Western democracy: decline and...

The slow withering of politics and democracy in the western world is reaching a point of crisis. Ernesto Gallo and Giovanni Biava offer a diagnosis and a series of remedies.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
13 November 2013

Many long-term trends suggest that politics and democracy in the western world are declining. Since the end of the cold war, this crisis has accelerated and become ever more visible.

Among these trends are globalisation itself, both as idea and practice; a sustained expansion of financial markets; free trader, symbolised by organisations such as the WTO and the NAFTA agreements; and the dotcom industry's long boom. They emerged especially during Bill Clinton’s years in the White House (1993-2000). The Nasdaq composite (stock-market index) jumped from 1,000 in 1995 to a peak of 5,048.62 on 10 March 2000. There was general high trust in an economy which grew in those years at an average annual rate of 4%, while unemployment fell from 6.9 to 4%. 

The 1990s was the high time of the widespread conviction that markets "solve everything", which was accompanied by a gradual "retreat of politics". This new orthodoxy was not without consequences, however. The decade ended with the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the United States, while other regions had experienced the fresh turbulence of increasing interdependence in trade and finance; among them, Mexico's crisis (1994), southeast Asia’s crisis (1997), Russia’s default (1998), and Argentina’s traumatic economic collapse (1999-2002).

At the same time, the European Union was marching convincingly towards the coveted "single currency". Few noticed the anomaly of a monetary union without a political union, an almost unprecedented fact in international history. It took a decade after the euro's launch in 1999 for its and the EU’s problems to the fore, with tremendous results both domestically (a widespread loss of faith in the European project) and internationally (the EU's disappearance as a political player).

In the first years of the millennium, the decline of politics became more apparent in the US as well. After the two presidential terms of George W Bush, many hopes were invested in Barack Obama’s leadership; but he has proved largely ineffective (as is particularly evident during the Syrian crisis). This, though, is only the latest in a chain of episodes which have exposed the weakness of American politics, and not just its presidents. The policy failures are everywhere, from the mismanagement of the so-called "Arab spring", the inability to curb a huge public debt (a 106% debt-GDP ration in late 2013), and the most recent and embarrassing government shutdown. The latter casts renewed light on the possibility that in the medium-to-long-term the dollar will lose its status as the world's trading and reserve currency.  The shutdown also mirrors the inefficiencies of EU politics in recent years.

In parallel with these economic trends, the role of western liberal democracy is also increasingly being questioned as old or new rivals - partly in response to the US-led neo-liberal assault of the 1990s - offer alternative models. Russia proposes its own form of authoritarian rule (sometimes labelled "Putinism") where influence is wielded by technocrats, a clique of intelligence agents, heads of state energy corporations, all underpinned by media control and marginalised opposition. A similar model dominates across central Asia.

Similar reactions have even spread to eastern Europe, where EU member-states as well as would-be members are increasingly affected by non-democratic trends. In Hungary, the new constitution (2011) has been heavily criticised because of its references to the Holy Crown and Christianity, and its strict defence of traditional families - values which reflect the viewpoint of the ruling centre-right party, Fidesz. In Ukraine, the ruling Party of the Regions claims to defend the right of ethnic Russians in Ukraine and has a pro-Russia orientation in foreign policy, while strong doubts surround the ousting of the former premier, Yulia Tymoshenko.

In contrast to eastern Europe and central Asia, where politics are usually shaped around personal leadership, China's model centres on a political party and its role in planning, combined with gradual openings to economic liberalism. This has proved very effective in areas such as job creation, growth, poverty reduction and avoidance of major economic and political shocks. The new reforms that will follow will continue to be quite specific to China’s experience and different from the western model of liberal democracy.

What can global citizens do to improve the quality and performance of our democracies in a world increasingly split between the "rule of the market" and the "rule of the leader (or the party)"? Here are four proposals.

First, political parties should become more open and flexible, and return to engaging citizens instead of meeting behind closed doors and merely rewarding lobbies. Despite Europe’s deep economic crisis, no party leader has so far been able to grasp and articulate the sensibility of battered citizens, though a figure who has done so and found an echo is the active and charismatic Pope Francis I.

Second, political parties - like the church - should become more transnational, something they often claim to be without much evidence. Third, real emphasis must be placed on industrial growth, with incentives to production and innovation; Britain is trying in the IT sector, but where are the others? While the US and east Asia innovate, Europe (including Germany) seems to be keen only on preserving. The lesson of Nokia shows that this approach ends in failure.

Fourth, democracy - and more democracy - should also be brought to the highest level, that of the United Nations. The reform of the Security Council (UNSC) to include countries such as Brazil, India, and other states - as well as some representation of citizens - is essential. The emerging economies will not tolerate much longer an uneven distribution of power symbolised by the presence of Britain and France, for example, on the UNSC as permanent members with veto rights. The west, the United States and what remains of the European Union should lead by example, instead of shifting from brutal (and ultimately lost) wars to a paralysis of decision-making. Western citizens deserve better politics and a renewed democracy, and time is running out for both.

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