Democracy's Retreat Around The World Requires Immediate Action

Democracies must prove their viability and desirability to their citizens who are looking for a better path forward.
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Protesters at an anti-Trump march in Washington, D.C. Jan. 21.
Protesters at an anti-Trump march in Washington, D.C. Jan. 21.
Mario Tama via Getty Images

In 2001, on September 11, America’s sense of security was shattered. It has not yet fully recovered.

In 2008, with the economic recession, America’s sense of economic stability was shattered. It has not yet fully recovered.

And in 2016, with the presidential election, America’s sense of political normalcy was shattered. It may be a long time before the country recovers.

This short century has witnessed the United States fall from the heights of its post-Cold War supremacy ― from an “indispensable nation” with unquestioned faith in its invulnerability, inevitable progress and ultimate primacy ― to one teetering on the edge.

Distrust and dissatisfaction with the government have reached near-record highs. Faith in a broad swath of critical institutions ― from business to media to religion ― has declined to near-record lows. Political polarization has spiked to levels not seen in generations; indeed, by some measurements, it now surpasses traditional social cleavages like race and religion. Political violence has become not just a specter but a reality.

If this sounds stark or alarmist, that’s because it is. The challenges we face cannot be met with pablum about “American exceptionalism.” They cannot be hidden by our many advantages ― our talented people, our innovative private sector, our supreme military or our enviable geography. Nor can they be hidden behind the very real — if imperfect — progress we have made on a whole host of critical issues, including race and gender.

“The challenges we face cannot be met with pablum about 'American exceptionalism.'”

The stark reality is that despite all the progress we’ve made and all the assets we’ve accumulated, the social contract is no longer working. It can no longer provide for a baseline of stability and progress for society. The future of the American dream is at stake. The viability of democracy is being called into question. We are going to have to rethink what we’re doing. And we are not the only ones.

We are in the midst of a global crisis in democracy and governance. In 2016, political upheaval rocked democracies on both sides of the Atlantic — the Brexit vote, the failure of government-sponsored referendums in Italy and Colombia, the strengthening of far-right and separatist movements across Europe and the election of President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, democracy is in retreat around the world. According to Freedom House, 2016 was the 11th consecutive year that freedom declined worldwide. Political rights and the rule of law diminished in 67 countries last year; only about half that many countries registered a net improvement.

The advent of the digital age is bringing about a historical transformation as momentous as that which accompanied the Industrial Revolution. In the 21st century, technology and globalization are challenging our institutions of government, which were designed to operate on a national scale or in cooperation with a few allies. For much of the 20th century, these institutions were capable of maintaining stability and delivering progress.

But, today, the old order is ineffective at managing the networked age and its challenges. An onslaught of crises — the financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Euro crisis, the emerging market crunch, the rise of global terror networks, state-sponsored election hacking — are all evidence that state responses to technological, generational, economic and political upheaval are falling short.

“The old order is ineffective at managing the networked age and its challenges.”

And the disruptions we now confront will only grow more severe. Take the challenge of job loss due to technology or outsourcing. In America and around the world, millions of jobs have been lost to technology in the last few decades. Advances in robotics may soon threaten not only manufacturing jobs but also service ones as well — even in “low wage” countries like China. This will put downward pressure on wages, exacerbating income inequality as capital and talent — particularly at the highest echelons — receive ever-greater returns. The global middle class — and those aspiring to join its ranks — may stagnate or recede.

These challenges threaten the American dream and its global counterparts. At home and abroad, the ability to live a dignified life seems increasingly under threat. Communities are fragmenting as diverging explanations for how to cope with change exacerbate pre-existing societal cleavages. This is a recipe for disaster. In countries as varied as Thailand, Brazil, Turkey, Israel and Spain, there have been large-scale protest movements driven in part by inequality. But these movements have shown little ability to resolve their underlying grievances. In severe cases, such as parts of the Arab world, Africa and Ukraine, societies are dividing to the point of state fragmentation and civil war.

These vast challenges require new thinking — and more than that, they require action. Around the world, democracies must prove the viability and desirability of their system to their own populations who are looking for a better path forward. The tasks are clear: to restore credibility and integrity to the democratic process, to rebuild vibrancy and truth into the public square, to enable governments to effectively operate with all the tools and capabilities of the 21 century and, above all else, to rebuild the social contract to meet the needs of citizens.

The road ahead will be long, but it must begin now with the type of hard work that has always determined the future of democracy: conversation, engagement, service and sacrifice for the greater good.

Ari Ratner is the project manager of the Berggruen Institute’s Renovating Democracy for the Digital Age project.

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