Back in 2016, The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman advanced the view in a commentary for The Economist that the “strongman” style of leadership was gravitating from east to west, and growing stronger. “Across the world – from Russia to China and from India to Egypt – macho leadership is back in fashion,” Rachman wrote.
In light of subsequent developments around the world, he understated the “macho” phenomenon, driven by rising populism and growing mistrust of democratic systems.
That commentary was published before Donald Trump prevailed in the US presidential election and turned upside-down assumptions about how an American president might behave.
Whether we like it or not, the most powerful country in the world – until now, an exemplar of Western liberal democracies and global stabiliser in times of stress – is ruled by an autocrat who pays little attention to democratic norms.
Spread of authoritarianism
In his lecture delivered just a day after Trump appeared to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over America’s intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, Barack Obama drew attention to the new authoritarianism.
Without referring directly to Trump, Obama issued his most pointed criticism yet of the nativist and populist policies adopted by his successor on issues like immigration, protectionism and climate change.
The politics of fear and resentment … is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around – strongman politics are on the ascendant.
Trump, therefore, is not an aberration. He is part of a strengthening authoritarian trend more or less across the globe.
In Thailand, the army shows little inclination to yield power it seized in a military coup in 2014, even if there was public clamour for a return to civilian rule (which there is not).
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing to strengthen his hold on the country, expanding the powers of the presidency and locking up political rivals and journalistic critics. As a result, Turkey’s secular and political foundations are being undermined.
In Brazil, 40% of those polled by Vanderbilt University a few years back said they would support a military coup to bring order to their country, riven by crime and corruption.
And in Saudi Arabia, a young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has detained the country’s leading businessmen and extorted billions from them in return for their freedom. This took place without censure from the West.
The death of truth
Meanwhile, genuine liberal democrats are in retreat as a populist tide laps at their doors.
In Germany, Angela Merkel, the most admirable of Western liberal democratic leaders, is just holding on against anti-immigration forces on the right.
In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, the leaders of the established centre-right and centre-left parties, are similarly under pressure from nativist forces on the far right.
What Australia and these other countries lack is a Trump, but anything is possible in an emerging strongman era, including the improbable – such as the emergence of a reality TV star as leader of the free world.
In a recent Lowy Institute opinion survey only 52% of younger Australians aged 18-29 years believed that democracy was preferable to other alternative forms of government.
In all of this, among the casualties is the truth, and particularly the truth. All politicians bend the truth to a certain extent, but there is no recent example in a Western democracy of a political leader who lies as persistently as Trump.
Like the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Trump lives in his own make-believe reality TV world where facts, it seems, are immaterial.
In his lecture in South Africa, Obama dwelled at length on the corruption of political discourse in the modern era, including a basic disrespect for the facts.
People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in the growth of state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. It used to be that if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.
A decade ago, it appeared that a revolution in information and communications technologies would empower the individual at the expense of the state. Western leaders believed social networks would create ‘people power,’ enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson. They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.
In his conclusion, Bremmer has this sobering observation:
Perhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s rise is the message it sends. The systems that powered the Cold War’s winners now look much less appealing than they did a generation ago. Why emulate the US or European political systems, with all the checks and balances that prevent even the most determined leaders from taking on chronic problems, when one determined leader can offer a credible shortcut to greater security and national pride? As long as that rings true, the greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come.
If you value the media’s watchdog role in democracy, then the opening words in the deal enabling Channel Nine to acquire Fairfax Media, the biggest single shake-up of the Australian media in more than 30 years, ring alarm bells.
The opening gambit is an appeal to advertisers, not readers. It promises to enhance “brand” and “scale” and to deliver “data solutions” combined with “premium content”. Exciting stuff for a media business in the digital age. But for a news organisation what is missing are key words like “news”, “journalism” and “public interest”.
Those behind the deal, its political architects who scrapped the cross-media ownership laws last year, and its corporate men, Fairfax’s and Nine’s CEOs, proffer a commercial rather than public interest argument for the merger. They contend that for two legacy media companies to survive into the 21st century, this acquisition is vital.
Perhaps so. But Australia’s democratic health relies on more than a A$4 billion media merger that delivers video streaming services like Stan, a lucrative real estate advertising website like Domain, and a high-rating television program like Love Island.
The news media isn’t just any business. It does more than entertain us and sell us things. Through its journalism, it provides important public interest functions.
Ideally, news should accurately inform Australians. A healthy democracy is predicated on the widest possible participation of an informed citizenry. According to liberal democratic theorists, the news media facilitate informed participation by offering a diverse range of views so that we can make considered choices, especially during election campaigns when we decide who will govern us.
Journalists have other roles too, providing a check on the power of governments and the excesses of the market, to expose abuses that hurt ordinary Australians.
This watchdog role is why I am concerned about Nine merging with Fairfax. To be clear, until last week, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of investigative journalism in Australia.
Newspapers like The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Newcastle Herald and the Financial Review have a strong record of using their commercial activities to subsidise expensive investigative journalism to strengthen democratic accountability by exposing wrongdoing. Channel Nine does not.
Since the formation of The Age’s Insight team in 1967, Fairfax investigations have had many important public outcomes after exposing transgressions including: judicial inquiries, criminal charges, high-profile political and bureaucratic sackings, and law reforms. Recent examples include the dogged work of Fairfax and ABC journalists to expose systemic child sex abuse in the Catholic Church and elsewhere, leading to a royal commission and National Redress Scheme for victims. Another was the exposure of dodgy lending practices that cost thousands of Australians their life savings and homes, which also triggered a royal commission.
