Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The five signs of a crisis of epic proportions –

The decision-making processes in democracies are becoming increasingly complicated and slow. The oldest modern democracy, the American one, which has been an example to many others, is faltering and risking to drag other democracies down with it.

It is questioned how democratic and non-democratic countries, such as Hungary, can coexist in the European Union, where the independence of judges, media, and culture is not recognized, and individuals are put in chains in a courtroom. These signs of crisis can be interpreted in various ways.

On one hand, there is a complaint that the state is weak and cannot fulfill its commitments to the citizens. On the other hand, there is concern about the dangers of an excessive strengthening of the executive branch.

Therefore, is democracy at risk because it is too weak or because it is too strong? To try to answer these questions, it is necessary to distinguish the underlying factors of crisis of the last fifty years from the events that can cause the collapse of democracies.

The latent factors of crisis are at least five and have been at work in Europe for at least half a century. They impact democracy as respect for the shared interests of the community and cause considerable dissatisfaction among the populations living in democratic regimes.

Firstly, mature democracies, those with a century of history, feel the weight of a noble past. They have listened to many contradictory collective interests, from employment to development, education, social protection, environmental protection, and cultural heritage, among others.

However, when they have to decide and bring together all these interests, they struggle to establish which one should take precedence. Secondly, the intermediary bodies that once brought the rulers closer to the ruled, such as parties as associations, have disappeared from contemporary democracies.

Political forces have changed in nature and have become oligarchic. This atomization of society weakens the parliaments.

Economic and social interest groups fail to unite or find convergences. Thus, the political offering is weak and fragmented.

The fourth crisis factor concerns the attitudes of the rulers, for whom politics is no longer a passion but a profession. They try to cater to popular impulses instead of guiding the citizens’ sentiments and remain prisoners of such impulses.

The art of governing is reduced to the art of earning votes, forgetting what Luigi Einaudi wrote three-quarters of a century ago, that disregard for popularity is the highest virtue of a statesman. Therefore, electorates become unstable, volatile, and apathetic.

The fifth factor lies in the underestimation of what was once called “the order of reason.” The possibility of acting according to reason requires activating cognitive processes that increase the electorate’s capacity, maintain its relationship with the representatives, and allow that progress of representative government that consists of drawing capable men from the nation and putting them at the top of the social structure.

These crisis factors can remain latent for a long time, but they lead to the collapse of democratic systems if and when events such as the rise of anti-system movements, economic crises, erosion of living standards, and breaches of legality occur. An important study conducted in the United States and Europe by about ten scholars has shown what the distal, intermediate, and proximate factors are that influence the decline of democracies, less frequently in presidential systems.

The same study has highlighted that a protective belt around democracy is necessary because the usual correctives may not work. This belt requires a high level of polyarchy, great administrative capacity, strict respect for legality, and the development of civil society education.

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