Democratic collapse is near: how to avoid it


Democratic collapse is near: how to avoid it

Grand Débat National, French citizens’ convention on ecology, permanent citizen assembly associated with the parliament of the German-speaking Belgian Community, recent citizens’ assembly in Ireland: the dialogue between citizens and decision-makers is making progress. Will this be enough though to restore the legitimacy of our democracies?

The call for more “citizen participation” has been heard. However, the urgency of the matter does not seem to be fully understood, nor its full implications.

Democratic collapse is not far

According to Harvard political scientist Yascha Mounk, the indicators of democratic health have all turned red in recent years, announcing a possible collapse of our democracies. Much like a medical test, Mounk’s analysis combines three criteria: how much do citizens value democracy in their own country? Are they open to undemocratic forms of government? And are “anti-system” parties and movements gaining ground?

These three indicators are today announcing a possible “deconsolidation,” as Mounk calls it, even in countries that are in principle as democratically sound as Sweden or Great Britain. As we’ve seen with Venezuela or Hungary recently, the slow erosion of democratic health documented over the last 15 years can suddenly lead to much faster deterioration.

People’s dissatisfaction with democracy is in fact global, as stressed by the latest Global Values ​​Survey. The appeal of undemocratic alternatives – autocracy, rule of experts, military rule… – is on the rise. In France, no less than 17% of the population is tempted by a military regime. And we’ve seen the recent success of populist parties at the ballot box.

According to this same survey, the only alternative that attracts citizens more than undemocratic alternatives is that of more direct democracy. Anger and distrust are turning into a desire for more direct control (see the call for a Citizen Initiative Referendum in France). At least for the moment, and for part of the electorate…

The Economist Intelligence Unit latest Democracy Index underscores in fact how the erosion of democracy has only been offset recently by people’s greater involvement in politics. Such appetite is therefore already a factor in rebuilding democracy. It must however also lead to better outcomes.

Process, output and emotions: three related legitimacies

The openness of the political system to external contributions must be designed to help our democracies prove that they can do better than any other decision-making mechanism to fulfill the general interest, especially in the face of “illiberal democrats” and China’s active counter propaganda.

Such legitimacy must be regained on three fronts: process, impact and emotions.

  • First, citizen participation must enhance the legitimacy of the process of aggregating public preferences and decision-making. This was a key concern in the French national debate: who participates, how are decisions made, how transparent are the algorithms, who chooses the questions? Many comments in the media testify, in this regard, to the maturity of “deliberative democracy.” We’re still learning, but we know that we can do better: rigorous recruitment of a diverse and representative sample of citizens, facilitation rules, balance of positions, smart combination of off- and online debates, transparency of the aggregation of inputs, institutional follow-up…
  • Second, not everyone cares about participation per se, but most citizens expect their problems to be solved. As Pew’s research shows, dissatisfaction with democracy is also related to economic frustration. We thus need “output legitimacy”, to use the political science jargon. It is indeed essential that the decisions taken thanks to such these collective processes demonstrate visible impact. Focusing only on adopting decisions fast at the expense of the legitimacy of the decision-making process no longer works. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a citizens’ assembly will lead to better political decisions, no matter how interesting the deliberation was. Participatory processes and more effectiveness in policy making must be mutually reinforcing. To this end, we know today the collective intelligence methods that help groups come up with better solutions.
  • Thirdly, we need to enhance what I would call the “emotional legitimacy” of democracy. Even if we make sure the process of associating outside parties to public decisions meets the two criteria above, citizens may not feel that their fears, sense of injustice or deep aspirations and hopes have been heard. The Yellow Vests make this clear. Emotional intelligence is what populists do best when mainstream politicians seem out of touch. Through their “common sense” way of talking, their rejection of “the system”, and by nurturing people’s anxieties and frustrations, they know how to give the excluded a renewed sense of dignity. By putting the blame on some, they make others feel close.

In order to (re)gain more emotional legitimacy, democracy and citizen participation must be founded on the deep and positive aspirations of the population. En Marche, Podemos or Mr Obama did this well in their electoral campaigns. But such emotional intelligence can no longer be the preserve of the campaign trail.

Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said in the early part of the 20th century, “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.” To paraphrase him, democracy needs to strive for participation on the other side of complexity, that is participation that is full, mobilises collective intelligence for better outcomes, and addresses not just the minds but the hearts of people.

Author: Stephen Boucher, author of Le petit manuel de créativité politique: Comment libérer l’audace collective and Professor at Sciences Po Paris, ULB, CIFE

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