As a political scientist, I observed this summer a number of unique political and governance events.  For example, the fearmongering and authoritarian rhetoric displayed by Donald Trump during and after the Republican Party’s convention to nominate him as candidate for president of the  United States; the failed coup attempt in Turkey against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his pre and post-coup actions aim at overturning Turkey’s longstanding secularism; and the unilateral removal of opposition parliamentarians in Nicaragua by the Supreme Electoral Council with the due blessing of President Daniel Ortega to ensure he is re-elected for the third time, this time totally unopposed, in the upcoming November elections. These three events have something in common beyond the fact that all of them capture elements of authoritarianism and have “macho” figures as main protagonists.  All three events mixed democratic governance and authoritarian actions, appealed to fear, and used demagoguery and nationalist rhetoric to justify undemocratic behavior.   How these paradoxical phenomena can be explained?  Are we witnessing the end of one governance cycle and the beginning of another one?  Which cycle is ending and which is beginning?  The democratic governance and/or the authoritarian?   

Over the summer I also had the chance to travel to five countries in different corners of the world, and in talking to both decision makers and citizens I found a common mood of loss of faith in current governing models in their respective countries and in other parts of the world.  The temptation is strong to argue that we are in front of a governance crisis period that extends the entire planet.  The events I used above as examples and the conversations with people and decision makers in other countries seem to nourish this argument.  It is comforting to remember, however, that each governance regime type or cycle since humans began to be ruled, has come to be questioned in terms of its endurance and capacity to be in touch with reality.  In the last century alone, we have witnessed how military rule and dictators, socialist revolutions, and authoritarian regimes have evolved and accepted a higher call to transition into a democratic governance stage.  That is, holding elections, relaxing censorship in media, and establishing an array of democratic governance institutions. There has been a steady move from restrictive forms of rule, such as oligarchies, absolute monarchies, and dictators, which are generally characterized by a single individual having almost absolute power to make decisions for others.   These governing models depend on one person deciding, and others obeying.  Often in these type of regimes legitimacy is grounded on the belief that rulers, who are often men, somehow have a direct link to an omnipotent oracle of knowledge, enjoy religion and messianic power, and/or simply use a sense of fatalistic rhetoric to justify strong rule and monopoly of power.  Therefore, it is argued, that because often these types of individual-driven governing models use God and/or other unearthly reasons as reference to legitimize their power, they sell themselves as eternal and immutable, and even promote the idea that power is inheritable to family members (sons, wives).   This was well explained in Max Weber’s analytical framework to understand why men claim authority, and feel they have a legitimate right to expect willing obedience to their command.

If the messianic card does not work, or simply to complement their self-interested argument, these type of rulers often invent “enemies of the people” and/or invent and exaggerate threats in order to sustain the support from their base and to promote opposition against the imaginary enemies, as a way to distract from the real threat – the ruler himself and his failed policies.  They blame other religions, the west, the “empire,” other ethnic groups, immigrants, refugees, neighboring countries, globalization, social media, to name but a few.    Moreover, a tactic often used by autocrats is force, or the use of means like military and repression to suppress opinion, generate fear and stay in power.  In the past and even today, some of the autocrats who have stayed in power the longest, have done so through repression and violence against their own citizens.  North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela are clear examples. But other countries like Iran, Russia, and China, are also using repressive tactics against their citizens to maintain power.  Even countries who elect their leadership through relative fair and transparent elections, have elected autocratic men, who once in power, do all they can to perpetuate their rule, as if they were absolute monarchs.

In theory democratic governance stands opposite to the notion of absolute ruling based on privileges of birth, ethnicity, religion and/or gender, or based on repression and oppression.   It is clear that, there is no pure or perfect governance regime, but economic and social modernization, education and knowledge have helped move most of humanity closer to pluralistic ideals and aspirations.  While some humans may still show preferences for hierarchical, authoritarian and individualistic rule, the complex emerging and divergent societies need procedural frameworks, consensual rules, pluralistic competition, and strong social networks and communities. In order for this new dynamic to flourish into a different era of democratic governance, institutions and norms need to be re-shaped to generate a new socio-political matrix and institutional logic.

The essence of politics is power, the struggle to obtain and maintain it.  Although continuously evolving, the State has been the formal mechanism through which political power is exercise and obedience is commanded.  Governance is in this context the general exercise of authority. In the past the stage of politics was more unidimensional, organized around pre-defined sectors (labor, business, intellectual, military) and narrow interests, and the State wielded power from the top.  Today the stage for politics is more multidimensional, more organized around networks, with broader interests, and diffused and decentralized.  Governance is also about power and politics.  Democratic governance can be structured to manage conflict, emanating from ambition, self-interest, inequality, and exclusion, but also from defending conviction, principles, ideals, inclusion and community.

