Democracy Reconsidered: The Importance of Liberal Democracy in the 21st Century

John Lubianetsky

The Barstow School

High School

Democracies are more common now as a form of government than almost any other point in history.  However, this rise has stagnated and we are now seeing a form of democratic retreat around the world.  This phenomena has been well documented by Freedom House who have documented a decline in democratic freedoms worldwide for twelve consecutive years.  We have also seen a simultaneous democratic backsliding as illiberal or autocratic parties and politicians gain traction in even traditionally democratic countries.  More concerning for democracy, these movements seem to be gaining unprecedented levels of acceptance - be it the illiberal state made under Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary to Xi Jinping’s emergence as China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao.  As illiberal and authoritarian elements become more accepted and even appealing to some, all of this raises a rather uncomfortable question: Why is it important to live in a democracy?

Democracy has existed as a form of governance since antiquity and has evolved substantially since then, especially with the advent of globalization.  Globalization has led to the convergence of political and religious ideology within the parameters of Western liberal democracy. This mergence blurs the lines separating democracies from non-democracies.  In a similar manner to the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, all these countries are democratic, but some more so than others.  For that reason, democracy is best defined as a liberal democracy which the Collins Dictionary defines as “a [government] based on the recognition of individual rights and freedoms, in which decisions from direct or representative processes prevail in many policy areas.”  In opposition to more authoritarian forms of governments, liberal democracies provide a venue for greater civilian participation through voting or referendums. This schema creates a forum that civilians can use to influence legislation and voice popular sentiment in exchange for granting the government legitimacy.  In his book, Democracy as Self-Correction, Ivan Krastev, a political scientist and the Chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, writes that this structure allows for a self-correcting society that allows citizens to act on the basis of their collective experiences.  Self-correction relies upon active civilian participation in order to initiate social reform at the legislative level. A failing democracy is not one that loses high levels of growth or happiness, but one that loses the ability to self-correct itself.   

Since democracies garner legitimacy by granting civilians guaranteed rights and the ability for eligible citizens to vote, how might undemocratic governments who limit or deny these privileges gain legitimacy even amongst citizens in democratic countries?  In the case of Russia and China, simply put, both states utilize the promise of economic growth or nationalist rhetoric to maintain popular support and legitimacy. This presents the potential for zealous support from the populous, but risks long-term stability.  This risk stems from the uncertainty of the economy (especially in an increasingly interconnected world) and the fear of not meeting nationalist aspirations. Hardline nationalist policies are by nature unsustainable. Russian aggression in Ukraine facilitated popular support at home.  However, this aggression angered the West which resulted in an economic recession for Russia. This recession has led to a decline in Putin’s control of the state. Moreover, perceived failure on either stance would risk social upheaval and instability which can be currently observed in Russia.  This demonstrates one of the innate benefits of living in democracy - long-term stability. Long-term stability yields many benefits, but one of the most important is social stability. Social stability ensures that violent or radical change is avoided and gives room for democratic reforms which will hopefully lead to wider enfranchisement and representation within the state.  This stability is embedded within the core structure of democratic societies. Democracies rely upon one core tenet - fair and transparent governance. Assuming that a country can create transparent public institutions and fair elections, the democracy can remain stable. This assumption also acts as an explanation why certain governments, in spite of severe economic recession or social upheaval, have managed to persist for significant periods of time.  

In spite of the apparent benefits of long-term stability, it is impossible to disregard an apparent and growing disenchantment with democracy, especially among the youth living within democracies.  In 2017, an article from the New York Times found that only 30% of millennials believe it is essential to live in a democracy.  This may seem ruinous for the future of democracy, but what if this disenchantment was natural or even healthy for democracy?  This decline in trust towards democratic governments and institution is what Harvard political scientist, Pippa Norris, calls “critical citizens” - people who value democracy as a form of government, but remain skeptical towards democracy in their own country.  This phenomena has the side effect of creating more socially conscious and aware citizens. In 1999, when Norris wrote about critical citizens, she was uncertain if this newfound social consciousness would translate into more or less civilian participation. Fortunately, the recent United States midterms appears to signal positive impacts.  According to a day-after exit poll by Tufts University's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the 2018 midterms saw the highest voter participation since the 60’s while youth voting spiked by a 10% increase.  Especially considering declining millennial trust in democracy, this midterm election signals a hopeful message towards future voter participation, and these trends tie back into democracies’ ability to self-correct itself.  In order for social reform to occur, active voter participation is required. This increased participation implies that contemporary democracy is heading towards a period of self-correction after which greater democratization will occur and trust will be restored.  This trend signals a positive future for democracies.

Another important aspect of democracy is how aligned the goals of politicians are with the people.  Indeed, one of the main differences between democracies and non-democracies is how much priority is spent on certain key supporters of the state.  For example, in dictatorships, where power is disseminated amongst the few, the government finds it easier to neglect the needs of the broader populace.  This is especially true in countries that rely upon extracting natural resources as their main source of income which is then distributed to key supporters to secure internal stability.  Gold mines or oil wells can be kept running even with an illiterate and unhealthy population because these people marginally affect productivity. The inverse is true in functioning democracies. Here, key supporters are disseminated amongst the eligible voting population.  This means that politicians are more likely to align with their values rather than those of a small group of oligarch, and if a politician’s alignment does not appease those voters, they are simply voted out of office. This means democracies are more likely to institute social programs such as funding for school, welfare, or medical services more than non-democracies because this benefits not only voters, but politicians as well because civilian votes are necessary to continue their political career.  This creates a symbiotic relationship between the politician and their voters which encourages policies that promote the general welfare of a country's population. Additionally, this is why (though some in the Western world may disagree) on average, people pay less taxes in democracies than non-democracies because social policies facilitate the redistribution of wealth which lowers the average. This also likely contributes to the the trend of democracies being wealthier than non-democracies, because their policies actively promote and cultivate a productive population.  In this case, democracy reveals its importance through how it fabricates a healthier and more equal society.

However, it is important to remember the limitations of democracy.  Krastev writes that “the discourse of democratic triumphalism on the other side has eroded the intellectual foundations of modern democratic regimes.”  He goes on to extrapolate that the people of various post-communist Central European states believed that democracy was a panacea that would bring peace, prosperity, and effective governance.  Democratization in post-communist states was done to imitate western institutions, not achieve them. In doing so, reforms were made under flawed assumptions about the real benefits of living in a democracy.  While democracies can lead to economic growth or good governance, neither is inevitable. Rather, thay are byproducts of the real advantage of democracy, the ability for citizens to influence legislature in ways that actively benefit themselves and the country.  Democracy has maintained popular support in the face of high-growth, strongman leaders because democracy provides a method to voice discontentment and hopefully yield change. Economic and social change are not inevitable, but this system enables voters to choose capable and competent politicians who can answer these calls for change.  Its flexible nature enables a level of self-correction in the event of error or mistake. Most importantly, this ability to resiliency grants democracy a unique appeal that attracts participation from the poor, the working class, and the elites. Democracy is able to endure because it is able to remain fluid in the face of the onset of radical change and address the needs of the people.  That is why democracy is still important.

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