Constitutionalism and the US Constitution. Values in the US Constitution remain valid more than 200 years later; but which of them, if any, will remain valid 200 years from now? What of constitutionalism itself—liberalism, as it then was—the belief that the main goal of politics is to limit power. Will the problems and opportunities of the longer-range future lead us to want to augment rather than limit power?
The Rise of Illiberal Democracy
Globalism and global capitalism have been around for a longer time, but democracy, a new development, is the most important feature of the modern age and colors all aspects of our age. It involves the breakdown of authority and the movement away from large banks, trading firms, and other institutions, in favor of empowering individuals and small groups of individuals. Evidence of this trend is everywhere, including the democratization of technology fundamental to the terrorism we are seeing today. On the other hand, the notion of a general movement towards democracy includes too much. There used to be five democracies in the world with an election every year or so. Now there are 120 with 25 to 30 national elections and 200–300 local ones. Democratic ideology has become the only basis for legitimate authority throughout the world. It has assumed formal dominance as a political system and an informal dominance which permeates every aspect of social organization.
I applaud this development, but would like to point out that pure democracy untempered by anything else can be dangerous. Traditional Aristotelian concepts of democracy blend with other forms of authority and institutions, but modern democracy, to the contrary, is the sole, unchallenged occupant of political and social space, having gone from being merely a form of government to a way of life. Problems with this formal dominance of democracy lie at the heart of liberal democracy.
Some believe that once you hold elections you have established democracy. I wish to argue that substantial issues that will not go away relate to the preconditions and sequencing of that development. Let us distinguish between simple democracy and liberal democracy. Few countries illustrate an automatic process of democratic procedures leading to liberalism and constitutionalism. Mexico had been liberalizing its institutions for years before it capped the process off with a transition to democracy, imperfect though it still is. Countries that have not gone through a period of liberalization do not consolidate as effectively as others that have.
We can see a related issue in the problem of authority even in contemporary America, the most advanced modern democracy, which is dealing with problems that are likely to arise in other parts of the modern world. The US has seen a noteworthy decline in trust and respect for politics, political institutions and political authority, a process that has taken over thirty years and represents one aspect of the radical political democratization.
As American politics became more democratized, institutions lost authority and standing in the eyes of the American people and became less effective, coherent, and legitimate. Political parties are perfect examples of Aristotelian and Tocquevillan ideas of mixed democracy. We have elections, but within that basic framework many undemocratic elements, like political parties, operate. Parties offer people choices that have been arrived at undemocratically. Internal dynamics and organization of a party therefore must be governed by political and intellectual coherence. When in the sixties and seventies we moved to an entirely different, radically more democratic system of primaries, which were pre-election elections, we destroyed the traditional coherence, authority, and raison d’etre of political parties. The most important function of the party, selecting candidates, was then transferred to the candidate who could command the most telegenic image and financially enterprising machinery.
A similar process of democratization that occurred in the Congressional committee system further radically empowered 535 people. Collaborative action thus became very difficult, and large-scale action, particularly in peacetime, almost impossible. A very high premium has been placed on short-term opportunism and a corresponding high cost on long-term policy. The most dramatic radicalization of democratic politics has been the rise of the referendum. California is the frightening model of the future of American politics, in which referendums, financed by either millionaires or special interest groups, will make non-negotiable demands.
Politics is developing into a form that operates without the politicians, who are being deprived of power, judgment, and authority. This development represents the greatest challenge facing the Western world. How can we combine the need for an increasing degree of popular participation with the need for control and surveillance and for internal coherence? The West’s present, unsatisfactory solution is to delegate policy-making decisions to unelected bodies. The European Union, the principal agent for economic deregulation and economic growth, forces governments to adopt market-friendly rules when they prefer not to make these choices themselves. Elected US representatives who have been afraid to face difficult economic policies delegate power and initiative to the Federal Reserve, which is the single most important governmental institution, even though it is entirely unelected and accountable to no one. A similar delegation of power has occurred with military policy.
Some things have to be delegated. That is part of the Aristotelian conception of a mixed democratic system. But democrats have to participate actively in that process and be willing to espouse politically difficult positions. At the heart of America’s problems is the rise of special interests that mobilize the moment they see a measure that might threaten their interests. Madison was wrong to claim that factions cancel each other out.
Western democracies will have to figure out which issues can be dealt with by delegation of power and which have to be faced head-on whatever their electoral consequences. If not, the requirements of global capitalism and democratic development will become increasingly inimical.
My purpose here was not to bury democracy, but to save it.
Fareed Zakaria’s paper discusses the dangers of democratic governments gone wild and how leaders who emerge out of hyper-democracies usurp powers that should be reserved to other agencies of the government or to society itself. These problems characterize many late democratizing nations. Zakaria’s remarks concentrate on the early democratizing world and its weaknesses rather than its strengths, emphasizing weaknesses that can arise when early democratizers become more democratic.
When Zakaria says that while constitutional liberalism leads to democracy, democracy does not always evince constitutional liberalism, he is pointing to sequences in countries like Great Britain and the US, which were liberal before they became democratic. In these terms, constitutional democracy is the weaving together of two distinct traditions—liberalism and democracy—which historically sometimes opposed each other but in the end led to constitutional democracy. Many NGOs who ask authoritarian governments to enact liberal measures are aware of this historical contradiction. Democracy and liberalism are different ideas. Democracy may come later, or it may not. In some cases, democracy eviscerates liberalism. But there is an affinity between the two. The classical sequence may still be with us.
Fareed Zakaria pointed out “the fallacy of electoralism.” I would like to emphasize the fallacy of the fallacy of electoralism. Electoralism means more than people turning out to vote. It involves freedom of speech and assembly, it allows various elements of civil society to bargain with one another through party structures, and it creates a kind of social contract that can help guide the government. We need to broaden our notion of elections from the simple use of the ballot to the entire process of articulating and encouraging interests through the party system. One of the best ways to limit the excesses of democracy in the late democratizing world is strengthening civil society and aligning various agents of civil society with political parties.
Multi-ethnic parties can tend to exacerbate ethnic conflicts. Nigeria has experimented with such measures to alleviate these tensions as assuring the representation of minorities in legislatures. Another danger is the development of neo-fascism, which involves a highly nationalistic and militaristic cult of the personality and one-man rule.
The US is not the most advanced democracy, compared with Germany, France, and the Scandinavian countries, that are not limited by an electoral college. They publicly fund their campaigns, thus avoiding the excessive power of special interests. Their electoral system also encourages the formation and growth of small parties. The US has a low voter turnout and a general sense that popular will is not being represented. We need to look at more than the ballot itself and concentrate more broadly on the electoral process. Democracy is becoming weaker at the center, but we can reverse this trend.
This is a chapter from Changing and Unchanging Values in the World of the Future (Conference).
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