Five years ago, I started this blog to reflect on and analyze the current and future state of democratic governance in the world. In the inaugural blog, I reflected on the ending cycle of a period of unprecedented expansion of human rights and inclusive governance, and how under more complex circumstances a new cycle was beginning to emerge. It was clear then that democratic governance was not only about elections but most importantly about its performance. The last five years have been intense in terms of challenges, not only in the democratic governance sphere but also in terms of a global pandemic that has further stretched the limits of democratic governance systems and strengthened non-democratic and autocratic behavior. At the end of 2021, the world might still be at the cusp of ending a long cycle of political action that has been dominated by democratic progress, and exhausted is trying to navigate its way into another cycle. What is not clear, is what that new cycle will look like, and which actors will lead. The past five years have not been kind to democratic governance, as unexpected and expected actors and factors have emerged. What scenarios are plausible in the next five years?
The Need to Recommit and Embrace Democratic Principles
Any system is a product of several elements coming together to make it work. If a key part of the system does not work, it can affect the workings of the entire system. As highlighted in one of the first blogs, democratic governance involves a constant process of formation and re-formation, and stewardship of rules and institutions that regulate the public realm to promote an enabling environment for peace and co-existence. Democratic governance is a space where the state as well as economic and societal actors interact to help make decisions and ensure benefits and public goods for all. As we look at the available evidence of the current trend in democratic backsliding, it usually involves both government and civil society failures. On the one hand, political actors do not adhere anymore to the basic rules of the game and systematically attempt to subvert the rule of law and accountability. On the other hand, citizens have lost trust in their governments, and have divested not only from voting but also from engaging and demanding vociferously to uphold democratic governance.
In great part, the current democratic governance crisis reflects a loss in basic democratic values and aspirations. For example, politicians who aspire to represent their constituencies have not necessarily committed to democratic principles, including transparency, accountability, and inclusion. Also, their political parties have not renewed, modernized, or restructured allowing extreme and radical tendencies to grow and capture the party name as a personal instrument. In the worst cases, political parties have been weakened or eliminated altogether. Evidence shows that the more institutionalized and balanced political parties are, the fewer opportunities for authoritarians to take over control of the political parties’ platform and direction. But beyond political parties, corruption, criminality, and violence have also weakened democratic governance and strengthened the narrative of authoritarians to pitch undemocratic approaches, including the use of force. The Covid-19 pandemic has not helped and has reinforced authoritarian tendencies. There is also evidence that politicians are supporting more extreme positions on core policy issues, a phenomenon not seen in recent decades.
Citizens are also a key component of democratic governance. The current crisis also reflects several challenges for citizens and civil society. In most democratic governments, citizens find themselves increasingly divided and skeptical of the possibilities of collective action under democratic governance. Like politicians, citizens have succumbed to polarization and extreme positions. Not only does it seem that they feel less connected to each other, but also that they feel less connected to their governments. As argued in an earlier article, in today’s world equality and social safety nets seem more vulnerable and thus reinforce the lack of trust in governments. This has affected the potential of citizens to play a more constructive and proactive role in shaping the quality of democratic governance. Ideally, citizens in democratic governance not only have the right to choose their representatives in periodic elections but also are obliged to invest in the quality of their governments through civic engagement and by demanding accountability. Similarly, in theory, the authority of a government should derive from the will of the people. The majority of constitutions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights capture the aspirations of democratic governance from this perspective as the government is framed under the “of the people, by the people and for the people” principle. The question is, what is happening in practice?
Rebuild Democratic Governance
Voting in periodic elections is no longer an exclusive attribute of democratic governance. Many authoritarian regimes have come to power through elections and use elections and change the rules of elections to perpetuate themselves in power. They capitalize on high levels of dissatisfaction with democratic governance, and its inability to perform and resolve complex problems quickly. However, once in power autocrats and authoritarians make short-term attempts to resolve some of the underlying issues of the system, but as argued before their attention quickly turns to expanding their tenure and wealth through the use of public resources and impunity. In practice, the democratic governance game is more complex, as by nature needs to be inclusive, transparent, and consensus-driven. Thus, performance needs to strike a balance between short-term gains for all, and long-term sustainable elements. Not an easy task, in particular, if that performance is burdened by a multiplicity of factors and actors. A key lesson emerging is that expectations in democratic governance need to be reset, and efforts to raise awareness about how democratic governance can address challenges need to increase. Another key lesson that is emerging is that except under coups, democratic governance does not die immediately, but gradually. The dying involves autocrats undermining institutions, closing and restricting the civic space, and using the pulpit of power to disinform, intimidate and polarize. Autocrats see no value in processes or institutions, as for them these are barriers to their own selfish goals.