One can also argue that democratic governance and politics today are part of a global and transnational stage.  That dynamic promotes power relationships, changes and growth in aspirations, and responses to an ever changing world.  Manuel Castells would argue that social movements have occurred throughout history, as products of new values and goals around which political and social institutions are transformed to open new stages for politics, power and governance.   So, are we witnessing this new historical moment in which as humans, we are moving forward and strengthening democratic governance or moving backwards to embrace authoritarian forms of government?

History would show that the line towards perfecting democratic governance has not been always straight.  Rather, it has shown a zig zag pattern that results more often in forward-looking change, not backward looking.  If we look at the world today, in effect, we can identify at least three broad democratic governance dynamics:

  1. Authoritarian: Countries and societies with restrictive contexts, where the government has firm control over political processes from the top, resulting in limiting/curtailing transparency and accountability as well as the meaningful participation of citizens.
  2. Hybrid: Countries and societies where authoritarian and democratic governance actors and factors coexist. It is a gray zone for democratic governance, as the breadth of countries and societies that can fit this category is broad, ranging from repressive, semi-authoritarian regimes to political systems with more civil and political freedoms, but all with no genuine or defined foundation for democratic governance and institutions.
  3. Consolidating democratic governance: These are countries and societies that slowly but surely, as well as continuously, are constructing and/or strengthening mechanisms of accountability and participatory political processes and hold basic political freedoms and civil liberties. These are also countries and societies where democratic institutions and culture are taking root, and or are being reinforced by factors conducive to democratic processes, such as checks and balances, local governance, and strong justice and rule of law systems.  They are still vulnerable to reversals and conflict, but their political systems are generally more resilient in the face of crisis.

As is illustrated in Figure 1, the dynamics of governance today responds to 1) conflict/fragility, 2) transitions, and 3) backsliding.  There is sliding back in democratic regimes, but few allow the complete degradation to more authoritarian regimes.  Larry Diamond argues that over the last 15 years, there have been nearly 30 breakdowns of democracy in the world, not only through military or executive coups, but also through more subtle and incremental reduction of democratic rights and procedures.  It is true, the majority of these have occurred in relatively new democratic systems, but nonetheless it is important to recognize its significance, particularly in the larger analytical context.  For example, in Latin America despite progress, levels of democratic legitimacy remain volatile.   In Asia, many countries are still at the transition stage.  And in Africa democracy is not firmly consolidated and secured.  In many other places, like Russia and China, authoritarianism is resurging and taking hold, and there is a decline of democracy efficacy in the United States and other countries in Europe.

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There could be other explanations for the current state of democratic governance today.  For example, in general people have become more cynical about the value of democratic governance, and as a political system.  In part, such trend reflects a disconnect between expectations and government performance, but also a certain lack of understating by citizens of the complex dynamics of democratic governance and their role in it.  Also, while many more countries now elect their leaders through relatively free and fair elections, not all people are voting.  Voter turnout across the world continues to dwindle, in part because political parties are no longer seen as representing broad interests, and there is a certain disenchantment with establishment parties, and no viable alternatives for representation.    To these, one has to add the role of the 24/7 news media, wanting to have a breaking news every news hour cycle, and promoting often unhealthy and subjective points of view only to generate headlines and visual optics.  And then there is social media and other digital information tools.  While social media (twitter, facebook), have largely been seen as positive vehicles of change, exchange and reaction, they are also being used by strongmen and terrorist groups to control information and steer destructive mass thinking.  Moreover, while social media has made opinion easier and more accessible, it also has diminished more substantive discussions, and promoted discussion spaces where facts and truth often do not matter.  Since social media has no regulatory oversight, it has also become a platform for defamatory talk.  Additionally, anonymous profiles and sites have allowed individuals to post what they really think instantaneously, without regard of consequences and/or empirical evidence.

All of these factors, in more ways than we think, are affecting the dynamic of democratic governance today.  In some contexts, this volatile political environment has made people more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives, to endorse single-issue movements, vote for populist candidates, and/or support “anti-system” parties.  On the other hand, it can be argued that not only are political communities being re-defined and re-shaped more often, but also that the electorate might be more demanding and increasingly mistrustful about the traditional way of doing politics.  Thus, not only governance has to have a capacity to adapt to new and diverse demands or be resilient, but also the bar for government performance is higher today than ever before.

