The Future of Democracy

A recent essay in The Economist examines what's gone wrong with democracy. The last quarter of the twentieth century was a heyday for democracy as new democracies were created in Africa and Asia, and autocratic regimes in Greece, Spain and Latin America were replaced by elected governments. But in the early decades of the twenty-first century, democracy has had a rockier road, with revolutions in Egypt, Sudan and now Ukraine producing mixed results.

The end of the Cold War was viewed as the triumph of capitalism over its rival ideology, communism. But it did not represent the universal triumph of democratic principles over more autocratic systems. The most notable counterpoint to democracy, as the Economist article points out, has been China, which has integrated free market capitalism with a stifling autocracy, although there are clearly many weaknesses in both their economic and political systems. However, for much of the non-Western, non-industrialized world, China presents a shining example of the strength of non-democratic systems.

A large part of the problem has been the economic and political challenges to the United States and other Western democracies over the past decade. The Great Recession of 2008 not only exposed the weakness of global capitalism but also the inability of the major powers to address the crisis. At the same time, the disastrous war in Iraq - supposedly in support of democratic forces in the Middle East - demonstrated both the naivete of the United States and its relative impotence in exporting democracy.

The most provocative argument in the Economist piece is that the political systems of the established democracies are outdated, stagnant and even corrupt. This argument cuts against some of the sacred cows for both the left and the right in America. For example, the tremendous expansion of federal government is blamed for handing over greater power to special interests who turned lobbying into an industry and our elected officials into bagmen for the wealthy and powerful. At the same time, politicians make promises that are impossible to keep while ignoring the most pressing national issues. And voters are bought off with a combination of media blitzes and divisive wedge issue politics.

The Economist article cites several proposals to cure what is ailing democracy in America. First, it proposes ten-year "sunset clauses" so that laws will be revisited and re-evaluated regularly. It also suggests electoral reforms like California's open primary system and non-partisan redistricting, as well as more direct democracy, including the possibility of greater online democracy. The point of the article, in sum, is that while human beings may have an impulse toward freedom and democracy in their hearts, that is not enough to create a viable political system. And simply because those in the Western, industrialized world take democratic principles as articles of faith doesn't mean that those principles will ever be an easy sell to the rest of the world. We have to continue to prove that it's still working right here at home.