Democracies on the defensive | Opinion

Great was the relief when we learned the results of the Brazilian and American mid-term elections. The same thing happened to us before with the French presidential elections. Those of the Swedish and Italian women, on the contrary, plunged us into melancholy. We oscillate, then, from discouragement to joy with almost no solution of continuity. In some cases, moreover, we fall into self-deception. Many of these victories are pyrrhic and nothing assures us that they are not reversible. What is important to note is that, in my case at least, these mood swings do not respond to a mere ideological preference, but to concern for the future of democracy. Perhaps, from a geopolitical angle, the political conflict of our days is that of democracy against authoritarianism, a kind of new Cold War between political systems. From an internal perspective, however, the dispute between liberal democracy and populist democracy is still very much alive.

The situation is, therefore, the opposite of that which characterized its expansion throughout the 1990s, when the fall of state socialism left the way clear for its great international offensive. Now we are in a phase of contraction of all that momentum, democracy has gone on the defensive. Not only because of the already well-known turn towards authoritarianism manifested by many States that until now were in full democratization phase; also, and above all, due to the apparent exhaustion of the liberal political culture within a good number of Western democracies. The enemy is within. We usually dismiss it with the generic term of populism, the great culprit, but with that we only manage to throw balls out; what really matters are the reasons that lead to almost half of the citizens of some countries opting for candidates or parties of that sign.

Unraveling these reasons has become a veritable sudoku puzzle for political scientists. Here I can only point to one possible. Paradoxically, that same success that democracy exhibited during its offensive phase. Free of enemies, it seemed as if its mere formal implantation was enough for it to flourish everywhere. It was also a stage that coincided with globalization; that is, new interdependencies and limitations of sovereignty, massive migrations and an exponential increase in inequality. Quite a challenge that required a new governance and the audacity to get out of the usual channels in the relationship between rulers and ruled. A reinvention. But not. To a large extent we continue with the usual inertia, a timid political class and a self-satisfied citizenry that subordinates the value of democratic procedures to the satisfaction of their preferences. After all, it might be for the best that she be threatened. So at least we will be forced to react. It depends on us.

Subscribe to continue reading

Read without limits