All the Ways Democracy Is Crashing and Burning

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Polish Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf addresses supporters. The characteristics of illiberal democracy encompass changes that include weakening gatekeepers including the justice 
Polish Supreme Court President Malgorzata Gersdorf addresses supporters. The characteristics of illiberal democracy encompass changes that include weakening gatekeepers including the justice system.Credit: REUTERS/Marcin Goclowski
Yoram Peri
Yoram Peri

At the end of the last century, the West was in the grip of euphoria. The collapse of the communist empire prompted Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard political scientist, to write “The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century” (1991), extolling how 60 new countries had joined the prestigious club. Francis Fukuyama expanded an article he’d written in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, and published the book that made him a superstar, “The End of History.” In the 20th century, he explained, liberal democracy had dealt a crushing blow to all the other competing ideologies, from fascism to communism. The world was coalescing, he predicted: All countries would adopt the liberal democratic model, and global conflict would end.

Twenty years later, the West appears to have lapsed into a state of depression. Not only has the dream of convergence faded, but the democracies themselves are moving ever farther from liberalism. The June issue of the journal Foreign Affairs even asked directly whether democracy has reached its end.

Are we on the brink of a post-democratic era? The data leave little room for doubt. The latest annual report of the New York-based organization Freedom House paints a grim picture: In 2017, the civil rights situation worsened in 71 countries – a trend of deterioration that has continued for 12 years – and only 39 percent of the world’s population is living in conditions of “freedom.”

In the past two years, more than a dozen important books and other works have been published in the United States, which have set out to describe and explain what happened. Several of them topped the best-seller lists for weeks. In some cases, they offer historical analyses of the earlier wave of the collapse of democracies, in the 1930s. The optimists among the writers hope that if we can understand that antidemocratic wave, we will perhaps be able to prevent the downfall of today’s democracies; the pessimists have already lost all hope. These books are hardly read in Israel, which is a pity, because many of them tell a story well known to Israelis, even if Israel is not mentioned explicitly. They were written, of course, before the enactment of the nation-state law, this summer; it will undoubtedly appear in future editions.

A message board adorned with notes for loved ones who took their own lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. Credit: John Minchillo/AP

Death from despair

In her new book, “Fascism: A Warning,” Madeleine Albright, who was secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, describes the rise of a regime of that kind in 1930s’ Europe. In her first chapter, she analyzes the mode of operation of fascist leaders. The first rule, she says, is to disseminate “a doctrine of anger and fear.” Sound familiar? In his book “The Death of Democracy.” Benjamin Carter Hett, from the City University of New York, relates the story of the collapse of Germany’s Weimar Republic. Democracies, he writes, don’t die with a bang but with a whimper, by means of a prolonged weakening of their institutions, particularly the judicial system and the media, and the slackening of political norms. There’s no need to venture far in order to know that.

Many people were surprised by not only recent changes in Poland and Hungary, but also by political developments in Britain and the United States. Still, some foresaw the trend. One of the most significant of these writers was Thomas Piketty, who in 2014 published “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” In this 700-page book, the French economist described the exacerbation of economic inequality since the 1980s, and warned against the consequences of the deepening disparity. Democracies, he observed, cannot be sustained in the face of such gaps, which sooner or later will generate a revolt by the masses.

Indeed, a minuscule portion of the American population continues to possess a vast fortune. In 2016, the top 1 percent owned 39 percent of the national wealth (as compared with 34 percent decade earlier). The lowest nine deciles made do with 23 percent of the national wealth that year – 5 percent less than what they owned in the previous decade.

Additional data conjure up an extremely disturbing picture. The number of suicides in the United States rose by 25 percent in the past two decades and is continuing to soar. In 2016 alone, some 45,000 Americans took their own lives. Among those under the age of 35, suicide is already the second most-common cause of death (after accidents). The excessive use of painkillers has reached epidemic proportions: In 2016, more than 42,000 Americans died from opioid overdose. Four of every 10 Americans admitted that they felt lonely, double the proportion in the 1980s. Psychologists and physicians have articulated a new term, “deaths of despair,” to categorize the increase in the number of deaths due to drugs, medications, alcohol and suicide in the United States. But this phenomenon is not confined to America, of course; in Britain a minister was appointed to coordinate the handling of the of the kingdom’s loneliness crisis.

The optimists hope that understanding the antidemocratic wave could help prevent the downfall of democracy. The pessimists have lost all hope.

Light-years away

The most common explanation for the collapse of democracy links it to globalism. However, this is only a partial cause. Even if globalization has augmented economic disparities, a more important factor is the financial crisis of the 1980s. As a result of that calamity, 10 million Americans lost their jobs and their homes, and 30 million lost their health insurance. More important, the crisis snuffed out the “American dream.” Following World War II, Americans had devoutly believed that in the future their economic situation would only improve and that their children would be better off than they were. It’s because of that belief – as the German sociologist Werner Sombart noted as early as 1906 – that no socialist movement was able to strike roots in the United States.

Even after the passing of the latest economic crisis, the condition of American society remains quite appalling. The rich continue to get richer, but the financial situation of the middle class is increasingly declining – its income level today is identical to what it was 30 years ago. Surveys taken since 2004 show a large proportion of people who are anxious about their economic future. Their pensions, they fear, will not be at a subsistence level. Similarly, more and more young people are concerned that they will not be able to pay back the loans they will have to take in order to receive a university education. Many are simply forgoing higher education.

