in Political Polarization

The End of Democracy?

In 1992, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama published his famous essay ‘The End of History’, in which he argued that with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, humanity has reached an end-point in its ideological evolution. He attributed this to the symbiosis of liberal democracy and the capitalist system, which, according to Fukuyama, would spread worldwide due to two factors: a struggle for recognition that makes people want to live in a system where they can freely choose their beliefs and way of life, and the dynamic efficiency of capitalism. However, his assertion has proven flawed given the political and economic currents of the early 21st century, including the rise of neo-authoritarian China, Brexit or the election of Donald Trump. Based on these recent trends concerning democracy, this article discusses the collision of populism and liberal values as well as how growing societal polarization can result in the downfall of democracy as we know it. 

Liberalism and Democracy 

A liberal democracy constitutes a system in which citizens, protected by liberal institutions, participate in the political process by voting for representatives that translate their views into public policy. The elected government is constrained by liberal freedoms and the rule of law to prevent arbitrary interference with citizens’ lives. In many Western societies, this has been the dominant political order for decades. However, as the political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell argue in their book “National Populism”, this system requires two dynamics which are no longer prevalent today: a relatively equal society and the widespread acceptance by the populace to believe that the system is fair. 

First and foremost, for many citizens in industrialized nations wages have stagnated since the 1980s, a phenomenon that is often linked to globalization, digitalization and a lack of sufficient redistributive efforts by government. The famous graph by Serbian-American economist Branko Milanović, formerly a lead researcher at the World Bank, elegantly illustrates this in the shape of an elephant: those between the 70th and 90th percentile of global income, which roughly corresponds to lower earners in developed countries, have missed out on real income growth throughout the past 20 years. At the same time, the economic gains in Western countries were disproportionately captured by capital owners and those with sufficient skills to have benefited from the trends of the past decades. 

Profoundly connected to these trends is the second factor, which concerns the belief in the fairness of the system. Many voters have lost trust in political institutions after having experienced that members of small and increasingly wealthy elites can utilize their economic power to support their political objectives. This is underlined by the lobbying efforts of large corporations and the countless scandals we are confronted with on a regular basis. Populists add fuel to the fire by drawing on this anger and portraying the entire political establishment as a corrupt network of elites. To this end, conspiracy narratives are frequently used to provide a cohesive explanation to their claims. What follows from these efforts is a sentiment of distrust and a growing perception of distance between ordinary citizens and their political representatives. 

The combination of these trends has resulted in an uprooting of the political establishment and added significant volatility to the political landscape. Traditional “big-tent” parties have suffered decreasing vote shares while new movements and players have emerged; some of which have not shared the common belief in the liberal values underlying Western democracy. Many populists argue that the system of checks and balances that prevent political players from becoming too powerful conflicts with a fundamental principle of democracy: that the will of the people should not be mediated. Accordingly, neither independent institutions nor the safeguarding of individual rights should quiet the popular voice. Any compromise made on behalf of minorities constitutes a form of corruption of the people’s will. While this approach certainly contains some deeply democratic elements, it diverges from our traditional system of democracy in that it is also fundamentally illiberal. 

So what are we confronted with here? Voters have grown increasingly frustrated with governmental institutions, which have often appeared unresponsive or unsympathetic to people’s needs and feelings. Following many voters’ perception of a dishonoring of the terms of the social bargain by elected representatives, they turn away from the political establishment and support populists who promise immediate change, skipping the slow route of compromise and consensus. In consequence, the liberal foundations of democracy are gradually being hollowed out, as populist leaders overcome the barricades that inhibit the full expression of the popular will. However, the problem is that these very institutions are necessary for democracy’s survival in the long run. 

How Democracies Die 

In their book “How Democracies Die”, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss how some elected leaders gradually corrupt the democratic process with the aim of bolstering their power. Since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown by a military coup or some other form of aggression, they argue, but instead it is the gradual capture of political institutions by autocrats that result in the retreat of democracy around the world. These rulers find opportunities in crises, be it economic downturns, terrorist attacks or viral pandemics, to justify antidemocratic measures. 

Moreover, Levitsky and Ziblatt maintain that even though democracies tend to be resilient, they still rely on guardrails to prevent the accumulation of too much power in one entity. These guardrails, which include written rules (constitutions) and referees (courts), need to be reinforced by norms that prevent political competition from developing into hostile conflict. This is where polarization comes in. When society has grown so divided that the opposing groups not only rarely interact, but have developed incompatible worldviews, mutual toleration and respect disappears. This manifests itself in a lack of distinction between political enemies and adversaries, in turn leading to the gradual erosion of democratic norms. 2020 marks a year where this process has become particularly rampant. Many governments the world over have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to seize emergency powers and ban political dissent. According to Freedom House, a think-tank, 80 countries have experienced a relapse of democracy and individual freedoms since the outbreak of the pandemic. Similarly, the US has not only seen a highly controversial nomination to its Supreme Court, but Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that the US presidential election has been ‘rigged’.  

Three decades after Fukuyama initially proclaimed ‘the end of history’, the world is in uproar. Polarization has led societies to transgress democratic norms that have been in place for centuries. In the last part of this series, we discuss what can be done to revert these patterns and how future democratic societies might look like.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

  • Francis Fukuyama – Identity
  • Daniel Ziblatt & Steven Levitsky – How Democracies Die