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 had reached an end-point in its ideological evolution. He attributed this to the symbiosis of liberal democracy and capitalism, which, according to Fukuyama, would spread worldwide due to two factors: the dynamic efficiency of free markets and the fact that people want to live in a system where they can freely choose their beliefs and way of life. However, his assertion has proven flawed given the political and economic currents of the early 21st century, with Brexit, the rise of neo-authoritarian China or the election of Donald Trump as some of the most salient examples. 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, the success of liberal democracy depends on two dynamics that are no longer prevalent today: a relatively equal society and the widespread belief by the populace that the system is fair. 

First and foremost, many citizens in industrialized nations have seen stagnating wages 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 (the trunk of the elephant below), 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 watching wealthy elites wielding their economic power to support their own political objectives. This is exemplified by the lobbying efforts of large corporations and the countless corruption scandals uncovered on a regular basis. Drawing on this anger, populists add fuel to the fire by portraying the entire political establishment as crooked elites. To this end, conspiracy theories are strategically utilized and disseminated, providing a coherent narrative to their deceitful assertions. 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 the uprooting of the political establishment and added significant volatility to the political landscape in Western democracies. Traditional ‘big-tent’ parties have seen their vote shares drop immensely. New movements and players have emerged, some of which do not share the common belief in liberal values. 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 is viewed as a form of corruption of the people’s will. While this approach certainly contains some democratic elements, it diverges from our traditional perception of democracy as it is also fundamentally illiberal. 

In short, voters have grown increasingly frustrated with governmental institutions that have often appeared unresponsive or unsympathetic to their needs and feelings. As a consequence, many believe that elected representatives have dishonored the terms of the social bargain and turn away from the political establishment. They flock to populist parties, promising immediate change and the return of a glorified past (“Make America Great Again”). However, as populists aim to overcome the barricades that inhibit the expression of the popular will, skipping the slow route of political compromise and consensus, they gradually hollow out the liberal foundations of democracy. Unfortunately, it is these very institutions that are necessary for democracy’s survival.

How Democracies Die 

In their book How Democracies Die, the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss how corrupt elected leaders gradually undermine democratic processes to bolster their power. The authors argue that since the end of the Cold War, most democracies have not been overthrown by military coups but through the gradual capture of political institutions by autocrats. These rulers find opportunities in crises, such as economic downturns, terrorist attacks or viral pandemics, to justify anti-democratic measures and position themselves favorably. 

Moreover, Levitsky and Ziblatt maintain that even though democracies tend to be quite resilient, they still rely on guardrails to prevent the accumulation of too much power in one single entity. These guardrails, comprising written rules (constitutions) and referees (courts), need to be reinforced by norms that prevent partisan competition from developing into hostile conflict. Unfortunately, political polarization significantly tears at the foundations of these guardrails. When society has grown so divided that the opposing groups not only rarely interact, but have developed incompatible worldviews, mutual toleration and respect disappears. Politicians no longer make the distinction between enemies and political adversaries, which results in the gradual erosion of democratic norms.

2020 marks a year where this has become particularly rampant. Many governments around the world 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 its former president has made intolerable fraud claims following the presidential election.

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 what the future of democratic societies may look like.

Bibliography/Further Reading:

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