The problem with Nine’s proposed takeover of Fairfax (if it goes ahead) is that it is unlikely to be “business as usual” for investigative journalism in the new Nine entity. First, there is a cultural misalignment and, with Nine in charge, theirs is likely to dominate.
With notable exceptions such as some 60 Minutes reporting, Nine is better known for its foot-in-the-door muckraking and chequebook journalism than its investigative journalism. In comparison, seven decades of award-winning investigative journalism data reveal Fairfax mastheads have produced more Walkley award-winning watchdog reporting than any other commercial outlet.
Second, even as the financial fortunes of Fairfax have waned in the digital age, it has maintained its award-winning investigative journalism through clever adaptations including cross-media collaborations, mainly with the ABC. This has worked well for both outlets, sharing costs and increasing a story’s reach and impact across print, radio, online and television.
How will this partnership be regarded when Fairfax is Nine’s newlywed? Will the ABC be able to go it alone with the same degree of investigative reporting in light of its successive federal government budget cuts?
Third, my latest research (see graph) has shown that in Australia, as in Britain and the United States, investigative stories and their targets have changed this decade to accommodate newsroom cost-cutting.
Investigations are more likely to focus on stories that are cheaper and easier to pursue. This means some areas such as local politics and industrial relations have fallen off the investigative journalist’s radar. Here and abroad, this reflects cost-cutting and a loss of specialist reporters.
Echoing this, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson, warned:
There are so many important junctures in life where there is no journalistic surveillance going on. There are too many journalistic communities in the United States now where the newspaper doesn’t have the reporter to cover the city council, the school committee, the mayor’s office … we have about half the number of reporters that we had in the late 1990s. You can’t possibly contend that you are doing the same level or depth of reporting. Too much stuff is just slipping through too many cracks.
Of concern, Australian award-winning investigations already cover a smaller breadth of topics compared to larger international media markets. The merger of Fairfax mastheads with Channel Nine further consolidates Australia’s newsrooms. If investigative journalism continues, story targets are likely to be narrow.
Finally, investigative journalism is expensive. It requires time, resources and, because it challenges power, an institutional commitment to fight hefty lawsuits. Fairfax has a history of defending its investigative reporters in the courts, at great expense.
Will Nine show the same commitment to defending its newly adopted watchdog reporters using earnings from its focus on “brand”, “scale” and “data solutions”? For the sake of democratic accountability, I hope so.
Andrea Carson, Incoming Associate Professor at LaTrobe University. Former Lecturer, Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences; Honorary Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne
As democracy’s popularity decreases, support for alternatives, such as polarised and extreme politics and “strongman” governance, continues to rise.
A shift to the extreme
As voters disengage with politics, the character of democracy begins to shift. Democratic systems have moved away from moderated, representational versions of themselves into what might be termed “democratic extremism”.
These parties are increasingly dominated by former political advisers and career party functionaries with comparatively little life experience. This comes at a time when occupational, gender and life-experience diversity is increasing in society at a rapid rate.
The election of Donald Trump in the US and the populist forces that underwrote Brexit illustrate the extreme polarisation of politics at the moment, as well.
This “unrepresentative” democracy creates a feedback loop. As the public invests less interest and commitment to democracy, the democratic arena is captured by those with narrow, unrepresentative world views. Growing public disengagement leads to the greater capture of democratic processes by outlier groups and individuals who are hostile to democratic institutions and practices.
Young people are increasingly becoming supporters of these types of strongman and populist governments. They are more open to democracy alternatives, such as military rule, and more likely to express support for authoritarian regimes.
However, these “solutions” often ignore democracy’s values and practices, further eroding its legitimacy and support.
Disruption in democracy
In theory, extremism is weeded out from democracy through its “trimming” system.
Public input flowing into a democratic system – supported by basic democratic values as free speech and freedom of association – “trims” away extreme views and policies.
But as mainstream voters turn off or tune out, democracy’s inherent barriers against extremism are dismantled, as well. This leaves democracy hollowed out and at risk of being hijacked by those at the fringes.
The problem lies with the current “delivery system” of democracy, which is organised around the parliaments, mass political parties and periodic elections that emerged in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.
There have been almost no significant reforms to democracy’s delivery around the world for more than a century.
Reform challenge of our age
We need to reinvigorate democracy to meet the expectations of citizens as to how 21st-century democracy should engage and perform.
A few years ago, the idea of citizen juries to advise parliaments, diversified political representation, and stronger checks and balances on partisan politics would have struggled to gain public support.
This is an edited extract from Tim Lindsey’s essay ‘Retreat from Democracy’, which appears in Australian Foreign Affairs #3, published 9 July.
For much of the past 20 years, Indonesia has been held up as a model of democratic transition for other countries, particularly those with significant Muslim populations.
Indonesia’s leaders like to present their nation as embodying an exemplary path away from authoritarianism. Their form of government, they say, is tolerant yet enshrines religious practice, offering a political alternative for Muslim communities that is more palatable to the West than the failed Arab Spring and the extremist catastrophes that have engulfed the Middle East since the US intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This view of Indonesia now needs rethinking. The country’s hard-won advances towards liberalism and tolerance may be under threat. This nation of more than 260 million people – over 85% of them Muslim – has often been called the “smiling face of Islam”, but that label may no longer apply.
Indonesia’s recent questioning of its own liberal-democratic aspirations
has been accompanied by growing expressions of intolerance, including violence towards vulnerable minorities. As next year’s presidential election approaches, the temptation to resort to regressive identity politics and opportunistic populism will increase, and Indonesia’s departure from its post-1998 progressive tilt is likely to become more pronounced.
