Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Contemporary political science has long been obsessed with the topic of democratic transition or the origins of democracy, especially after the fall of the former Soviet Union and the “end of history” statement – claiming the triumph of liberal democracy over communist system and other political doctrines as the only viable political system. But the puzzle remains to be answered: what if democracies could possibly wither away and break down in face of some destructive contingencies or fundamental challenges from alternative systems? This is why I find the idea of “democratic failure” fascinating and alarming in the age of uncertainty.
The author of the book, David Runciman, proposes three likely scenarios that may cause a democracy to fail. The first one, military takeover, or coup, constitutes a threat to contemporary democracies when some conditions are present: economic stagnation, widespread social discontent and divisions within the political system. The assumption of a successful political coup is that the military leaders differ significantly from the civilian officials in terms of managing state affairs and ideologies and they can carry out their plans with unexpected efficiency. In democratic countries, where the ordinary person still can cast a vote and organize some street demonstrations against the workings of government, the military leaders need extraordinary machinations and favorable circumstances to succeed in taking over the civilian government and establish their own legitimacy. But, when citizens become disenchanted with the democratic process and choose to be bystanders of politics, does this phenomenon increase the probability of military coup? We do not yet know the answers.
However, what we do know is that contemporary democracies are torn by conspiracy theories, as the author points out. The rise of populism is inescapably associated with surging inequality of wealth and income, but it is conspiracy theories, to a significant extent, on a psychological and emotional level, that fuel the momentum of populist movements. The author is able to grasp the essence of the debates on conspiracies by making a pungent remark that both groups – the one endorsing and promoting conspiracies and the other discrediting them – attempt to defeat each other in the name of defending democracy. Paradoxical as it is, the age of information may not be a bliss for the functioning of democracy because the propagandists of conspiracies would make use of various information channels to do their biddings while citizens can access these same sources to attain political knowledge. Nonetheless, conspiracy theories will continue to prevail in democratic societies. In the end, whether democracies will withstand the temptations and erosive effects of clandestine propaganda efforts may still depend on the ordinary citizen’s evaluation of the political system.
Photo credit: Karl Knigton
Another possible way to end democracy comes from unexpected catastrophes. The author cites Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring and the imminent threat of environmental crisis to illustrate a doomsday scenario in which democracy and political order are reduced to secondary importance compared to the priority of human survival. Catastrophes, or any natural disasters on a gigantic scale, can present us with dilemmas. Sometimes, the extreme situations require us to make a choice between collective security and individual liberty; in other cases, reality forces us to make small sacrifices, even to the extent of committing a moral crime, for the greater good. Take the 2020 Covid-19 as an example. Everywhere around the globe, most governments have been hard pressed to implement lockdown policies due to the rampant and deadly threat posed by the virus to maintain political and social order and protect people’s lives. However, in doing so, policymakers have to take the blame that they are endangering individual liberty. Through increasing government control and adopting surveillance measures to track down possible covid-19 carriers, governments are setting precedents that could be used to further penetrate and intervene into civil societies and people’s private life.
The question – whether catastrophes would disrupt or end democratic politics and way of life – would circle us back to a fundamental principle regarding the relationship between the state and the individual. If the decision-making process in democracies can no longer incorporate democratic participation from the ordinary person, meaning public policies are arbitrarily designed and implemented without the consent of and interactions with the public, democracies would be put in a precarious situation. On top of the procedural level, catastrophes may bring down democracies through gradually hollowing out the democratic values and norms. This type of job is usually done in an incremental fashion when the whole society is demoralized and citizens experience a fundamental value shift from upholders of democratic ideals and way of life to making concessions in exchange for short-term benefits.
Contemporary democratic politics also has to learn to live with digital technology. In the Age of Information, social media can, for better or for worse, influence or even manipulate the political opinions and behaviors of careless and unobservant voters. The author is also concerned about the future of democracy when artificial intelligence – some faceless, unthinking and powerful machines with their algorithms, somehow can learn the tricks to control and dominate the political game by producing targeted messages and information for specific social groups and individuals.
This leads to a more disconcerting question: what if the state, regardless of the political nature of the regime, can make use of digital technology to collect data of private citizens and monitor their everyday actions? For authoritarians, obtaining the concrete data and information of ordinary individuals is necessary because the regime is always vigilant about collective actions and social movements to demand accountability from the policy-makers, which would eventually lead citizens to question the legitimacy of the regime. For elected officials in democracies, protecting their own dirty secrets and evading the requirement of transparency from the democratic process so that they can stay in power is sometimes more important than preserving the integrity of the democratic system. Given the unknown nature of digital technology and its development, anyone interested in delving into the relationship between social media and democratic politics may have to think about the possibility of social media changing the nature of democratic politics in the long run.
What really strikes me from reading this book is the possibility of finding alternative systems beyond democracy. It is less of an opinion or conviction than a simple fact that the world we live in now is composed of free countries and authoritarian states. These two governance models are expected to coexist, despite the stark contrasts and differences in regard to ideologies, ways of life and value systems of the ordinary people. For representative democracy to win over the hearts and minds of the people living under autocratic regimes, democratic advocates need to convince these people of the possibility of writing a new life story, which allows them to lead a free, peaceful, prosperous and dignified life. The more daunting obstacle is inviting people with different modes of thinking to engage in a dialogue, without which the formation of practical ideas to help people recognize the merits of democracy and bring about social transformation, a change in mode of thinking and belief systems, is unlikely to occur.
The competition between pragmatic authoritarianism and representative democracy, for now and in the near future, will still define the political landscape on an international level. But, for anyone who has faith in democratic ideals, the responsibility of preserving democratic norms and the value of liberty is perhaps too natural a burden to not shoulder. For in a time when representative democracy has been challenged with internal instability and political divisions, unexpected and catastrophic events, and a potential takeover by digital technology with its disruptive, unpredictable and unknowable features, it is not surprising that some other demagogues or propagandists would offer some quick-fix alternative solutions to end democracy. In this sense, this book will serve as a timely reminder and maybe a practical guide to protect representative democracy.