It’s a familiar dirge. Democracy is in decline. With every month that passes, the world is less democratic. Everywhere you look, there are undemocratic governments. That’s what journalists and op-ed writers constantly insist and TV talking heads assert.
I have written about this many times over. (Click here for my November 2018 piece, in the aftermath of Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil. The point I made was that “Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, the United States do not spell a decline in democracy – yet – but a decline in liberal values among people. At the very least, they indicate that people regard their other concerns – anger with misgovernance, corruption etc – as more important than liberal values.”)
I still believe that to be true. When people make unwise choices, electing leaders who are either vain or ignorant or cruel or cowardly or corrupt (or all of these things together), they will get what they voted for. It isn’t democratic decline that has thrown up a bad leader. In fact, he (it is generally a man) is an example of the triumph of democratic will. If he subsequently moves to limit democratic choice, by muzzling the media, packing the courts, undermining institutional impartiality and limiting the opposition by traducing political opponents, locking them up or taking them out, then democracy can be said to have started to decline.
We’re seeing this process underway in Turkey. In Russia, it’s at a late stage. In India, democratic decline is at least partly the absence of a coherent opposition challenge, based on a solid alternative agenda for governance. In the US, democracy can start to rolled back if people vote for the incumbent, who has already signalled his intentions and goals. In the UK, there is an incompetent government securely in power for the next few years, but there’s nothing to say it can’t or won’t be dislodged if the opposition is able to make a viable case.
In truth, democracy is only as good or bad as the people who use the democratic tools they’re privileged to have.
Accordingly, there’s a great deal to be said for the argument recently made by Ana Palacio, a former minister of foreign affairs of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group.
Ms Palacio says that “liberal democracy is founded on the idea that individuals acting rationally in their own interest will produce good outcomes”. But in recent years, voters in many democratic countries have shown an indifferent understanding of citizenship. She goes on quote the 19th century Italian politician Giuseppe Mazzini, who said that a liberal democracy can take root and flourish only if it is founded on duties, not just on rights. Citizens must be connected to one another by a higher cause.
That’s the crux of the matter. Democracy’s defence lies in the hands of those who practice it. We, the people.