This encourages extremism, because politicians have to appeal only to the party faithful, and in effect disenfranchises large numbers of voters. And money talks louder than ever in American politics. Thousands of lobbyists more than 20 for every member of Congress add to the length and complexity of legislation, the better to smuggle in special privileges. All this creates the impression that American democracy is for sale and that the rich have more power than the poor, even as lobbyists and donors insist that political expenditure is an exercise in free speech.
Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter both said no. Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats.
A project designed to tame the beast of European populism is instead poking it back into life. EVEN in its heartland, democracy is clearly suffering from serious structural problems, rather than a few isolated ailments. Since the dawn of the modern democratic era in the late 19th century, democracy has expressed itself through nation-states and national parliaments. People elect representatives who pull the levers of national power for a fixed period. But this arrangement is now under assault from both above and below. From above, globalisation has changed national politics profoundly.
National politicians have surrendered ever more power, for example over trade and financial flows, to global markets and supranational bodies, and may thus find that they are unable to keep promises they have made to voters. International organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and the European Union have extended their influence. There is a compelling logic to much of this: how can a single country deal with problems like climate change or tax evasion? National politicians have also responded to globalisation by limiting their discretion and handing power to unelected technocrats in some areas.
The number of countries with independent central banks, for example, has increased from about 20 in to more than today. From below come equally powerful challenges: from would-be breakaway nations, such as the Catalans and the Scots, from Indian states, from American city mayors. All are trying to reclaim power from national governments. The internet makes it easier to organise and agitate; in a world where people can participate in reality-TV votes every week, or support a petition with the click of a mouse, the machinery and institutions of parliamentary democracy, where elections happen only every few years, look increasingly anachronistic.
Douglas Carswell, a British member of parliament, likens traditional politics to HMV, a chain of British record shops that went bust, in a world where people are used to calling up whatever music they want whenever they want via Spotify, a popular digital music-streaming service.
The biggest challenge to democracy, however, comes neither from above nor below but from within—from the voters themselves. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment.
America Wasn’t a Democracy, Until Black Americans Made It One
France and Italy have not balanced their budgets for more than 30 years. The financial crisis starkly exposed the unsustainability of such debt-financed democracy. With the post-crisis stimulus winding down, politicians must now confront the difficult trade-offs they avoided during years of steady growth and easy credit.
But persuading voters to adapt to a new age of austerity will not prove popular at the ballot box.
Slow growth and tight budgets will provoke conflict as interest groups compete for limited resources. To make matters worse, this competition is taking place as Western populations are ageing.
Black Reconstruction in America - Wikipedia
They will increasingly have absolute numbers on their side. Many democracies now face a fight between past and future, between inherited entitlements and future investment. Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between and Meanwhile the border between poking fun and launching protest campaigns is fast eroding. And in a quarter of Italians voted for a party founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian.
All this popular cynicism about politics might be healthy if people demanded little from their governments, but they continue to want a great deal. The result can be a toxic and unstable mixture: dependency on government on the one hand, and disdain for it on the other. The dependency forces government to overexpand and overburden itself, while the disdain robs it of its legitimacy. Democratic dysfunction goes hand in hand with democratic distemper.
The Obama administration now seems paralysed by the fear that democracy will produce rogue regimes or empower jihadists. And why should developing countries regard democracy as the ideal form of government when the American government cannot even pass a budget, let alone plan for the future? Why should autocrats listen to lectures on democracy from Europe, when the euro-elite sacks elected leaders who get in the way of fiscal orthodoxy? At the same time, democracies in the emerging world have encountered the same problems as those in the rich world.
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They too have overindulged in short-term spending rather than long-term investment. Brazil allows public-sector workers to retire at 53 but has done little to create a modern airport system. India pays off vast numbers of client groups but invests too little in infrastructure.
Political systems have been captured by interest groups and undermined by anti-democratic habits. Democracy has been on the back foot before. In the s and s communism and fascism looked like the coming things: when Spain temporarily restored its parliamentary government in , Benito Mussolini likened it to returning to oil lamps in the age of electricity. Things are not that bad these days, but China poses a far more credible threat than communism ever did to the idea that democracy is inherently superior and will eventually prevail.
The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. At the same time, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths. Being able to install alternative leaders offering alternative policies makes democracies better than autocracies at finding creative solutions to problems and rising to existential challenges, though they often take a while to zigzag to the right policies.
But to succeed, both fledgling and established democracies must ensure they are built on firm foundations. THE most striking thing about the founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill is how hard-headed they were. They regarded democracy as a powerful but imperfect mechanism: something that needed to be designed carefully, in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon.
The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy. The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed. The most successful new democracies have all worked in large part because they avoided the temptation of majoritarianism—the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases.
India has survived as a democracy since apart from a couple of years of emergency rule and Brazil since the mids for much the same reason: both put limits on the power of the government and provided guarantees for individual rights. Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries.
Origin of the term
Conversely, the first sign that a fledgling democracy is heading for the rocks often comes when elected rulers try to erode constraints on their power—often in the name of majority rule. Foreign leaders should be more willing to speak out when rulers engage in such illiberal behaviour, even if a majority supports it.
But the people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote. The records of the various New England colonies show how steadily exploration was carried into the wilderness by this trade.
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What is true for New England is, as would be expected, even plainer for the rest of the colonies. All along the coast from Maine to Georgia the Indian trade opened up the river courses. Steadily the trader passed westward, utilizing the older lines of French trade. The Ohio, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Platte, the lines of western advance, were ascended by traders.
The explanation of the rapidity of this advance is connected with the effects of the trader on the Indian.
The trading post left the unarmed tribes at the mercy of those that had purchased fire-arms—a truth which the Iroquois Indians wrote in blood, and so the remote and unvisited tribes gave eager welcome to the trader. Thus the disintegrating forces of civilization entered the wilderness. Every river valley and Indian trail became a fissure in Indian society, and so that society became honeycombed. Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene, primitive Indian life had passed away.
The farmers met Indians armed with guns. The trading frontier, while steadily undermining Indian power by making the tribes ultimately dependent on the whites, yet, through its sale of guns, gave to the Indians increased power of resistance to the farming frontier.
French colonization was dominated by its trading frontier; English colonization by its farming frontier. There was an antagonism between the two frontiers as between the two nations.