Democratic governance is not inevitable. It should not be, because it involves a capacity of a society to guide and organize its institutions in a democratic way, to enable people to have more and better opportunities to live according to their aspirations and values, and be involved in the decisions that affect them.  As such, democratic governance rests on many premises, like those we identify above from the supply or government side.  The demand and citizens’ side is also as important. For example, civic education, tolerance, collective action, knowledge and understanding of the dynamics of democratic governance, accountability, and capacity to identify and respond to, and confront demagogues, autocrats and extreme nationalists.  After all, democratic governance is not only about government, but also about citizens, their attitudes about democratic governance, and their strategic involvement.

We assume that democratic governance automatically empowers citizens and makes them more informed and civically engaged. However, more often than we think, citizens do not understand their role in democratic governance, beyond their role as voters.  As Jason Brennan has argued, there are citizens that have little or no interest in politics or for that matter democratic governance, and have very low levels of political knowledge. Brennan also identifies other type of citizens that based on information they get through television news or social media they have highly biased opinions when they evaluate governance issues, and may lack social scientific sophistication to analyze objectively information. According to Brennan, citizens that are needed to nourish and enhance democratic governance are those that combine extensive political knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. These don’t let emotion and bias cloud their judgment. However, according to Brennan, these type of citizens are few in numbers unfortunately.

Having the right democratic institutions and suitable citizens for democratic governance makes even more sense because now we live in a world driven by:

  • Intensity of processes; The speed of change; uncertainty and volatility; and global trend towards urbanization;
  • Increased complexity arising from the interplay of a multitude of variables and governance dimensions;
  • Simultaneous transitions (demographic, social, gender);
  • (Re) formation of new political communities; and
  • Provision/expectations of new “public goods” at national, local and global levels.

To confront this, requires a new integrated approach to democratic governance, where local and national authorities are enablers, and as such have to constantly promote inclusiveness and partnerships.  But it also requires citizens’ action and active engagement, know-how to obtain and analyze complex information and develop strategies to hold their elected leaders accountable.  The key question in the twenty first century is how to actively reconstruct government and governance to meet the concerns that are causing many to become disillusioned with democratic governance?  I believe that given the choice, most humans would prefer to live in societies that guarantee civil and political freedoms and rights, than in ones that restrict and repress their freedoms and thinking.   I also think that performance of democratic governance is at the center of loss of confidence, dissatisfaction, cynicism, and hatred, not necessarily the democratic ideal of having the freedoms to achieve one’s own potential, equal opportunities and fair treatment.

What autocrats and authoritarians want the most is for citizens to be uninformed and to control critical thinking, appeal to humans’ worst traits, and offer lies and opaqueness.  They do not look out to improve the lives of others, and they fear so much humans’ desires to join together to express their views and preferences and demand accountability.  Out of that fear, emerges repression as a way to control the flow of information, and to ensure that there is a hyper asymmetry of information, and if they can get away, opt to be opaque rather than transparent.  Autocrats and authoritarians make every effort to keep citizens in the dark, and to ensure that accurate and timely information, particularly as related to the business of governing, is kept away from citizens, and the media. Autocrats and authoritarians will make any effort to ensure barriers to citizen participation. In some cases, it will be subtle, in others it will be more obvious, including the use of force, and the use of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age and/or another status to divide society and justify repressive rule.

No question that there is an unfinished business ahead in terms of democratic governance.  More work needs to be done particularly in the so-called hybrid regimes, the majority of which remain illiberal and unstable.  As important is the work that can be done in consolidating countries to ensure that hope is not lost in the meanness of social media and the ignorance of populist politicians who claim to have quick answers and magic recipes to complex issues. Change takes time, and is driven by social demand, the ability of the political and democratic institutions to process those demands, the political will of democratic leaders to support and implement change and of citizens to remain engaged from the demand to the negotiation phases.  At minimum, awareness needs to be raised among citizens, not only to be vigilant of “false prophets” claiming to have “magic and secret” solutions, but most importantly to be involved in their democracies, to learn how to deliberate and hold their decision-makers accountable, and to be able to distinguish and call-out demagogues. Most importantly, if citizens do not defend their democratic governance, autocrats will take full advantage to tighten their grip on freedom.

No doubt humans have made a lot of progress in terms of governance, human rights, and human development. Societies as different as they are, they are also more closely linked than they have ever been.  But also, there is a long way to go in terms of deprivation, destitution and oppression in rich, as well as poor countries.  If individuals are not free neither the gains will be sustained nor the deprivations addressed.  Moreover, if individuals cannot act collectively, socio-political arrangements, involving many institutions (the state, the legal system, and the media, among others) will be divested in detriment of democratic values.  Instead of moving backwards to authoritarian forms of government, citizens have to be active agents of change, and not become passive recipients of autocrats’ empty promises.

 

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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