The Twilight of the Democratic Age

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That Donald Trump is a symptom of democratic decay in the United States is painfully evident. Equally obvious is that his electoral success is part of a wider phenomenon of disdain for political elites and the conventions of liberal democracy, as seen in Brexit, the monstrous rhetoric of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, the consolidation of illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland, and, perhaps, in the surprising outcome of the Colombian plebiscite, among many recent examples.

All of these cases display distinct variants of “exaltation syndrome” afflicting democracy. That heady sense of arrival first led us to believe that democracy was an inevitable end point and then predicted that it would triumph against democracy’s challengers. But the syndrome has led us to seriously misdiagnose the gravity and extent of the problem.

We are not dealing with a democratic flu that we have to sweat out. Instead, what we’re seeing today is a chronic condition that will be with us for a long time. At its core, are structural tendencies that can be controlled, but hardly reversed and that work against political stability and even against the survival of liberal democracy. Inevitably, democracy will be imbued with demagoguery, populism, and, consequently, the temptation of authoritarianism. But structural inequalities and the resentment they breed have created fertile soil for this new type of anti-democratic challenge. Trump is but a warning of things to come.

To start, in the future democracy and voting will be increasingly driven by a chronically angry electorate. This fury has many causes, but three long-term factors seem particularly critical. First and foremost is the growing instability of labor, stemming just as much from automation and “uberization” (a socially linked, un-unionized, direct consumer-to-worker economic arrangement) of the workforce as it does from immigration and underlying forces of globalization. Next, anger is fueled by demographic changes. Falling birthrates, aging populations, and the growing number of dependents per active worker, have reduced the political and economic power of the traditional working class and elevated the power and economic role (and importance) of immigrant workers. These changes will force reductions and revisions of social benefits for an older generation and signal the arrival of a new—often migrant—class of claimants to social benefits. This brings a very different demographic reality rife with tensions for any democracy.

The third factor is the growing demand for transparency in public and private management—something that can generate enormous benefits in the long-term, but feeds an endless succession of scandals in the short-term. The growing perception is one of corruption and unfairness, which may just reflect a revelation of the old, corrupt practices, but in the short term undermines the credibility of public institutions. This is precisely what we are seeing now in Latin America.

As if this were not enough, this enraged global electorate is ever better equipped with the instruments of direct democracy and with social networks that dramatically lower barriers to collective action and social mobilization. New media is further fueled by a style of political communication that, between the anonymity of the digital world, the atomization of the media and the blurring of lines between information and entertainment will tend to elevate delirious voices that often lack any foundation in reason or truth. Trump, Farage, Duterte, and Uribe are distilled examples of the voices that are well equipped to prevail amid the reigning cacophony. If our politics once held that, as the old aphorism says, “he who gets mad, loses,” what we’re seeing now suggests that he who gets mad now wins.

Will the leaders of our democracies rise to the demands of this exasperated citizenry, ready to set fire to the temple? Perhaps, but the prospects are not bright. What we are seeing now suggests that, as the political scientist Josep Colomer noted in a cogent article on Spain, in recent decades there has been a process of “negative selection” for political leaders. On one hand, politics has ceased to be a contact sport and has become something akin to a sacrificial rite, almost gladiatorial in its spectacle, where the possibility of surviving intact is close to zero. Around the world, the ranks of those inclined to pass through the ordeals of public service are shrinking. And on the other hand, globalization and economic liberalization have multiplied the professional opportunities for the talented and well educated. Politics today faces much stiffer competition for the best candidates than in the past. In terms of the quality of leadership available today to steer our democracies, the results are plain for all to see.

The combination of a chronically angry electorate, empowered as never before, egged on by demagogues, and poor, polarized governance is ominous. This grim assessment of democratic life in the developed world is more than a distant possibility: it looks more like a probability.

Those of us who have followed the American presidential campaign have witnessed a spectacle as depressing as it is disturbing. But one must understand that it is not an aberration as much as a product of the times and a warning of the political turbulence to come. Liberal democracy today is up against a challenge not seen since the somber days of the 1930s.

Read the full article in Latin America Goes Global