Nothing is easier than blaming the crisis of democracy befalling us on those who profit from this crisis: Trump, Le Pen, Putin, Petry, Hofer or Orbán. But the fact that people like them are able to benefit from the diminishing confidence in democracy is above all a symptom, a sign of ill health. The causes of the current passion for dismantling democracy are more deeply rooted.
The perception that democracy had triumphed over the last, supposedly most modern form of obliterating liberty – namely communism – was an illusion. The lure of the authoritarians is still alive. It has only changed its shape since 1990.
Today, it’s no longer an anti-capitalist ideology that is challenging democracy. Instead the challenge facing democracy is that confidence in it is being undermined by accusations that it’s become ideology itself, a kind of arrogant religion that doesn’t need to justify itself to anybody. There is a tacit agreement among all those who are currently mobilizing broad sections of the electorate, from Sweden to Hungary, to nurture this suspicion. The one sentence they would all subscribe to is this: We have pushed the whole issue of democracy and liberalization too far.
If we want to fight back against this new movement, we cannot merely stick the label of "right-wing populism" on it. No, the uncomfortable question we must ask ourselves is to what extent skepticism about today’s democracy is justifiable. If the recipe for success for the prophets of doom consists of pinpointing things that objectively need repair and mixing that with hatred of the system, then the best countermeasure is to separate the two again. That is, what is purely hatred and where does a backlog of necessary reforms truly exist?
The backlog exists in three places, namely where democracy is failing to deliver on its own promises: Democracy no longer automatically means increasing prosperity. Representation no longer automatically means feeling represented. And being elected no longer automatically means having a choice yourself.
1. Democracy and Prosperity Fall Apart
Since 1945, Europeans and Americans have been accustomed to democracy and a rising standard of living going hand-in-hand. This certainty has evaporated since the financial crisis, if not before. Everywhere in the West, growth is declining. Roughly speaking, it’s declined by two-thirds since the mid-2000s.
What does that mean for democracy as we know it? Is it possible it can only prosper under the conditions of accelerated growth we know from the postwar years? Not necessarily. But one thing is certain: Democracy always starts becoming unstable when it has to manage threats to prosperity. It didn’t survive the crises of the 1930s in Germany.
To compare 1933 with 2016 is certainly overstating the situation. The "Black Friday" in 1929 triggered mass poverty that has little in common with the consequences of the Lehman crash in 2008. Subjectively, however, growth is collapsing at a time when the majority of people, more than ever before, are used to having their wants and desires satisfied ever more quickly and ever more cheaply. Never in all of history have so many people for so many generations built up such high expectations of prosperity, and never before have people been so unaccustomed to being deprived of what they desire. Loss aversion is what economic theory calls the fear of losses that increases exponentially with growth in wealth.
Growing prosperity therefore leads to even greater expectations that politicians will protect this prosperity. But politicians are meeting these expectations inadequately. In fact, the number of jobs in Germany and in the United States hasn’t declined during the last 10-year period – unlike in considerably harder-hit Southern Europe. But there are significantly more insecure job contracts around.
And just when democracy is ever less able to guarantee a sense of security, authoritarian states such as China, Russia and Turkey seem to prove that alternative paths exist. In the New York Times, Chinese book author and commentator Murong Xuecun recently quoted one of his friends as saying, "Democracy is good, but I don’t hope to live to see it." Although his friend harbors no sympathy for the one-party Chinese government, for now he’s very satisfied with his job, income and luxurious apartment.
Since 1990, such countries joined the economic race at a low level of prosperity and are also suffering from the global stagnation of growth. But a country like China, which has the highest growth rate (6 percent compared to Germany’s 2 percent) is at the moment keeping the largest pieces of the world’s slower-growing prosperity pie. And despite the economic sanctions, most Russians are grateful to Vladimir Putin, who put a stop to the chaos of the 1990s when supermarkets sometimes didn’t even stock toilet paper.