework is one grounded in the recognition that our current socio-political worlds are enormously complex and that they evolve and constantly take shape.  No democratic governance design will remain unchanged over time, and no simple linear model can explain its complex and multi-dimensional nature.  Democratic governance is a system, and now more than ever is an open system feeding from local, national and global interaction. In the same way we think of our environment, democratic governance will be sustained as long as its resources are not depleted and/or misused.

Building democratic institutions and expecting equitable social and economic development will continue to bring all kinds of tensions.  Conflict and the risk of conflict will remain.  For those of us who are interested in the dynamics of democratic governance in this historic moment in human history, the current state of democratic governance offers a unique opportunity to think, analyze and produce bold, but feasible ideas and solutions.   Democratic governance is no longer centered only on the premise of politics and policy in the national dimension.  Global, national and local elements are now also enablers of democratic governance, and key for the articulation of multi-level governance to promote partnerships for service and public goods delivery and to focus on inclusive policies.  Similarly, democratic governance is no longer an attribute only of governments or the State, it is also about the governed and their capacity to come together and actively participate in decision-making processes that affect their lives. It is daunting but initiatives and solutions have to come from within the current democratic governance systems and marshal all the necessary resources.  Going back to non-democratic or authoritarian solutions is simply not an alternative for humanity.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

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