Sliding towards a ‘Neo New Order’?
In Indonesia today, reform has stagnated. Although the democratic transition in 1998 was presented as a national consensus, this was never entirely true. It always had opponents, some of whom felt politically constrained to accept democratisation as a necessary evil but never accepted it as a final settlement.
As well as the hardliners, today these include enormously wealthy oligarchs, tenacious survivors of former dictator Suharto’s regime and elements of the armed forces. These disparate forces that together form Indonesia’s revisionist and populist right have little in common and often compete with one another. However, they also create expedient alliances from time to time, motivated by a common desire to roll back at least some of the democratic system initiated by Reformasi, the reform era.
Together they can sometimes intimidate or outflank progressive civil-society leaders. Governments, local and national, seem uncertain about how to respond to these challenges, and vacillate between inaction, opaqueness or endorsement of reactionary policies. As a result, 20 years on from Reformasi, the spirit of reform that drove democratisation seems distant.
Most Indonesian champions of civil society would agree that Reformasi ended long ago – maybe well over a decade ago – but a new label to define what replaced it has not yet emerged. This reflects an uncertainty among many Indonesians about where their country is heading. Many prominent critics of the government believe that while electoral democracy seems entrenched, liberal democracy is under threat from populism, Islamism and renewed conservatism.
For them, Indonesia seems to be sliding towards what some call the “Neo New Order”. Others say this is too harsh, arguing that electoral democracy
is now firmly entrenched and the critical change that marked the end of
Suharto’s system, the retreat of the military from government, has not
However, it is increasingly difficult to argue that all is well with Indonesian democracy. The forthcoming elections aside, rampant corruption is perhaps Indonesia’s single biggest political issue. The courageous Corruption Eradication Commission is under continual attack from politicians and police. The human rights courts are virtually defunct and rarely hear cases.
The National Commission on Human Rights is ineffective; the Constitutional Court has faced its own corruption scandals; the press is confronting increasingly prohibitive defamation laws that assist politicians and oligarchs; and civil society is under pressure from elite push-back and Islamist provocation.
Indonesia’s alt-right: trolls, hackers and vigilantes
The tensions over Islam are part of a much older struggle in Indonesia
to determine who controls the interpretation of the religion, and thus
religious power. However, the recent rise of conservative Islamist
hardliners also resembles the rise of populism and conservative politics
elsewhere in the world. Islamist conservatives are in many ways
the local equivalent of America’s alt-right – and they are just as adept
at online disruption and manipulation.
Research by State Islamic University Jakarta links the rise of religious
intolerance among young Muslims to their increased access to the internet and social media. Indeed, Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world, and Indonesians are very big users of Facebook, as well as WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, an encrypted-messaging service.
One of the best-known examples of online disruption involves the so-called Muslim Cyber Army, the most prominent of a number of tags adopted by Islamist trolls in Indonesia. Active across all platforms popular in Indonesia, Muslim Cyber Army members enjoy building an atmosphere of mystery, threat and self-importance, sometimes using the Guy Fawkes mask, popularised by the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, of the hacktivist group Anonymous in their postings.
This is deeply ironic, given the distance between their ideological objectives and the libertarian ambitions of most Western hacktivist groups. The Muslim Cyber Army does, however, share a willingness to exploit online anonymity to enable criminal activity – for example, by hijacking the social media accounts of the dead.
An Indonesian researcher, Damar Juniarto, has shown that Muslim Cyber Army trolls are highly effective, working collectively and using tools such as Twitbots to flood Twitter with coordinated messages. They target their more liberal opponents by “doxing”: publishing their personal information and contact details. This often triggers physical attacks from groups such as the notorious vigilante organisation Islamic Defenders Front, or Front Pembela Islam (FPI), within a few days and, in some cases, police attention on suspicion of blasphemy.
A list of such targets went viral in a video produced by the “Blasphemer Hunter Team”. These groups have attacked President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (known as “Ahok”), foreigners and LGBTI Indonesians – targets they share with some prominent hardliner “buzzers”, or social media opinion leaders, many of whom are keyboards for hire.
Juniarto also suggests that many of these groups have close ties to politicians and senior military figures. Certainly, social media manipulation and “fake news” hoaxes produced by Islamist groups were powerful factors in the campaign that led to Ahok’s defeat in last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial elections. The winner was Anies Baswedan, a protégé of former general Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s possible rival in the 2019 presidential election.
It would be naive to think this won’t happen again in next April’s crucial legislative and presidential races. During the 2014 presidential campaign, Jokowi, a Muslim, endured claims he was a closet Christian and ethnic Chinese (his detractors chose to ignore the fact that his opponent, also a Muslim, has a Christian mother and siblings).
The upcoming presidential election – which may well be a rematch between Jokowi and Prabowo, but for the first time held simultaneously with legislative elections – is expected to see the most vicious cyber campaigning yet.
Former US president Barack Obama visited New Zealand this week and met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Both leaders share an interest in youth development and their discussions focused on how to keep younger generations engaged and involved.
Becroft argues that a lower voting age could enhance turnout, ingrain the habit of voting, and give young people more rights.
However, his comments have been met by similar responses to those former New Zealand Green MP Sue Bradford received when she initially proposed lowering the voting age back in 2007.
Opponents argue that young people lack maturity, life experience and civic knowledge. At 16 and 17, critics say, young people are heavily influenced by adults such as teachers and parents (and therefore subject to coercion), and their ability to vote doesn’t match other responsibilities young people hold as they are still largely dependent economically on adults.
