Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Slow Death of Western Democracy and What Comes After

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Slow Death of Western Democracy and What Comes After

Article excerpt

"Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country."  Franklin D. Roosevelt 

Declining Confidence and Engagement

Last year, the downgrading of the United States from a "full democracy" to a "flawed democracy" in the annual Democracy Index by Economist Intelligence Unit made waves across international media. Although many commentators rushed to point to the election of Donald Trump as the determinant factor of this decline, the report insists this was not a cause but a result of it, due to a "protracted and persistent decline in levels of popular confidence in political institutions and parties." (1)

The United States was hardly alone in this troubling trend--a direct result of the slow erosion of public trust in politicians, political parties, and political institutions. The 2016 Democracy Index, which incorporates 60 indicators across five broad categories--electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties--saw the scores of more than 70 countries decline compared to 2015. (2) Out of the 38 countries that improved their scores, the case of Great Britain stands out, which went from 8.31 to 8.36 thanks to the strong turnout for the Brexit vote, which is in itself hardly a success for democracy.

The decline in confidence has increasingly become a fixture in Western democracies. In 1964, 77 percent of American citizens said they trusted the government in Washington "always" or "most of the time." (3) In 2015, that figure sunk to 19 percent. (4) In every major poll conducted since July 2007, less than one in three Americans have expressed trust in the federal government. (5) Although not as well documented as in the United States, this is a widespread phenomenon in other Western democracies. In particular, Pharr, Putnam, and Dalton identify evidence of the decline in political support in three areas: disillusionment with politicians, political institutions, and political parties. (6)

To clarify, distrust and criticism of the government are not only not bad but a crucial component of the democratic process. Disaffection is a healthy part of democracy, and elections give constituents the chance to correct their choices every so often. The problem is when "dissatisfaction is generalized to the point where citizens lose faith in the entire political class... then the chances for democratic renewal are seriously diminished." (7)

Alienation from political leaders has come from a mutual withdrawal of career politicians and the general public. On one hand, career politicians at the helm of political parties are increasingly perceived as disconnected elites who retreat into institutions and direct their ambitions toward external public institutions, often using political parties as stepping stones to other offices. (8) On the other hand, the general public withdraws either into private life or into what Beck terms sub-politics, or "politics emerging-and hiding away-in new places: for instance, in the everyday activities and choices of people and in the often informal and spontaneous political actions of social movements." (9) On the same topic, Bennett writes,

What is changing about politics is not a decline in citizen engagement, but a shift away from old forms that is complemented by the emergence of new forms of political interest and engagement... Civic culture is not dead, it has merely taken new identities, and can be found living in other communities. (10) 

In any case, this mutual withdrawal has two major effects: the growing acceptance and legitimation of non-political or depoliticized methods of decisionmaking, which kindles a sense of disempowerment among the general electorate; and increased hostility toward the national political class, which has facilitated various populist challenges, and which possibly reached its zenith in 2016. …

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