A farewell to democracy?

Recent political, social and technological changes have resulted in tensions for democracy as criticisms have turned into attacks. Español Português

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
3 April 2017

Activists rally in front of the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan in New York on Sunday, February 26, 2017. Richard B. Levine/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The end of history, which Francis Fukuyama predicted in his famous essay, and the triumph of the liberal order - with the speedy conversion through the powerful transformative dynamics of capitalist globalization of both large and small autocracies into liberal democracies – simply has not happened. And the flat world foreseen by Thomas Friedman has turned out to be quite an uphill one.

Liberal democracy, a system which was invented for viewing politics as the art of seeking the common good, for prevailing over and regulating the market forces, the authoritarian tendencies linked to the accumulation of power, and the exclusionary nature of majorities, has not apparently overcome its intrinsic contradictions.

Most of the values that have led to prosperity in the past have now lost their appeal and prestige. “Liberal” has come to mean "soft." Other values, such as cosmopolitism and meritocracy, are viewed as values of an elite disconnected from the population, who feels insecure about the future, who has seen the promises of globalization unfulfilled, and who has a pressing need to reassert its identity. It is now demanding a State and borders.

With the decline of these values as a backdrop, leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Marine Le Pen in France, appear to have chosen as a reference the autocratic drift which Vladimir Putin has termed “illiberal democracy”.

In Europe, and now also - it seems - in the United States, populist oligarchic nationalism stands as an alternative in most receding economies. In India also, and in the Philippines, "strong men" prevail at the polls.

In Latin America, Mexico faces the threat posed by Trump under a weak presidency ruling over an incompetent, dysfunctional and violent political system; post-Chávez Venezuela is leaving democracy behind as it races towards the suspension of elected institutions; the Brazilian giant, with its feet deep in the mud of corruption, is staggering; and hopeful Colombia has been a victim of the political use of the peace process, and now seems to be going back to the frustrated Colombia of the past.

Today, one of the pillars of democracy most directly threatened is the right to information – both the right to freedom of information and to its accuracy and truthfulness. When information becomes propaganda and control mechanisms fail, the democratic system is dangerously weakened and the boundaries between lies and truth vanish. The proliferation of what has been called "fake-news" and the dangerous progression of "post-truth" and "alternative facts" are threatening to destroy the pact of confidence in a free press which is actually the glue that holds together open societies and allows the contrast of ideas which characterizes politics in a democracy.

In this context, if the prime advocate of globalization switches to nationalism-protectionism and chooses to view international relations as bilateral pacts between businessmen rather than as multilateral agreements between governing partners under international law, it is the whole architecture of democracy that is being endangered.

This is a fact: in the world's largest and most powerful democracy, a "spoiler" has seized power, democratically taking advantage of the many cracks of democracy, such as the weight that money carries at elections, the many difficulties in registering to vote, the uneven distribution of votes between electoral districts, hacking, the problems faced by the independent press, the manipulation of social media... Is this the end of democracy?

An internacional seminar co-organized by demoAbierta and Fundación Foro del Sur in Buenos Aires  on the 5th of April addressed this disturbing drift.

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