Democratic Decline?

| March 2019
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I was honored to be part of the panel at the International Studies Association in Toronto which honored the work and career of CCEIA President Joel Rosenthal. In assessing the role ethics ought to play in policy-making, one theme which pervaded the discussion was the question of democratic decline; the loss of confidence in the efficacy and ability of democratic forms of governance to produce solutions and outcomes for their constituents. Indeed, based on my own personal observations, this question of democratic decline was a conversation going on in many of the ISA panels as well as sideline discussions in lounges and cafes.

We are familiar with one type of democratic decline: the loss of faith by voters in institutions and politicians, the breakdown in trust in expertise and the media, and the ways in which such deficiencies can be exploited. In his own comments in Toronto, Joel was kind enough to fold into this discussion the concept of “narrative collapse” which has been a particular focus of my work at CCEIA’s American global engagement project–the sense of voters that “the status quo” no longer serves their interests or reflects their priorities. In our discussion, we then turned to the point that political figures may have competing and contrasting ethical frameworks to judge policy action: present versus future timelines and whether democratically-elected politicians have ethical obligations primarily to their specific constituents or to people or humanity more generally.

But I also sensed rumblings of a different kind of democratic decline in the works. What happens if voters choose to embrace policies that prioritize the present over the future and privilege the constituent over the universal? Particularly when it comes to questions like climate change, such an approach would contradict solutions that would focus on long-term, global sustainability.

One choice is to focus on education and persuasion: to convince voters to back solutions with shorter-term losses. And yet I can see a different time of democratic decline that would privilege technocrats and argue that technocrats, in crafting solutions, need precisely to be insulated from popular pressure or oversight. This would be an approach to redefining democracy towards a definition that was prevalent in the Soviet Union and remains operative in a number of countries today: democracy as rule on behalf of the people and in the interests of the people, rather than rule subject to the veto and control of the ballot box.

Certainly, in wake of the 2008-09 financial crisis, some of the subtext of the praise by some Western commentators for “the Chinese model” was precisely this belief that technocrats could rapidly implement solutions without having to compromise with the give-and-take and messiness of Western electoral politics. (Such a view may again carry some weight with the spectacle of a British Parliament unable to handle the BREXIT question.)

So, could democracy face a one-two punch in the coming years–and could this lead to new forms of authoritarianism in the coming future? Some of my thoughts on leaving Toronto …

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