Crises of Democracy

  • By Adam Przeworski
  • Cambridge University Press
  • 250 pp.
  • Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
  • December 16, 2019

Illuminating the paradox of “free and fair,” the author explores how rule by the people is under siege.

Crises of Democracy

If enough people agreed, could it be democratic to have an authoritarian regime? Exploring this hole in the center of democracy is the crux of political scientist and democracy scholar Adam Przeworski’s Crises of Democracy. He writes, “Democracies do not contain institutional mechanisms that safeguard them from being subverted by duly elected governments observing constitutional norms.”

Hitler climbed to power via this hole; military regimes have emerged from it; and communist and religious parties have grasped the throats of societies through it. The Founding Fathers called it “the tyranny of the majority,” and constitutional writers designed safeguards such as the separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, the rule of law, and individual rights to prevent nations from falling into it.

Despite the best intentions and some well-laid plans, however, the hole has never been closed. Instead, its persistence has made democracy look fragile.

Two insights from past research on democratic foundations once offered hope for enduring gains: First, somewhere in the $6,000-8,000 per-capita-GDP income range, societies became democratic and remained so for the long term. Second, just two alternations of power via elections was sufficient to consolidate a new democracy.

As we look around the world today, neither the income threshold nor repeated successful elections seems to be as protective of democracy as predicted. The United States, the oldest democratic nation, and one that’s far above the defined income threshold, seems to be walking right into the hole.

Advanced industrial societies in Europe are already seeing the erosion of traditional political parties, the rise of right-wing forces, and a loss of confidence in democratic politics. Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain, and, to a lesser extent, France and Britain, are experiencing these trends mainly vis-à-vis anti-immigration politics. And other countries thought to be on the path to democratic consolidation — Russia, Turkey, Poland, and Hungary — have seen backsliding.

The rise of Modi, Erdogan, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Trump, and Putin show that even multiple alternations of power may not be enough to save democracy. India, an exceptional democracy given its very low per-capita GDP and seven decades of elected governments, is seeing democratic regression. And China, the world’s most-populous nation and fastest-rising superpower, has halted its 20-year trajectory toward political liberalization.

Przeworski writes that the democratic decline in advanced industrial economies has deep roots in economic stagnation and sociopolitical divisions. The post-World War II political arrangement centered around unions, state-provided safety nets, and moderate taxation that enabled productivity and wages to rise together.

This compromise fell apart when Reagan and Thatcher mounted an ideological attack on unions that led to a fall in membership, wage stagnation, and inequality. This combined with the politics of resentment that attacked social programs which were widely — but incorrectly — seen as benefitting minorities and immigrants. The resulting polarization of political parties disabled the possibility of consensus and started a cycle of governmental failures that has been extraordinarily hard to get out of.

The author argues that even if political institutions were to become more representative of the majorities — and, in the U.S., the electoral college were to be abolished — the respite would be temporary. Nascent leaders would not be able to fuel rapid economic growth, reduce inequality and segregation, add good jobs, or undo the deep polarization of societies.

The most challenging part about democratic regression is that it hurts by stealth. There is no direct attack on democratic institutions, but rather the slow erosion of trust and values: Pluralist victory in elections sanctions authoritarian behavior.

Przeworski points out that there are few objective standards for what makes a democracy, what its being “in crisis” looks like, or even what it means to be undemocratic. A constitutional court in Colombia, for example, put forward a theory that even a duly adopted constitutional amendment can be unconstitutional. The political contest over even basic terms and parameters can make consensus impossible.

But what the author misses is perhaps the most insidious threat of all: fake news, manipulation, and election fraud resulting from the private ownership of our public spaces. The British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen decried this threat in a recent speech to the Anti-Defamation League. Cohen singled out Facebook, Twitter, and Google as commanders of a vast privately owned public space that allows the spread of false and malicious information for private gain, even at the cost of democracy itself.

Cohen is correct. At this time, writes Przeworski:

“Everything depends on whether people who are at all concerned about democracy anticipate the effects of particular steps on the long-term future. If individuals anticipate the cumulative effect of backsliding, those who value democracy would turn rapidly against the backsliding government and, expecting this reaction, a government intent on backsliding would desist.”

You can read Przeworski as a denunciation of accomplices such as the Republican Party in the United States, but this criticism applies equally to Democrats, who, in December 2019, are engaged in an internal programmatic struggle between their left and centrist wings as part of their presidential-nomination politics.

If the Democratic Party fully appreciated the cumulative effect of the Trumpian threat to American democracy, should it not have offered electoral protection to Republicans willing to defect from the president? Clearly, the Democratic Party, despite its rhetorical opposition of Trump, believes that democratic institutions in the U.S. remain safe and robust enough for it to prevail at the ballot box.

But Przeworski doesn’t expect election results to resolve the root causes of the problem. And while his sobering book may carry us through this tragedy, it won’t necessarily get us out of it.

Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.

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