This time, however, New Zealand would not be alone in giving younger people the vote. Sixteen-year-olds in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, Austria, Nicaragua and Brazil now have voting rights.
In the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, 16- and 17-year-olds seized the opportunity to vote; 75% of their cohort turned out to vote. In the US, high school students are showing their considerable political strength in protesting against gun violence in their schools.
New Zealand has a very inclusive electoral system. It allows people on benefits to vote, despite their lack of economic independence. It also allows those with cognitive disabilities to vote, regardless of the severity of their disability and the degree to which they are influenced by their parents or caregivers. And it allows that members of religious groups are given guidance on how to vote by their religious leaders.
The system ought to be more consistent in applying its reasons for preventing people from voting. If lack of maturity is a reason to stop someone voting, it applies to all who lack maturity. If being heavily influenced by others is a reason to prevent someone from voting, it applies to all who are subject to this sort of influence.
There is an even deeper problem with the objections against a lower voting age. Consider how we treat those aged above 18 and those below 18 when it comes to proving their capacity to vote.
Those over 18 are accepted as voters, and remain so regardless of their actions (short of criminal offences that see them imprisoned and their voting rights removed). Those under 18 are presumed not to have the capacity to vote, and are denied any opportunity to show otherwise. But in neither case are we actually examining whether the individual concerned has the qualities we want in a voter.
Young people have perhaps more opportunity than older people to develop these qualities. The younger a person the more time they have to spend in formal education, where they can develop their civic knowledge and recognise the importance of political participation – including voting.
Lowering the voting age to 16 would bring the age of political responsibility more in line with the age of criminal responsibility and the age of informed consent for medical procedures.
New Zealand’s current system is willing to hold a 16-year-old responsible for murder, but deny that same 16-year-old the responsibility to cast a vote. This isn’t right. They are either capable of acting both well and badly, or of doing neither.
In New Zealand, discussions on lower voting ages take place alongside conversations about civic education in schools. Becroft and others recognise that both should go hand in hand. However, this is not a simple premise.
A large-scale longitudinal study of more than 4,000 students in the US found that civic learning in which students actually experienced involvement in civic and political issues — and particularly on issues that matter to them – had the greatest long-term impact on future political participation.
This bodes well for New Zealand, as research published last year following a two-year study on social studies students taking social action for their internal assessment credits showed the curriculum is well set up for young people to experience civic engagement.
Encouraging younger voter participation is complex but essential if we want to maintain the health of our democracy.
If we cannot imagine a future for democracy after the break-up of its historic marriage to capitalism, then I suppose we should declare it dead. But I prefer to think that capitalism’s spurning of democracy offers a context for instituting new forms of democratic governance.
The institutions of the modern democratic state have always stood for the interests of proprietors, upholding formal rights (equality of opportunity) over material equity (equality of condition).
The revolutions that threw off monarchical and colonial rule in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were, with very few exceptions, bourgeois revolutions. The state’s obligation to the collective interest of the people thus finds a limit in its competing and contradictory obligation to the protection of private property.
From this vantage point, the corporate takeover and decimation of existing democratic institutions may free us to conceive and cultivate more radically democratic organisations that centre on the welfare of peoples, rather than individuals.
Movements such as Occupy Wall Street clearly tend in this direction, experimenting with radical, participatory democracy in the belly of the beast.
On the model of Occupy, radical democracy entails the creation of myriad autonomous zones, whether temporary or semi-permanent.
As ethnonationalism and authoritarianism flourish in the ruins of capitalist democracy, it remains to be seen if the Left can reimagine itself, no longer as a dissident force, hostile or marginal to the institutions of capitalist democracy, but rather as a force for institutionalisation, elaborating new forms and practices of popular sovereignty at the local, regional and planetary scale.
Democracy expresses itself in many ways
Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra
When someone says “democracy is dead” they aren’t critiquing democracy itself. They’re critiquing a specific expression of it, usually the representative kind. To conflate democracy with but one of its expressions is dangerous because this dismisses more than 2,000 of its other expressions.
Some, like deliberative democracy, are normative projects in part destined to improve the representative institutions that most of us are familiar with.
Others, like Waldorf democracy, where “waiters and financiers, telephone girls and captains of industry, coatroom clerks and merchant princes [sit] side by side” at dinner, are historical expressions that can help us find new purchase on some of today’s more enduring problems such as class division.
These expressions help us make sense of the democracies we live in – think in particular of unwieldy democracy, green democracy and corrupt democracy.
So, it doesn’t make sense to say “democracy is dead”, because democracy doesn’t mean just one thing. As we come to know each of democracy’s expressions better, and make sense of them collectively, it’s my wager that this will lead to more inclusion, equality, self-rule, autonomy, fairness and non-violence within our states, between our states, and in our lives.
Enemies within exploit ideology of democracy
Nadia Urbinati, Columbia University
The ideology of democracy has disfigured democracy and is one of the reasons for its weakness today.
Contemporary democracy is at the centre of this paradox: as a political system, democracy enjoys an undisputed global hegemony so that even constitutional “reforms” that curtail civil liberties and contradict the spirit of political openness are made in the name of democracy as more genuine affirmations of democracy’s values. Venezuela and Hungary offer prime examples of this.
Particularly after the Cold War, the ideology of democracy has found itself in a situation of planetary solitude. The paradox is that no other names today are available to give legitimacy to political enterprises that are not easily rendered as democratic in the constitutional and representative mode in which democracy is valued.
So we witness the coinage of oxymoronic terms, like authoritarian democracy, technocratic democracy and meritocratic democracy, among others.
