What Was Democracy? | The Nation


What Was Democracy?

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Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

Works Progress Administration poster from the 1930s

The Logic of Discipline
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Ill Fares the Land
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By Pierre Rosanvallon.
Translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer.
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The Crisis of the European Union
A Response.
By Jürgen Habermas.
Translated from the German by Ciaran Cronin.
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The Confidence Trap
A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present.
By David Runciman.
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Bertrand Russell once described a chicken that is fed by a farmer every day. If other animals on the farm were to whisper warnings to the chicken about its imminent death, the chicken would scarcely listen: all its evidence suggests the farmer wants to keep it alive. And yet, said Russell, “the man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.”

The fable is meant to warn us against making facile predictions, but it can also help us to refine our assumptions about the future. What the chicken failed to realize was that there were conditions that guided the farmer’s actions: he would have an interest in feeding the chicken only so long as it was too lean for the market. If we want to venture a guess about the future of democracy, we have to ask: In what respect has the past stability and tenability of the democratic project depended on factors that no longer obtain?

There are a number of striking constants that have held true about representative liberal politics from the founding of the American Republic in 1776 until today. During much of that time, except maybe for a short blip in 1941, a liberal democracy in some form tended to be the most powerful nation in the world. And during much of that time, with the exception of a very short period in the 1930s, the average citizens of a democracy could boast of a much greater standard of living than their parents had.

Neither of these is still the case. Consider, first, the course of world power since the Napoleonic implosion. By the time the British Empire began to falter and the United States inherited its mantle, the supremacy of liberal democracy seemed unassailably secure. As a result, for more than two hundred years and with only a few breaks, we have lived in a world in which one bourgeois democracy or another has been the leading power. Except for brief episodes of peril, democracies around the world have not often had to consider that the confidence their citizens place in their form of government may rely on the sheer power of their states. But it’s not hard to grasp that power both lends prestige and guarantees the absence of destabilizing humiliations. Military defeat has brought not only countless dictatorships, but also numerous democracies—the Spanish Republic being only the most dramatic example—to a premature end.

It’s indicative of the importance and stabilizing nature of power that the United States experienced a sharp democratic disillusionment at the exact moment that it failed to impose a simulacrum of its political system on a Third World country one-thirtieth its size. But for all the embarrassment that the Vietnam War caused Washington, it was hardly as severe a humiliation as most nation-states have weathered at the low points of their history: no American territory was lost, no reparations were paid, US world leadership remained intact. In retrospect, the Vietnam War looks less like a democratic reckoning than a reckless extravagance. If the future should hold more sobering humiliations for America, it may also spell more serious trouble for America’s still-intact democratic ideology.

The economy is another factor that may have been a necessary precondition for the stability of liberal democracy. For the past 250 years—the period in which nations professing to be democracies have sprung up across the world—economic growth has been both astonishing and astonishingly continuous. Booms were followed by busts, but however severe, the busts have only lasted a few years. Since the founding of the United States, most generations have experienced a much more comfortable life than the previous one. But no more. As Piketty and other economists have established, while the economy as a whole has kept growing, the share of it enjoyed by average citizens has rapidly diminished. As a result, the median income of Americans is below what it was twenty-five years ago. This is hardly just a matter of income. Along with falls in absolute levels of remuneration, working Americans have had to live with more economic insecurity—from quickly rising levels of personal debt to the lethal cost of healthcare.

Economic predictions are rarely more trustworthy than phrenological readings, but there are good reasons to believe that the stagnation of average living standards is here to stay for some time. Opposition to redistributive mechanisms such as high taxes, and salary guarantors such as union contracts, has sharpened through the crisis. Meanwhile, the competition for jobs among unskilled and semi-skilled workers has only intensified as the world economy grows ever more integrated, and as the skill and productivity levels of workers from China to Azerbaijan keep improving. There is no telling whether some new set of technologies, or perhaps even an unexpected global renaissance of the political left, may rescue us from more decades of stagnating wages. But to count on that prospect is wishful thinking. For now, all signs point to the possibility that, for the first time in the history of modern democracy, our political system may have to survive in an era of prolonged economic stasis.

To make matters worse, the decline of American political power in the world and the decline of American living standards are not only happening at the same time but feeding off each other. Liberal internationalists are too sanguine when they suggest that the world governance architecture designed by the United States at the end of World War II will remain largely the same in a world no longer dominated by liberal democracies. At the moment, the rules of free trade are expressly tailored to US interests. The industries in which America is strong, or for which American consumers have a particularly urgent demand, get to engage in free trade; others, like agriculture, continue to profit from substantial protectionism. If the leaders of “emerging markets” ever manage to consolidate their interests and shape a more equitable trade regime, the generational decline in living standards in the United States could accelerate. And a rewriting of the rules of free trade is far from the most catastrophic scenario that might be imagined. What if the United States is outmatched in military spending, limiting its power projection to a portion of the Western Hemisphere? Or what if a major trade dispute between China and the United States leads to the effective dismantling of the World Trade Organization, prompting protective barriers to shoot up all across the world and global trade to slow abruptly?

A reading of history cannot tell us what will happen or what should be done. But it can provide an understanding of what is truly new about our situation. The best we can do, then, is to develop a historically based imagination of what unprecedented crises democracy might face, what effect these may have, and how our democracies can hope to confront them.

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