October 28, 2017

Will Democracy Survive the 21st Century?

Democratic governance as we know it today hardly existed at the beginning of the 20th century. Vast portions of the world were colonized, the United Nations was but a dream, and several dozen states that are household names today did not even exist.

It would take a century of turmoil, including two World Wars, the decolonization of most of the planet, hundreds of social movements, and countless revolutions to drag us into the present in which about half the countries of the world are now reasonably democratic. This includes the vast majority of states in Europe, North America and South America, as well as much of Asia.

The transformation was largely silent, with most democratic transitions barely making the news. And yet, all of these states have their founders and martyrs, social movements, and constitutional conventions. Citizens sacrificed time and energy—and often their lives—so their children might live according to their own lights, speak their minds, practice their faiths, choose their representatives, and shape their collective futures.

Democratic rights matter, because the state sets the conditions for just about everything that happens in our lives. It lends shape to schools, structures the economy, protects minorities, and regulates the behavior of people in power. Hence, if it is run by whoever possesses the power to seize and profit from it, every social institution through which we pass will be put to the use of their benefit, making our lives but a means to the attainment of their ends. This is precisely what American liberals are now fighting to prevent, and it is what people the world over struggled to upend over the course of the last several generations.

But the freedom and security that comes with democratization is now under threat in every major region of the world by a poisonous cocktail of conditions that is only likely to increase over the course of this century.

First, if automation continues to replace middle income jobs, then developed states will become increasingly unequal. But the most democratic states have usually been the most equal—for a strong middle class means large numbers of people with enough of a stake in the system to demand a say in their futures.

When the middle class decreases in size, poor people tend to become marginalized, and the wealthy seize power. And while the poor can always win back power by banding together under their own charismatic leaders, the populist heroes of today tend to be become the autocratic demagogues of tomorrow. This is at least what Aristotle observed two-and-a-half millennium ago, and it does not look much different now. Either way, democratic participation will degenerate.

Second, if globalization continues to increase and humanity carries on enlarging its store of information, citizens will need to become increasingly conversant on an ever widening array of issues. But as the burdens of citizenship increase, people will tend to focus on the few issues they can grasp while ignoring the rest. The result is that they will either talk past one another or else increasingly defer to expert opinion—much as we are seeing today. Either way, democratic participation will degenerate.

Third, if multiculturalism continues to increase, democracies will experience more conflict and less trust. Multicultural democracies may be stimulating and innovative, but they often fall apart when one group tries to shut the other out of power. More commonly, they are paralyzed by disagreement and plagued with corruption due to the mistrust of the ethnic other.

The lack of trust makes people unwilling to sacrifice for their fellow citizens; thus, multicultural democracies tend to have weak social safety nets as well. Yet, virtually every state in the world today is now faced with either shutting out substantial portions of its inhabitants or else becoming increasingly multicultural. Either way, democratic participation will degenerate.

Finally, if population continues to increase, as is expected through at least the next century, the voices of citizens will be increasingly drowned out among their ever more numerous compatriots. Consider the case of the United States and Denmark. Since there are roughly 300 million Americans and seven million Danes, this means each Danish vote for head of state is something like 43 times more effective than their American counterpart. It is much the same for other small states like Belgium and Switzerland; democracy is more difficult in larger states because each citizen possesses a relatively smaller stake in the system. They are less likely to speak with their representatives and less likely to make the national news when they do get involved.

And it is worse when we look to global institutions like the United Nations, which represents the will not of millions but rather billions of people. If globalization continues to link every major issue to every other, and population continues to increase as expected, people will increasingly experience themselves as the subjects of global institutions over which they have little control—even if we can somehow manage to democratize their governance.

The legendary political scientist Robert Dahl first highlighted these challenges to democratic governance in 1998 in a masterwork titled On Democracy. In it, he suggested that it would be hard to turn back the clock on democratic governance, but that its quality would probably degenerate over the course of the next century, a prescient observation almost a generation prior to the post-truth populism of President Pinocchio.

No state is considered legitimate today if it is not democratic, and yet the number of democracies has been in decline for over a decade, and democratic institutions are deteriorating even in core democratic states like the U.S. and France. Rightwing nationalism is growing in every region of the world, and many newer democracies like Hungary and the Philippines are showing significant signs of fascism.

People increasingly feel shut out of their polities and so find themselves ever more ready to tear it all down. Desperate for solutions and ignorant of the issues, they yearn for a dictator who can ease their consciences by removing their burden of freedom. The danger is not that we will not be able to maintain our democracies, but rather that we will not want to—and that is a challenge for which the more psychologically and spiritually adept might provide some answers.

My own first book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, highlights the countless challenges involved in thinking about something so vast as a world. The sheer quantity of information and issues that must be studied in order to make sense of the world is mind-boggling. The vast depths of suffering that must be confronted to feel for its inhabitants is overwhelming. The countless things for which we must take responsibility are burdensome. But human beings have always confronted such challenges whenever they have advanced to a higher level of social complexity, and most of the time, we have overcome our obstacles.

It is quite possible that in the coming months we will see Donald Trump removed from office and the populist movement he built scattered in the face of defeat. But the conditions that brought him to power will remain, and they will remain far beyond the reach of political solutions. The rightwing populism now plaguing America has its origin in forces confronted by every single nation in the world. They are the same forces overwhelming our hearts and dizzying our heads, and they will not let up until we develop the capacity to withstand their assaults. But many of the same forces that helped bring the fascists to power can be used to remove them as well if we play our hand well.

If we want to preserve democracy, we are going to have to meet the challenges of the new millennium within ourselves and within our social movements. We are going to have to become more comfortable living in a vast and overwhelmingly complex world. We are going to have to know more and hold more in our hearts. And we are somehow going to have to learn to love it. Anything else, and we will find ourselves losing the things we love the most.


If you liked this article, please check out my book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, and join the dialogue on Facebook.


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Author: Theo Horesh
Image: Flickr/Ur Cameras
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis

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