One of the effects of this paradox is that political orders named as democratic are not only in contrast with democracy but are moreover primed to cast doubt on the value of democracy. How can we value political equality when our democracies promote technocracy or national-populism?
Not to have names to name these transformations of democratic governments is a problem because it contributes to delegitimising democracy. The ideology of democracy obfuscates political reality and leaves us with no argument against adversaries of democracy from within.
This is the cultural and political context in which a new form of representative government is today primed to emerge within the democratic nest, thus changing democracy from within, silently and inadvertently.
A problem of shallow cultural foundations
Youngho Cho, Sogang University
Democracy is still a dominant force this century. No government or political leader literally opposes democracy and openly attempts to break it down. Indeed, they instrumentally use democracy to legitimise their own rule and governance.
Democracy has, in this sense, absolute power over its alternatives, as Francis Fukuyama declared more than two decades ago.
So why is democracy dysfunctional in spite of its global and universal appeal among leaders and ordinary people? One reason is that leaders manipulate the meanings of democracy and people misunderstand it. People do not understand democracy as its scholars do.
Moreover, a large proportion of Asians do not conceive democracy as most Westerners do. When thinking about democracy, many Chinese people imagine economic development, the domestic and regional dominance of Han China and social order.
Certainly, the rule of law, limited government, civil liberties, political rights and press freedom do not matter much in mass conceptions of democracy in certain corners of the world.
Even in advanced countries, when strong leaders such as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen speak about democracy, they emphasise dominance and the rule of the majority and try to take minority rights away. We may be living in an era of democratic dominance for the first time in history, but its practices are not necessarily liberal or democratic.
Lamentably, democracy’s cultural foundation is shallow. We need more education about democracy and popular engagement with its diverse forms.
Where is the evidence for claims of doom?
Dawn Brancati, Columbia University
Dramatic claims that democracy is in peril around the world or, worse yet, that it is already dead, make great headlines. They may even be valuable in motivating governments and individuals to be vigilant against threats to democracy around the world.
However, there isn’t sufficient empirical evidence to support these claims.
Statements about democracy’s recession are often based on a few anecdotal, but salient, cases of where democracy has been genuinely curtailed, and do not take into account the number of cases where democracy has remained strong or has advanced in recent years.
These statements are also often about aspects of political systems that are important, but not about democracy per se. Claims that democracy is on the decline have been made based on bureaucratic incompetency, corruption, government criticism of the media, and so forth.
Many democracy indices exist that can discern trends over time, but there are no indices that identify or measure all aspects of political systems, that define open and competitive elections, and that are needed, therefore, to make conclusions about which aspects of democracy are on the decline and which are on the rise around the world.
Such comprehensive data would make for a much less titillating view about the state of democracy in the world, but it would be a more accurate and responsible one.
Democracy as equality
Clare Woodford, University of Brighton
For too long political thought has muddled democracy – the enactment of the equality of all – with representative regimes we call democratic but which are in actual fact always oligarchic.
The equality of the people cannot be institutionalised. This does not mean that some forms of institutionalisation would not be more disposed towards democracy than others.
It seems pertinent to question the relationship between democracy and the regimes that go by its name. But the focus of such questioning must surely be the manner and extent to which any regime creates and supports (or represses and undermines) the ongoing conditions for democracy rather than simply institutionalising and entrenching one form of equality over others such that it becomes stale and oppressive.
A debate over whether democracy is dead or alive may only work to discipline the demos in an ill-fated attempt to defend it. But the very emergence of this debate highlights the urgency with which we must attend to the ways in which emancipation has become entangled with and subverted by domination through institutionalisation.
To misrecognise democracy is to place more barriers in its way. As long as things could be other than they are democracy is always possible. Regardless of how long it is suppressed or lies dormant, and to the perpetual chagrin of its opponents, democracy can never die.
Consider Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s referendum, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of state-sanctioned murder and Hungary’s drift towards a new authoritarianism.
“Democracy is dead,” say the disheartened. “It’s time to bury democracy,” pounds one Tunisian pro-Sharia party. “Democracy has fallen, we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populist and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies.
These mantras, circulated widely through social media, have ricocheted around the world and were felt perhaps most viscerally in 2017. It was a year full of political events that, in hindsight, look like a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.
Is democracy dying, or perhaps already dead? Is it really time to eulogise democracy, or are we rather on the cusp of a new phase in its long and varied life? – Jean-Paul Gagnon, University of Canberra
Anguish about democracy attests to its value
Alice el-Wakil, University of Zurich
It has become common that under half of the citizenry votes in most Western democracies, that anti-democratic politicians get elected, and that elected authorities are accused of failing to protect citizens’ interests.
Corruption and nepotism are making comebacks and inequalities of all sorts are on the rise. At this time it is legitimate to ask whether democracy is breaking apart.
However, this worrisome situation should not transform us into sceptics about democracy. The outcry against the problems mentioned above shows that the public notices and criticises political shortcomings to realise democratic ideals – that there is something about democracy worth mobilising for.
Hence, as certain existing democratic regimes risk being perverted, we should use this critical moment to reinvent and expand democracy.
In most parts of the world, democracy has so far only taken the form of a specific kind of institutional arrangement, namely electoral representative democracy. It relies on a valuable but limited set of institutions, which preserves an exclusionary bias and a fundamental suspicion of citizens’ capacity to make political decisions.
The current challenges to this specific set of institutions should encourage us to acknowledge alternative, emerging practices of democratic participation and to create and experiment with complementary institutions.
