Global Democracy: Key Debates


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National politicians have surrendered ever more power, for example over trade and financial flows, to global markets and supranational bodies, and may thus find that they are unable to keep promises they have made to voters. International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union have extended their influence.

There is a compelling logic to much of this: how can a single country deal with problems like climate change or tax evasion? National politicians have also responded to globalisation by limiting their discretion and handing power to unelected technocrats in some areas. The number of countries with independent central banks, for example, has increased from about 20 in to more than today. From below come equally powerful challenges: from would-be breakaway nations, such as the Catalans and the Scots, from Indian states, from American city mayors. All are trying to reclaim power from national governments.

The internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic. Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament, likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify, a popular digital music-streaming service.

The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves.

Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment. France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy. With the post-crisis stimulus winding down, politicians must now confront the difficult trade-offs they avoided during years of steady growth and easy credit.

But persuading voters to adapt to a new age of austerity will not prove popular at the ballot box. Slow growth and tight budgets will provoke conflict as interest groups compete for limited resources.

To make matters worse, this competition is taking place as Western populations are ageing. They will increasingly have absolute numbers on their side. Many democracies now face a fight between past and future, between inherited entitlements and future investment. Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between and Meanwhile the border between poking fun and launching protest campaigns is fast eroding.

And in a quarter of Italians voted for a party founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian. All this popular cynicism about politics might be healthy if people demanded little from their governments, but they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy.

Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper.

Brexit triggers global debate on direct democracy

The Obama administration now seems paralysed by the fear that democracy will produce rogue regimes or empower jihadists. And why should developing countries regard democracy as the ideal form of government when the American government cannot even pass a budget, let alone plan for the future? Why should autocrats listen to lectures on democracy from Europe, when the euro-elite sacks elected leaders who get in the way of fiscal orthodoxy? At the same time, democracies in the emerging world have encountered the same problems as those in the rich world.

They too have overindulged in short-term spending rather than long-term investment. Brazil allows public-sector workers to retire at 53 but has done little to create a modern airport system. India pays off vast numbers of client groups but invests too little in infrastructure. Political systems have been captured by interest groups and undermined by anti-democratic habits. Democracy has been on the back foot before.

In the s and s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in , Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique.

At the same time, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies. But to succeed, both fledgling and established democracies must ensure they are built on firm foundations.

THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon. The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy.

The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases. India has survived as a democracy since apart from a couple of years of emergency rule and Brazil since the mids for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights.

Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries. Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it.

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But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. Paradoxically even potential dictators have a lot to learn from events in Egypt and Ukraine: Mr Morsi would not be spending his life shuttling between prison and a glass box in an Egyptian court, and Mr Yanukovych would not be fleeing for his life, if they had not enraged their compatriots by accumulating so much power.

Even those lucky enough to live in mature democracies need to pay close attention to the architecture of their political systems. Some countries have already embarked upon this process. A few states have introduced open primaries and handed redistricting to independent boundary commissions. Other obvious changes would improve matters.

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Reform of party financing, so that the names of all donors are made public, might reduce the influence of special interests. The European Parliament could require its MPs to present receipts with their expenses. But reformers need to be much more ambitious. The best way to constrain the power of special interests is to limit the number of goodies that the state can hand out. And the best way to address popular disillusion towards politicians is to reduce the number of promises they can make.

The key to a healthier democracy, in short, is a narrower state—an idea that dates back to the American revolution. The United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established rights and norms that countries could not breach, even if majorities wanted to do so. These checks and balances were motivated by fear of tyranny.

But today, particularly in the West, the big dangers to democracy are harder to spot. So global democracy needs to structure institutions that can do this. This is why we need effective institutions of global governance.


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Anti-globalization cannot simply dismantle such institutions as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. They must either be reformed democratized and empowered or they must be replaced. Market socialism in the core will not be enough. A movement for economic democracy in the core needs also to mobilize for economic democracy at the global level. Support for both more democratic national regimes and global socialist institutions is likely to come from the semiperiphery.

We expect that some of the most potent efforts to democratize global capitalism will come out of movements and democratic socialist regimes that emerge in semiperipheral countries. Peripheral countries could also do this, but they are more completely dependent on the core and they are not able to mobilize sufficient resources to overcome this dependency.

Challenges to Democracy | Daniel Ziblatt

The semiperiphery, especially the large semiperipheral countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, India, Indonesia and China, has opportunities that neither core nor peripheral countries have. If a democratic socialist regime is able to come to state power by legal means, and if this regime has the political will to mobilize the popular sectors in favor of democratic socialism, an experiment in one or another version of market socialism could be carried out.

We expect that regimes of this type will in fact emerge in the near future as the options of kowtowing to the megacorps or demagoging the popular sectors Chavez in Venezuela become more obviously bankrupt. The smaller semiperipheral countries South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Israel may also opt for democratic socialism, but we expect that these will only be able to do so after earlier efforts have been made in the large semiperipheral countries.

Much also depends on what happens in the contest for hegemony. Continued U. The semiperipheral democratic socialist regimes will be the strongest organizational entities that can forge the links among the global antisystemic movements and produce a network for bringing forth the institutions of global socialism. Globalization from below and the formation of global socialist institutions will need to be facilitated by an organized network of world citizens.

We have adopted the name given to such a confederation by Warren Wagar — the World Party. But this is not a party in the old sense of the Third International — a vanguard party of the world proletariat. Rather the World Party we propose would be a network of individuals and representatives of popular organizations from all over the world who agree to help create a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth.

Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates
Global Democracy: Key Debates Global Democracy: Key Debates

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