Saturday,23 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)
Saturday,23 March, 2019
Issue 1425, (10 - 16 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

The crisis of liberal democracy

Developments over the last decade have put in question the myth that liberal democracy is the end to which all countries are headed or that it constitutes the end of history writes Dina Shehata

In his classic book Polyarchy, the American political scientist Robert Dahl maintained that political regimes can be categorised according to two sets of criteria: pluralism/contestation and participation/inclusion. Liberal or constitutional democracies are distinct in that they are designed to allow for both high levels of pluralism/contestation and high levels of inclusion/participation, he said. In short, they are based on the twin pillars of liberalism and democracy. 

Liberalism or pluralism refers to a set of inalienable rights such as freedom of expression, of religion, of organisation and habeas corpus that are enshrined in laws and constitutions and are meant to ensure that all citizens can freely exercise their civic and political liberties. It also refers to institutional arrangements that create a system of checks and balances between the different branches of government and prevent any one branch from infringing on the independence of the others. 

Inclusion or participation refers to a set of institutional arrangements that allow citizens to participate in the political process through voting in free-and-fair elections and their elected representatives to choose policies that uphold the interests of their constituents. 

Such regimes are identified as liberal or constitutional democracies because popular sovereignty is bounded by a number of liberal or constitutional principles that are meant to prevent majorities from infringing on the rights of minorities and any single branch of government from usurping the powers of the other branches and hence at preventing tyranny.  

Since World War II and perhaps up until the election of Donald Trump as US president, liberal democracy was seen as an ideal regime type that countries should strive to achieve. It was argued that as countries develop economically politically and socially, they are likely to evolve into liberal democracies. 

The bulk of the scholarly work in political science over the past few decades has focused on how countries move from authoritarian and totalitarian regimes towards democracy. The 1990s was seen as the golden era of the liberal democratic model, as non-democratic regimes in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa and Asia were collapsing and giving way to liberal democratic regimes.

Some political scientists went as far as to maintain that liberal democracy constituted the end of history, both in the sense that it is the ideal end to which all countries should aspire and that it has established itself everywhere in the world as the only legitimate regime type.

However, developments over the last decade have busted this myth. As more and more countries move away from liberal democracy towards illiberal democracy and hybrid regime types and as some of the core liberal democracies in the West fall prey to populism, doubts have arisen about the future of liberal democracy and whether it is likely to persist in the face of the multiple crises that are threatening to undermine it everywhere in the world. 

This article argues that the crisis of Western or liberal democracy can be attributed in large part to the weakening of the principle of popular sovereignty and the significant narrowing of the social, economic and political choices available to the citizens of liberal democracies. 

In fact, the recent populist backlash in such countries can be seen as an attempt to establish the principles of popular will or the will of the majority in the face of liberal and constitutional constraints and hence the rising spectre of illiberal democracy. 

What follows examines some of the main variables that have led to the weakening of popular sovereignty in many liberal democracies in the West and beyond. 

 

THE END OF POLITICS: Since the end of World War II, most Western countries have opted for a consensual model of politics. 

Political power alternated between centre-right and centre-left parties and coalitions that sought to resolve political conflicts through elite bargaining and consensus. However, while this formula made sense in the light of the bloody conflicts of the first half of the 20th century, it nonetheless meant that in most Western countries a narrow elite dominated the political landscape. 

This elite tended to have a similar profile. Most members of it were white men, educated in elite universities, and from a more privileged economic background. This meant that until recently women, minorities and those without a university education were largely excluded from the political process. 

Though in recent years, women and minorities have made important advances in many of the older democracies, their ascent does not seem to have fundamentally transformed the basic policy options available to citizens.

 

THE RULE OF EXPERTS: The end of the Cold War ushered in an era of globalisation and free trade that has been buttressed by a set of largely unelected and non-democratic organisations such the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World trade Organisation and the various free-trade agreements they uphold. 

The end of the Cold War gave way to what is known as the liberal or Washington Consensus, which is dictated by these organisations and which has directed governments all over the world to liberalise their economies and to open their markets to global trade. These measures have led to the decline of the welfare state around the world and to the rising importance of experts and technocrats vis-à-vis elected politicians in the decision-making process. Moreover, in most liberal democracies central banks have played an increasingly independent role in driving economic policies. 

Thus, in many liberal democracies today crucial social and economic decisions are made by unelected organisations and technocrats who are often outside the country itself. This issue came to the forefront after the election of the leftist coalition Syriza in Greece with a clear mandate to reject the economic reforms proposed by the EU. However, Syriza was ultimately forced to accept austerity measures and to renounce the agenda upon which it was elected. 

 

FROM CLASS TO IDENTITY POLITICS: Historically, leftist political parties were the standard bearer of the interests and grievances of the working and popular classes. 

However, since the end of the Cold War many leftist parties across the Western world have redefined their agendas to focus on issues that are more relevant to the new middle classes, such as the environment and climate change, women’s and minority rights and LGBT issues, and they have abandoned their previous focus on labour rights, social justice and income distribution. 

Thus, in many Western countries, the working class and popular sectors of the population have found themselves without voice or representation, as the left has shifted its agenda away from class politics to identity politics. 

 

IMMIGRATION AND MULTICULTURALISM: The era of globalisation and economic integration has led to unprecedented levels of migration from the developing to the developed world. 

This has upended the demographic make-up of many Western societies and led to unprecedented levels of ethnic and cultural diversity and conflict. Many people in Western democracies today feel that the political elite has ignored the popular will by allowing for this influx of immigrants. Within Europe, many blame the EU for this development, and within the US many blame the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). 

 

WEAK PARTIES AND PARTICIPATION RATES: The narrowing of political choice between centre-left and centre-right parties and the displacement of decision-making to unelected institutions controlled by experts often outside national borders and the growing focus on identity rather than class-based issues has led to a growing indifference and distrust by large segments of the citizenry towards the political process. 

A growing number of citizens do not identity strongly with any of the main political parties in their countries, and levels of political participation in elections in Western democracies have been steadily declining. This has created a vacuum that a new elite upholding an anti-establishment, anti-intellectual/expert and anti-immigration agenda has been able to fill.

 

RIGHT-WING POPULISM AND THE SPECTRE OF ILLIBERAL DEMOCRACY: Nationalist populist movements that began to gain ground with the electoral successes of the Freedom Party in Austria and the Front National in France the late 1980s and 1990s have been steadily growing.  

What began as a small movement within the US Republican Party known as the Tea Party Movement led to the election of Donald Trump as president. Similarly, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) succeeded in convincing many British voters to choose Brexit in the referendum to leave the EU. In Italy, Austria and Hungary, populist parties have risen to power, and in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany they are slowly increasing their share of the vote. 

These parties are seen as populist because they claim to represent the voice of the people vis-à-vis the elite or the establishment. They are anti-intellectual in that they oppose the role played by experts and unelected bodies such as the EU in imposing policy choices on citizens. They oppose globalisation and free trade and call for greater economic protections. They oppose immigration and call for limiting the number of immigrants coming into the US and Europe.By challenging many of the previous givens of Western politics, such as free trade, globalisation and European integration, nationalist populist parties are challenging the significant narrowing of popular sovereignty and of political choice associated with the establishment parties and are striving to put the popular will back at the centre of politics even if that means weakening some of the liberal and constitutional aspects of democracy.


The writer is a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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