Referendum procedures, new forms of representation, or assemblies of citizens are examples of the innovations we should consider to revivify democratic systems. Be it only because democracy enables us to publicly, legitimately and continuously question its value and to peacefully propose new ways of realising it.
Don’t look to the powerful for answers
Anna Szolucha, University of Bergen
The democratic impulse rarely originates in the corridors of power. Certain political elites may have a knack for exploiting right-wing populist and nationalist narratives to rewrite history and give a semblance of democratic legitimacy to the “corporate state”, but they are hardly effective when it comes to promoting popular concerns about freedom, justice, equality and social dialogue.
During the wave of pro-democratic protests that recently swept through the world, protesters in the West were critical of the liberal representative model of democracy, growing inequalities, and the influence of business on politics.
It’s clear there is a need to rethink democracy. The solution, however, is not to revamp the old model but to defend and simultaneously revisit the idea of democracy. We need to do so in such a way that it fosters equality, freedom and a sense that ordinary citizens have a greater influence on politics – virtues that the liberal representative version has failed to deliver.
The task of rethinking democracy is pressing because we are witnessing arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites to appropriate democratic language to expand their own powers.
Despite massive protests and opposition to their policies, they call on “The People” to offer more undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems. They curtail freedom, centralise control, divide society, destroy the climate and institutionalise their privilege in the process.
The rethinking and remaking of democracy is going to take effort and perseverance, but the continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because it never belonged to those who seem to be killing it in the first place.
Three keys to democratic values
Nancy Rosenblum, Harvard University
Authoritarian power grabs – those grim assaults on constitutional democracy – demand political and legal resistance. Illiberal populism – those episodic rejections of the terms of political representation – demand the rehabilitation of hollowed-out parties.
Authoritarianism is the business of predators: the cynical exploitation of the democratic weaknesses of the moment. Populism is expressive anger: a reaction against conditions of the moment felt to be threatening and out of control. Both are caused by democracy’s own political demons.
We don’t need to relitigate democracy, but we do need a full-throated affirmation of its value, which comes in three different keys.
The aspirational key: democracy is a system of political representation rooted in the moral ground of the equal value of all the governed. No constitutional arrangement is democratic without aspirational commitment to civil and political equality in the form of civil and political rights. No bad faith “illiberal democracy” makes that commitment.
The outcome key: over time and in the face of vicissitudes and ineptitude, democracy aims at general wellbeing more consistently and competently than other forms of government. Democracy is the only self-correcting system. Democracies have recessions, depressions and fumbling responses to crises. They do not have famines.
The defence against tyranny key: civil society is the bulwark against arbitrary and total power. Only democracy cultivates freedom of association and its product: the groups, associations, networks and political parties that fuel unendingly contested democratic politics and that make trouble.
Our best check on elite tyranny
David Teegarden, University at Buffalo – State University of New York
Democratic governance provides the best practical check on elite domination. The citizenry has numerical superiority in every state. Unfortunately, elites (wealth, military, religious) know how to atomise and render them effectively powerless: thus the persistence of narrow oligarchy and autocracy throughout recorded history.
However, democratic institutions such as elections, the law and the free press, along with their ideals of political equality and individual freedom, can facilitate citizens’ efforts to co-ordinate their actions, draw upon their collective strength and force their elite competitors to agree to some sort of co-operative relationship.
In a functioning democracy, everybody – even billionaires, generals and bishops – must obey laws made by and enforced by all citizens.
It is certainly true that democratic governance often breeds contentious public discourse. It can lead to terrible, even disastrous outcomes from time to time. But it is far better to endure those things than to endure the horror of being forced to bow down publicly to an oppressive tyrant with no realistic hope of betterment either for yourself or for your children.
Solutions start with a constructive critique
Peter Wilkin, Brunel University
Representative democracy has always been regarded as problematic by those who have sought to replace it with authoritarian rule. Today many of these authoritarian trends have gained new voice and increasingly anti-democratic forces can be found.
But we can’t conflate all challenges to representative democracy as being the same. We can distinguish between those social forces that draw inspiration from the radical right – such as ethnonationalism, neo-fascism, militarism – and those that can be seen as a novel continuation of the libertarian socialist tradition – Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Rojava.
The radical right is intolerant, aggressive and wants to capture the state for authoritarian ends and to nationalise capitalism.
By contrast, the libertarian socialist tradition is an attempt to extend democracy into areas like the economy (for example the citizen’s wage, universal income, worker control of industry). Libertarian socialists also attempt to reconfigure centralised state power and restore decision-making to communities.
Both movements are responding to the same conditions: the polarising impact of capitalism on social life (inequality, insecurity, poverty) and the failure of representative democracy to offer solutions to these problems.
Such solutions are simpler for the radical right, which has no commitment to democracy or civil liberties. The radical right wants to impose order upon society by any means, including violence and intimidation.
For movements inspired by the libertarian socialist aspiration to deepen, enrich and extend democracy, finding solutions is much harder. The means to be used are seen as fundamental to the society that will emerge.
As a result, violence, fear, propaganda and other powerful anti-democratic tools are eschewed in favour of education and organising communities through dialogue and negotiation.
Overcome short-termism for democratic renewal
Graham Smith, University of Westminster
In privileging the present over long-term sustainability, contemporary democracies have failed to deal effectively with climate change. But this does not mean, as some suggest, that we require a more authoritarian solution. Rather, we need to understand the sources of short-termism and think more creatively about our democratic institutions and practices.
The sources of short-termism are multiple and mutually reinforcing. These include: short electoral cycles that incentivise limited party-political horizons; vested interests that benefit from current political and economic arrangements; our psychological preference for immediate gratification; an economic system that privileges carbon-based consumption; and unborn generations who are unable to defend their interests.
