Has democracy failed?
2017 is the year of the right wing. In the US, we have elected Donald Trump who has come to the presidency on a platform opposing immigrants and opposing international cooperation. The wall to be built along the Mexican border is symbolic of his stance, as is the plan of levying import duties on foreign-made products. Similar sentiments, especially hostility towards immigrants, motivated a majority of Britains to vote to leave the European Union. The same political position is giving Marie LePen a shot at the presidency in France, and is bringing far right groups closer to political power in Germany, in Italy, and in Greece. These groups are nationalist chauvinists, they cheer on leaders with explicit authoritarian leanings. They are contemptuous of the democratic process which is about to allow them to gain significant political power.
We are seeing democracy at its worst when it allows the anxious, the angry, the groups that feel left out to have their revenge by encouraging leaders that come to power on a platform of hatred, of arrogant contempt for people who are different from them, people who are not “White Aryans.” 2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Plato complained about democracy being unsteady, subject to constant change depending on the constantly changing moods of the people at large. Our experience bears out his criticism. It is hard to imagine a greater difference between the government of Barack Obama and that of Donald Trump. Democracy is prone to sudden and violent changes.
Winston Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the other ones.” The other ones are authoritarian or fascist governments. The authoritarian leader controls everything. Even if there is an elected legislature, it is a rubberstamp that simply passes the rules laid down by the Leader. The judiciary in an authoritarian government is also dominated by the Leader and his party. There is no independent judiciary. There are no checks and balances. Authoritarian rulers tend to be worried about possible opposition. No one is safe from government spies and violence.
A fascist government is authoritarian but adds to its centralized power the total control over all social organizations. Professional organizations, for instance, of teachers, lawyers, or physicians are now run ( and closely watched over) by the government. Instead of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, there are now government run youth organizations. Any workplace organizations now become branches of the government. There is little privacy left. The entire nation is unified by being organized into official groups.
The glaring defect of democracy is the ever present possibility of electing leaders who lean in the direction of authoritarianism and, perhaps, even of fascism. Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people in 1933. Recurrence of such catastrophic choices is a real possibility in democracies. But regular elections are only one aspect of democracy. Of equal importance is the effort to have a legislative and a judiciary branch that are independent of the executive. Our Constitution deliberately limits the scope of executive power. We already have seen examples of that: the courts have refused to approve of Pres. Trumps immigration executive order.
(To be sure the independence of the judiciary is limited. In our two-party state, the party that is dominant will have a serious effect on the judiciary by appointing Supreme Court justices.)
Similarly even where both the president and Congress and many state legislatures are dominated by the same party, the actions of the president may well be limited by the legislature and vice a versa. An elected leader with authoritarian leanings cannot do what he chooses as long as out constitutional protections remain in force.
Ordinary citizens play an important role in a democracy and how well will this democracy works depends on the people themselves: are they well-informed, do they participate, do their media do the job of informing everyone, is there a limit on the role money can play in the democratic processes? It matters whether citizens are alive to threats to their democracy. Do they protest loudly against the predominant power of the very rich in the electoral process? Do they rally around the targets of racially motivated exclusions? The survival of democracy depends on the constant vigilance of citizens.
When groups with authoritarian leanings gain power in elections, clearly democracy is not working well. It is a mistake however to blame this on the abstract institution of democracy. The claim rests clearly on the shoulders of all those who refused to take the authoritarians seriously and to work hard to oppose them. For a democracy to work, citizens have to be willing to pay attention, to spend the time to go to meetings and work in electoral campaigns. If they have money they should be willing to support candidates. The democratic process is not going to work well if the central component - the people - refuses to participate.
That clearly happened in this last electoral campaign. Many citizens are understanding that and joining the opposition to prevailing authoritarian inclinations. Our democracy is threatened, but it still has a fighting chance of surviving.