By Ravi Agrawal, CNN
I was browsing through the website of the magazine Foreign Affairs when I came across an article titled “The Present Crisis in Democracy.” The author describes dire times: a world “in a state of hysteria” where an “intoxication of unusual prosperity” was followed by “the harassing uncertainty of the depression.”
From finance boom to housing bust, it reads like a description of inept governance in the last decade.
But it’s not. The article was written in 1934 by Lawrence Lowell, a former president of Harvard University and frequent contributor to Foreign Affairs.
It turns out we’ve always talked about a “crisis in democracy.” A Google search of the phrase throws up articles written not only from the past few years, but from almost every decade of the 20th century.
Lowell began his essay 78 years ago by stating that we have enough examples to estimate democracy’s effectiveness because the extension of suffrage had “reached its limit in several large nations.” He was, of course, ignoring much of the world. At the time, India was undemocratic; it is now the world’s largest democracy. Most of Africa, the Middle East and Asia were yet to fully realize self-determination; that has changed, and is still changing further.
Eight decades later, the world is in a much better position to pass judgment on democracy — although one could argue the prognosis is especially dire. A Gallup poll from September shows that Americans feel a historic negativity toward government, both Democrats and Republicans. A record 81% said they were dissatisfied with the way the country was being governed.
This has already been a year of electoral upheaval. Greece’s George Papandreou and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy have lost their jobs. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was forced out in November. Incumbents the world over have record-low approval ratings. Many countries head to polls this year; more churn is inevitable.
But isn’t that democracy’s work at its finest? Is churn not a vital ingredient in refreshing good governance?
History suggests it is. But the difference right now is a sense of despair over the tools that democracy offers, that it’s proving incapable of solving the current fiscal crisis. In my previous article on this series, I wrote of how populism can often stand in the way of solving economic problems. From Nigeria’s stalled economic reforms to India’s spluttering growth, democratic answers seem hard to come by. The euro’s problems seem almost intractable; and in the U.S., investors nervously await another partisan battle over the debt ceiling.
Perhaps the strongest case against democracy comes out of Italy. As Fareed Zakaria put it in an interview last week with Prime Minister Mario Monti, democracy had to be “suspended” to solve Italy’s troubles. Is the fact that Italy had to turn to an unelected economist not the surest sign that Western democracy is truly in crisis?
Monti’s answer is instructive.
“The reason why democracies are very poor these days,” he said, “is that democracies, like markets, have become much too short-term.
“The combination of very important media, of frequent elections, of even social networks which tend to polarize people towards more extreme positions, has the consequence that in democracies, politicians… tend to embark on solutions that imply short-term costs and longer-term benefits with great reluctance, and only when they are faced with an actual huge crisis.”
So it seems the answer is this: Democracies need an absolute power who forces us to eat our vegetables.
What of models only loosely based on representative democracy? Monti says the Chinese alternative is an option, because it projects itself and its decisions into the longer term. But it comes at a cost.
“It would be a very sad conclusion if we were to need to reduce the rate of democracy in order to get better government,” Monti said.
China, of course, has its own troubles, with as many as 500 protests taking place every day around the country.
During the recent scandal over the ouster of Bo Xilai, the disgraced party secretary from Chongqing, a little-known fact emerged. Beijing had not revealed its income gap statistics in more than a decade. But Bo let them slip, telling reporters in March that China’s gini coefficient had exceeded 0.46. (The index measures inequality: 0 indicates everyone is perfectly equal, and 1 indicates one person has all the wealth; anything above 0.4 is considered dangerously high, creating conditions ripe for social unrest.)
Democracy has forever been messy. The solution to its crises is more of the same medicine: more dialogue, more debate, more democracy. Perhaps the greatest endorsement of people power comes from those who don’t have it. The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that millions of people who have experienced autocracies or dictatorships yearn for the freedoms that come with the right to vote. More than anyone else, they know that the alternative is far worse.
Winston Churchill had it right, all the way back in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others.”