These examples could be seen as a litany of despair. Or they could be recognised as a new set of challenges on which to base democratic renewal.
The potential contours for a reinvigorated long-term democracy are beginning to emerge. Imaginative and practical democratic innovation already includes: institutional experimentation such as independent offices for future generations that scrutinise the decision-making of other public bodies; new rights and forms of public participation designed to orientate citizens towards consideration of future generations; and co-operatives and other forms of collective corporate governance that prioritise sustainability over immediate economic return.
Time to get serious about citizenship education
Ryusaku Yamada, Soka University
Civil society, voluntary associations, active citizenship, social capital – these were the rosy keywords often used in discussions of radical democracy at the end of the 20th century.
Now, nearly 20 years later, we are seeing that people’s active participation can be negative, driven by emotional populist movements. Social capital is not always strong enough to empower people who are alienated and excluded from decision-making. Civil society is often uncivil.
History tells us that the so-called democratic political system does not guarantee the improvement of democratic society. Karl Mannheim, for example, who analysed mass society in the age of fascism, worried about an irrational democracy of emotions.
Mannheim was an advocate of social education (a concept similar to citizenship education today), which is meant to make the attitudes and behaviours of both common people and elites more democratic.
Although some might doubt the efficacy of such an education for the democratisation of society, it hasn’t in any serious way been tried before. As the old saying goes: we won’t know if it’ll work until we try.
For Mannheim and some of his contemporaries like John Dewey, T.S. Eliot and A.D. Lindsay, democracy is not only a political system but also a way of life. Citizenship education is not only a matter of school education but also of people’s social practice in their everyday lives.
Far from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.
Moreover, the country’s president-elect, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is hardly a breath of fresh air. Having held a series of cabinet positions under Mugabe, and served as first vice president between December 2014 and his sacking in November 2017, he looks more like a force for continuity than change.
As a result, talk in Harare quickly turned to what kind of leader Mnangagwa will be, and the system of government that would best serve ordinary Zimbabweans.
The fork in the road
My conversations with people on the streets of the capital, Harare, about the political system the country needs suggests that two distinct camps are emerging: those who want elections to be held as soon as possible, and those who say the polls should be postponed and a transitional government established.
Both of these options have genuine “pros” but also strong “cons”. As is so often the case, there is no perfect answer that solves all problems.
It is understandable that many Zimbabweans want a period of calm and orderly government after the twists and turns of recent weeks, and believe that it would be better to form an inclusive government that would feature representatives of all of the main political parties – a kind of power sharing in all but name.
Even though I have consistently argued in favour of the value of democracy and elections in Africa, I have to admit that the “transitioners” have some viable arguments.
The most obvious is that a period of stability and more consensual government might facilitate much needed reform of the economy and also the wider political and legal system. After all, rival parties are unlikely to come to agreement on these issues if they are immediately thrust into an election campaign.
The “transitioners” also have a point when it comes to democracy. Few people in Zimbabwe believe that it’s possible for elections to be free and fair if they are held between July and August next year, as currently scheduled. Given this, and the current divisions within the opposition, a rush to elections is likely to result in a convincing victory for Zanu-PF under problematic circumstances.
A transitional arrangement would allow for much needed electoral reforms to be put in place, creating the potential for a better quality process and a more consensual outcome later on.
Testing the Crocodile
But there is also another camp that wants to see Mnangagwa, popularly known as The Crocodile, to face an election as soon as possible.
Just like their counterparts in the “transitioner” camp, “electioneers”, have some strong arguments. Whatever one wants to call Mnangagwa’s rise to power – from a coup to an internal party squabble – it is clear that it has not been a high quality democratic transition. And while it is clear that the overthrow of Mugabe was hugely popular, we don’t know if the same applies to a Mnangagwa presidency. An election would settle that question.
It would also give the new government a popular mandate to undertake economic reforms, whoever wins power. This could be important to the success of the reform project, because things are likely to get worse before they get better, and the country’s economic medicine may prove to be a bitter pill to swallow.
Holding elections would also do one thing that postponing them will not; it will test the commitment of the new government to democratic norms and values from the get-go. One of the main reasons that Zimbabwean elections have been poor quality is that Zanu-PF and the military have intervened to make sure this was the case. As another friend put it, “If they are really committed to doing the right thing, they can do it right away and the elections will not be too bad”.
Learning from the past
“Electioneers” are also motivated by scepticism that an inclusive transitional government would get much done. Both Zimbabwe and Kenya have had power-sharing governments in the recent past, and while they both introduced new constitutions they also saw high levels of corruption and limited security sector reform. They also both led to elections that were denounced by opposition parties as being unfree and unfair.
It’s fair to ask: why would it be different this time?
The question is particularly pertinent given the current composition of parliament. Because Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change boycotted a series of by-elections on the basis that they would not be free and fair, it has lost many of the seats it won in 2013. As a result, any transitional arrangement that deferred elections and “froze” the current parliament for the next three years would have a big legislative advantage to Zanu-PF.
It is also important to keep in mind that economics cannot be divorced from politics: Zimbabwe’s current economic difficulties stem precisely from an unaccountable political framework that ignored the interests of the people. Given that recent events have emboldened the military and given them an even stronger voice within government, this is a pressing concern.
Deferring electoral reforms in order to focus on economic recovery may therefore prove to be a self defeating strategy.
Ultimately, the form of government that evolves in Zimbabwe will not be a product of popular dialogue. One of the distinctive features of this process is that for the most part it has been conducted behind closed doors by a small elite.