Rebuilding and recovering democratic governance will involve national, intermediate, and local actions, with obvious nuances. Solutions will need to be practical and address concrete matters such as local planning, school improvements, economic opportunities, and citizen participation. While there is no single or magical solution, there are already broad proposals and recommendations on how to strengthen, revitalize and rebuild democratic governance. The reorganization of formal state institutions will need to stimulate civil society democratic engagement and connect the dots of a virtuous circle of reciprocal reinforcement between politics, expectations, and policy. Creativity to discover and imagine new ways to promote and strengthen democratic institutions that are more participatory and effective than the traditional configuration of political representation and bureaucratic administration will be needed.
No longer are we in the world of the 20th Century, or the world we inherited in the first two decades of the 21st century. There are a lot of lessons in the promotion and support of democratic governance that is applicable to older and newer democracies. It is the only form of government that allows for peaceful self-correction. Transparent and fair elections, open debate and deliberation, accountable governance, and rule of law are the tools. Around the world, different democratic governance systems need tailored solutions to adapt and strengthen. It is like there are different kinds of patients that need medicine and vitamins and therapy to boost resistance and resilience against viral autocratic forces. First, older democracies like the United States, France, and England among others, need to reform their outdated governance systems and adapt them to their new demographic realities and stop their democratic backsliding. Second, a group of third-wave democracies that are already crumbling because they did not consolidate their democracies and find themselves with challenges that are not insurmountable, but if not corrected they could contribute to the fall into autocratic rule. Third, the once promising young or old democracies that have already fallen to autocrats, dictators, or kleptocrats. And fourth, those countries that have not had a chance to experience democratic governance. Each category of patient would need a differentiated approach or medical treatment, and further each case in each category will require a tailor-made strategy or treatment. There are already a number of tools and evidence that can help design strategies to rebuild and invest in democratic governance, such as the Freedom House indicators, the Idea International report, and the analysis of V-Dem and the economist intelligence unit Global Democracy Index.
Democratic Governance as a Cost-Sharing Enterprise
It will take a long time to rebuild democratic governance and will require doing things differently and better than before. Data shows that the dissatisfaction with democratic governance is real. There is no single issue driving this dissatisfaction, but it seems to be linked to the lack of economic opportunities, a growing sense of inequality, and a general distrust in government, society in general, and in people. For example, a recent study about Latin America and the Caribbean shows how mistrust suppresses economic growth and innovation, and distorts democratic decision-making keeping citizens from demanding better public services, from joining with others to control corruption, and from making the collective sacrifices that leave everyone better off. Another recent study by Pew Research Center points to democratic norms and civil liberties deteriorating trends, as democratic institutions have been seen failing to address key issues. Thus, the rise of authoritarianism and populism may be less a cause and more a symptom of democratic governance’s ills. The same Pew study shows that large shares of people around the globe recognized their democratic systems need to be reformed (see Figure 1 below).
There is no magic recipe to restore democratic legitimacy, but the process needs to be driven by both political and civic actors. Political parties need to evolve and move away from serving narrow interests and become better social vehicles for policy discussions and actions. Greater political party outreach, engagement, and deliberation offer promise and can help reconnect with political communities. But it will not be sufficient. Democratic governance needs to re-focus on its ability and capacity to solve specific and tangible problems. The key would be the involvement of those ordinary people affected in deliberation and dialogue with officials who would have a role in ensuring long-lasting solutions are institutionalized. This implies at least three new institutional design features: 1) devolving and empowering decision-making to where the problem lies; 2) conditioning responsibility and accountability to resource distribution; and 3) use and generation of new state institutions to support and guide problem-solving efforts.
The future of democratic governance depends on which path to follow. Attrition or moving away is an option that will have tremendous consequences for humanity, and will likely lead to a more insecure, violent, and conflictive world. Renewal and confronting the problem is another option that does have costs as well, but it also offers an opportunity to deal with the problem rather than ignoring it. Over the past decades, the electoral element of democracy has often been the focus of democratic governance. Today, while still important, elections are only one aspect of democratic governance. Any strategy to renew and rebuild democratic governance will need not only to strengthen electoral processes but also to tackle the widespread doubts about the efficacy of democracy in solving everyday problems. Ensuring the direct participation of stakeholders and beneficiaries would increase accountability and reduce the length of the chain of agency that accompanies policy processes and their bureaucratic apparatus. Deliberation would involve continuous joint planning, problem-solving, and strategizing. Beneficiaries and decision-makers would enter discursive arenas to formulate together means and ends. They would be encouraged to participate not exclusively to press pre-formed agendas or visions, but rather to articulate strategies and solutions and forge action through deliberation.
As many surveys have shown, people are not happy with democratic governance. But also, substantive majorities do not see authoritarianism as an alternative. It is clear most people would prefer to fix democratic governance and be part of that process. Rebuilding democratic governance will not be an easy task but doing nothing cannot be an option. Looking around the world, while most societies are contending with low levels of satisfaction with democratic governance, there are many places that can be called “islands of hope.” Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Canada, and New Zealand among others show high satisfaction with democratic governance. Key elements in these islands of hope are the resilience and adaptation of their systems, and most importantly the role citizens have in participating in decision-making processes that shape their lives. Important to learn from these systems, and hope the islands of hope continue to expand.
*Source of the photo: Pexels, 2022