The crisis of the crisis of democracy

Image: Tom Fisk


Some of the vices of speeches about the death of democracies

Few subjects have been as debated in the social sciences as the supposed global crisis of democracy. Some researchers are more extreme; fatalists, decree that democracy is in its twilight. Others, like David Runciman, are cautious, and speak of a “midlife crisis”. Entire shelves are dedicated to the theme in bookstores and new books appear in profusion, with almost homonymous titles, such as how democracies die ou How Democracy Comes to an End (launched, it is worth mentioning, with a space of only six months between one and another). The apocalyptic prediction is the same: with the election of the harbinger of destruction Donald Trump, populists have risen to power and liberal democracy is doomed to self-destruction.

Look, don't expect here to deny that there is in fact an ongoing process of global weakening of democracy. Let's not be denialists, when we have several sources, from the broadest political ideologies, pointing out that democracy, at least in its liberal format, is in retreat across the globe. The causes differ from analyst to analyst, but the diagnosis is repeated among Marxists, liberals and conservatives. This is not the point here, when criticizing a “crisis of the crisis”. The intention is to point out some of the vices of this speech.

To begin with, agencies such as V-dem e Freedom House, themselves with some vices, identify the beginning of this weakening process already at the beginning of the 2004st century, between 2006 and 20. Despite a wave of optimism with the Arab Spring and the growth of social networks – utopia soon transformed into dystopia – democratic recession has been ongoing for almost XNUMX years. The election of Donald Trump reinforced this process but did not start it.

Therein lies the first question: for American and European political scientists, the weakening of democracy begins with Donald Trump. Some cite Viktor Orbán as his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro as his successor. But they ignore, for example, votes of distrust disguised as impeachments such as those of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras in 2013, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in 2012, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in 2016. Theoretically impossible mechanisms in presidentialisms, which reveal, at least, a process of democratic erosion. It is as if coups and institutional crises in other nations outside the United States-Europe axis do not matter, and the democratic crisis only becomes evident when it hits the supposedly perfect democracy of the United States and begins to threaten nations like France and the United Kingdom.

But this is neither the only nor the biggest problem with the crisis of democracy subgenre. Another big problem is treating a process as novelty that, although more intense, never ended. Authoritarian and reactionary forces have been in motion since the dawn of modern democracy, democracy has been in crisis since virtually its birth. And there is no shortage of prognoses and diagnoses to try to understand how to increase your resilience, it is worth remembering the classic article from 1997 by Adam Przeworski et al, “What keeps democracies going?”. Only with the naivety, north-centrism and optimism of Francis Fukuyama would it be possible to believe that liberal democracy is the future of the planet.

By the way, speaking of liberal democracy, there is another issue: the belief that both necessarily go together. As much as it is a problematic book, The people against democracy, by Yascha Mounk, is sober when realizing that the marriage between democracy and liberalism is not as stable as it is believed. And that could collapse, as it has already collapsed and is collapsing in parts of the planet. Absorbing Viktor Orbán's concept of illiberal democracy into the academic debate, Mounk proposes a division between this format and that of authoritarian liberalism. Basically, a façade democracy, like in Hungary, with progress curtailing public space, and on the other side a liberalism without democracy. That is, democracy without rights, or rights without democracy. A Sofia choice that seems to be more and more in vogue.

But then again, this Sofia choice isn't all that new. Here is another major problem of this subgenre, once again: treating the crisis of democracy as an unprecedented movement. More than that, to point out as a novelty the process of democracy being used to assassinate itself. That is, the capture and absorption of institutions by potential authoritarians, who destroy the democratic environment while appealing to an argument ad populum that, as they were elected by the majority, any authoritarian measure they take will be in defense of democracy. A paradox that can be synthesized in the Orwellian name of the concept coined by Benito Mussolini, “authoritarian democracy”. Or in Mounk's "illiberal democracy".

Mussolini's citation did not come by chance: this process is as old as democracy itself. Mussolini and Hitler not only rose in their respective nations through the legal and democratic mechanisms of the time, they also captured and used democracy itself to assassinate it. The novelty tone, therefore, does not hold: this method is as old as modern democracy.

Finally, the last major problem of this literature: treating all movements rejecting liberal democracy as synonyms, left or right. Worse: using appropriate concepts for specific cases from the North to the South, transposing without proper epistemological analysis and incorporating a notion such as populism for cases that are essentially distinct. In this sense, disparate authoritarian leaders such as Bolsonaro, Trump, and Orbán all view themselves as populist, despite their idiosyncrasies and that of their respective nations.

It is undeniable that there is an ongoing rise of authoritarian movements across the globe. If it is still early to say that his pessimistic projections were wrong, and it is not possible to deny the danger that resurgent authoritarian nationalisms pose to democracies around the world, perhaps it is premature to take this pessimism for Cassandra. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of this worldwide democratic recession not as the inevitable end of liberal democracies, but as what David Runciman has called a midlife crisis. The history of democracy is a history of crisis, and this is just one more cycle.

Perhaps it is more interesting to ask ourselves not what kills democracies, as the authors of this subgenre have done, but what keeps them, as Adam Przeworski did in his classic 1997 essay. old crisis and fight it.

*Sergio Scargel is a doctoral student in political science at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).


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