Don’t be fooled by the pictures of tens of thousands of people marching on Saturday – all sides have invoked popular support, but none have actually encouraged ordinary people to say what they want, or given them a seat at the table. This is a worrying sign if strengthening democracy is the long-term goal.
Recent public statements by the main parties at the time of going to press suggests that they are not converging on an interim administration, and so the “electioneers” may get their wish. That could still change because talks are ongoing and both sides would gain something from a delay. But if it doesn’t the people will be able to have their say on how they want their country to be run.
Of course, voting will not actually equate to “having a say” unless the country’s new leader follows through on his promise to build a “new democracy”, and the ruling party can kick the habit of a lifetime. Watch this space.
Then, late in the night of Nov. 14, the country’s security services detained and put Zimbabwe’s 93-year-old president under house arrest in what appeared to be a military coup. The whereabouts of his powerful wife, Grace, are unconfirmed.
But with each passing hour, it is increasingly evident that Zimbabwe – a country whose politics I spent uncountable hours grappling with as a State Department official – is poised to see its first real leadership transition since 1980.
Setting the stage for Zimbabwe’s coup
For decades, Mugabe’s grip on Zimbabwe was iron-clad. Even when challenged by an invigorated opposition in 2008, he kept the presidency by entering into a nominal power-sharing agreement. After a decisive electoral victory in 2013, though, he cast the coalition aside.
But as the elderly president grew increasingly frail this year, the power struggle to succeed him became frenzied. Two major camps were vying for power.
Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who as a soldier fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation earned the nickname “the crocodile,” represented the old guard. The 75-year-old enjoyed strong military backing, particularly from the veterans’ association, a powerful coalition of former combatants from Zimbabwe’s independence struggle which began in 1964 and ended in 1979.
Last year, the group broke with Mugabe in a public letter, declaring that he had “presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin.” Many believed that Vice President Mnangagwa orchestrated the group’s letter as a shot across the bow to warn would-be rivals.
The second camp jockeying to control Zimbabwe before the coup was led by Mugabe’s current wife, Grace Mugabe. At a relatively spry 53, she represented the younger generation, drawing significant support from the ruling party’s loyalist Youth League and from an informal grouping of emerging leaders known as “Generation 40.”
But Grace Mugabe was deeply unpopular among ordinary Zimbabweans, who called her “Gucci Grace” because of her extravagant spending. Plus, she had a reputation for cruelty. Earlier this year, the president’s wife faced accusations of beating a 20-year old South African model with an electric cable.
In September, after Vice President Mnangagwa was emergency airlifted to South Africa due to a strange illness, Grace Mugabe had to publicly deny, on state TV, that she had poisoned her rival.
As recently as early November, it appeared that Grace’s camp had prevailed. President Mugabe sacked Mnangagwa, who fled to South Africa. Mnangagwa, it seems, had a different plan. While in exile, he stayed in touch with his military allies.
On Nov. 14, Mnangagwa’s camp struck back. By the next morning, Mugabe was under house arrest, his wife had reportedly fled to Namibia seeking asylum and Mnangagwa’s cohort appeared to control the country.
Democracy or dictatorship?
At least, that’s the picture right now. Events have moved swiftly in the last 24 hours, and some big questions remain unanswered.
If Mnangagwa officially takes power, the first unknown is whether he will rule by fiat or cobble together a transitional government. It’s unclear whether Mnanangwa and his allies have any real interest in introducing democracy to Zimbabwe. To do so, they would need to hold an election within a reasonable period of time, say six months.
Military coups don’t have a promising track record of ushering in democracy. Recent scholarship finds that while “democratization coups” have become more frequent worldwide, their most common outcome is to replace an incumbent dictatorship with a “different group of autocrats.”
Signals in Zimbabwe are mixed so far. Experts generally describe the latest developments as “an internecine fight” among inner-circle elites and ask two key questions: Which side will prevail, and will violence break out?
In my assessment, the answers hinge on Mnangagwa, a hard-nosed realist and survivor who was critical in securing Mugabe’s four-decade rule. Mnangagwa has an appalling human rights record. Many consider him responsible for overseeing a series of massacres between 1982 and 1986 known as the “Gukurahundi,” in which an estimated 20,000 civilians from the Ndebele ethnic group perished.
More recently, in 2008, civil society groups accused Mnangagwa of orchestrating electoral violence against the political opposition and rigging polls in Mugabe’s favor.
It is also true that Mnangagwa is massively invested in ensuring his continued and unfettered access to power, which has proven highly lucrative for him. The vice president is “reputed” to be one of Zimbabwe’s richest people. All of this suggests he might become yet another dictator.
‘Unity’ for Zimbabwe?
Nonetheless, reports indicate that Mnangagwa is currently talking to several opposition parties about potentially forming a transitional government.
A key stakeholder in any such arrangement would be Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, who served as prime minister to Mugabe as part of the 2009 power-sharing agreement.
That coalition achieved some success on economic matters, but Mugabe’s party never relinquished any real authority. Mnangagwa was among those who clung to power back then, but I believe he might play things differently now. Mnangagwa is no reformer, but he does need to find ways to bolster his legitimacy. Not to mention he will quickly need to confront Zimbabwe’s massive economic woes.
The choices that Zimbabwe’s political leadership makes in the coming weeks will have immense consequences for the future of a country whose development has stagnated under 40 years of authoritarian rule.
Real transitions in Zimbabwe are all too rare. Mugabe led the country to independence in March 1980, assumed the presidency and never left. His demise represents a chance for a political reset.