ELB Book Corner: Sam Issacharoff: “Faith in Democracy”

I am pleased to welcome Sam Issacharoff to ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Democracy Unmoored. Here’s the final of four posts:

According to most recent OECD survey data, in only 16 countries did more than half of respondents report having confidence in their governments. Turkish and Russian respondents (pre-Ukranian invasion) responded more satisfactorily than their U.S. counterparts. Were it not for Germany, Switzerland, and the Nordic belt, the democratic world would lag the bastions of illiberalism. In short: in the race for the hearts and souls of their respective nations, the autocrats are winning. 

The question of how to restore citizen investment in the project of democracy is necessarily complicated.  Unfortunately, there is no three-point program that will run back the clock on disillusionment, especially across the many international manifestations of democratic erosion.  Moreover, many of the areas for needed reform run at cross-purposes.  Nonetheless it is possible to address the prospects for democratic revival, if only in the broadest strokes.

We can begin with the basic capacity of government to get things done, an underappreciated challenge to democracies.  The decades-long initiative to extend subway service on New York City’s east side – for a distance of less than two miles – exemplifies the challenges to state capability.  Similar examples abound, the Berlin or Heathrow airports come readily to mind.  These all point to diminished government ability to build and maintain its existing infrastructure, and the basic ability to address pressing social concerns. By contrast, the rightly heralded ability of Pennsylvania to restore the I-95 bridge corridor required the bypassing of mountains of bureaucratic encrustments and bizarre permitting and requisitioning processes, a one-off workaround indicating the need for major reforms.  Further, the relative early success of nations like China and Singapore in the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates that the advantage democracy holds in delivering social solutions to its populace is tentative at best. Wisely, the campaigns of President Biden in the United States and Chancellor Scholz in Germany were anchored by a promise to revitalize government capacity to provide for its citizenry.  Much rests on the ability to deliver on these commitments.

Improving state competency frequently pushes toward removing constraints on executive authority.  However, strongman government has been the hallmark of populists’ rise in power from the United States to Hungary. Even classically parliamentary countries like Britain and Canada have witnessed concentrations of power in the chief executive. This “winner takes all” structure of a plebiscitary-style claim to executive authority frequently enables breaking through weak institutional barriers to executive abuse. There are structural fixes through federalism, independent oversight, and an empowerment of the minority party that can all foster revitalization in the legislative branch, with different advantages and weaknesses that resonate with greater authority in a country-specific context.

Economic conditions are but one source of populist agitation, and not necessarily the driving part; reassertions of national sovereignty and pride – inflamed by xenophobic agitation – are never far from the center. This anger is particularly poignant around border policies, which fan the flames of economic anxiety in terms of the exodus of jobs and of migrants taking away desirable employment.  Whether well founded or not, the sense of being displaced in one’s own country registers powerfully in the electoral arena and is a matter not easily engaged by mainstream parties.   Immigration debates have been a flashpoint in the European Union, most recently sending the Dutch government into disarray. If immigration is in part a placeholder for anger around economic dislocation, then failing to address the issue meaningfully paves the terrain for populist challenges. So far, serious policy engagement with immigration has proved the third rail of American politics.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is envisioning what democratic politics will look like in the future.  The heyday of political parties was a time when those parties actually represented constituencies, and those were defined through private institutions such as unions, churches, civic associations, and other kinds of NGOs. The US is exceptional in that the populist challenge emerged from one one of the established parties rather than from an external challenge. The American circumstance will have its own peculiar resolution, but non-state civic institutions – the media, businesses and universities – have already demonstrated a willingness to step in and stabilize in the face of a populist president. How this translates going forward, and particularly as social media supplant organizations as sources of communal identity, remains the great uncertain area of democratic disruption.

Finally, in the words of John Adams, “there can be no Republican Government, nor any real Liberty … [without] Passion for the public good … in the Minds of the people.”  Democracy Unmoored ends with glimmers of renewed faith in the value of democracy.  Populists have not had an easy run at reelection, as evidenced by Bolsonaro in Brazil and of course Trump in the U.S.  In many countries, the reaction to the Russian invasion has rekindled the perceived importance of the democratic legacy and possibly some renewed faith in the very institutions populists had aimed to squander. Even in the utter tragedy of the war on Ukraine, perhaps there is hope.

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