Sociologists have already noted that even more than economic blows and downward mobility, a key factor in pathological behavior is “status anxiety.” The shame entailed in descending the social ladder is intolerable. In fact, the rates of social mobility in the United States, which always took pride in the notion that every child could become president, are lower today than in most European countries. And that includes Britain, which is considered to be a country where most people die in the same social class in which they were born.

What’s true of the United States is even truer of other countries. In the past year, more than a million people have fled from Venezuela to neighboring countries because of the economic crisis and the genuine threat of starvation. The Greek economy shrank by 26 percent from 2007 to 2014, and despite massive European Union aid, it has yet to recover; a quarter of the population in Greece is poorer than it was in the pre-crisis period.

Thousands of Venezuelans entering Colombia through the Simon Bolivar international bridge in Cucuta, Colombia, February 9, 2018.Credit: Juan Pablo Cohen/ HANDOUT / EPA-

Even in countries where the economic situation has not become as acute, inequality has intensified. Large portions of the population are suffering economically, particularly the residents of rural regions, the social periphery and areas where there was heavy industry that is no longer needed. These are the citizens who are not connected to London, Paris or even Warsaw – those for whom New York and Los Angeles are light-years away.

Nationalism redux

In his book “Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy,” William Galston, who advised President Clinton on domestic policy, points a finger of blame at the unease caused by immigration. As in Europe, in the United States immigrants are widely perceived as stealing the jobs of the lower and middle class, and as fomenting a change in the national character and causing the loss of the collective identity. It’s clear, then, why they are the object of popular wrath, which is also directed at the liberal elites that advocate immigration.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s explanations that the country’s negative birthrate requires an increase in the size of the workforce have been to no avail. For the same reason, economic analyses showing that the United States is desperate for cheap working hands from South and Central America will be just as useless.

The threat implicit in the arrival of immigrants is perceived as tangible even when it has no foundation in reality. In Poland, for example, a country of 38 million people to which 35,000 Muslims have immigrated in recent years, there was talk of a “Muslim wave.” A survey conducted among Poles revealed that most of them believed that no fewer than 2.5 million Muslims had invaded their country.

Anxiety about the loss of national identity generates a return to nationalism – of the organic rather than the liberal variety. It engenders the cultivation of tribalism and the strengthening of religion, and as the trend has grown, the left-wing parties of Western Europe decided to delete support for multiculturalism from their platforms. The parliament in Bavaria voted to require every state institution to put up a cross at the entrance to its building; in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared “the end of liberal democracy” and announced that henceforth the country was a “Christian democracy”; and in the United States the fear of immigration from the southern border has not only strengthened conservatives and Republicans but also brought about a concrete increase in manifestations of domestic racism.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018. Credit: Debbie Hill,AP

The rising crescendo of opposition to immigrants was not so much a spontaneous response by the native population as the result of calculated and planned cultivation and agitation by populist and nationalist leaders in America and elsewhere. U.S. President Donald Trump has spoken of gangs of immigrants who are “not people” but “animals.” What did Albright say about fascism? First you unleash fear and anger, then you find a scapegoat. In 1930s’ Europe, it was the Jews. Nowadays it’s the Muslim immigrants in Europe and Latinos in the United States.

Another interesting explanation for the cultural upheaval in the democratic world was provided by Ronald Inglehart in a recent article, “The Age of Insecurity,” in Foreign Affairs. It was Inglehart who, 40 years ago, developed the thesis of post-material values. In the past, he explained, people were guided by material needs such as food, clothing, housing and economic welfare. Toward the end of the 20th century they were motivated by different values: self-fulfillment, autonomy, freedom of speech, gender equality, environmental quality. Those are banners that the new political elites willingly hoisted. The latest economic crisis, however, led the wider public to re-embrace the material values, leading to a clash between these two sets of values.

Splitting the public space

Another party that has contributed to the collapse of democracy, according to many of the recent books, is the media – notably the social networks. This is one of the major arguments of “Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic,” in which conservative commentator David Frum maintains that the modern media map has played a major role in undermining liberal democracy. That view is shared by German-American scholar Yascha Mounk in his book “The People vs. Democracy.” Democracy, Mounk writes, requires a public space and a shared civil culture – but the internet has split the space.

First you unleash fear and anger, then you find a scapegoat. In '30s’ Europe, it was the Jews. Nowadays it’s the immigrants.

Many American voters are today locked into isolated frameworks. They watch television stations that feature a single political hue. But more than that, they also prefer reading websites that reflect their worldview, and refrain from otherwise participating in the public arena. The new media has flooded the public space with lies, slander and obscenities. Those who thought it would herald the democratization of public dialogue have discovered that it has done the opposite, making it instead more extreme and abetting political polarization.

As in their approach to immigrants, today’s illiberal leaders are operating systematically against the mainstream media, even as the latter attempts to maintain its traditional role of providing information and of being the watchdog of democracy. Those inciting against these media incessantly and delegitimize it with lies and inflammatory accusations. The media, Trump and his ilk constantly reiterate, is the enemy. In the United States that’s only incitement, so far, but in Turkey journalists have been thrown into jail. In Russia and Slovakia, some journalists have been assassinated.

Illiberal, autocratic, populist

The reasons noted above have brought about a political turnabout in many of the countries that until recently were proponents of liberal democracy. The upheaval has taken the form of a revolt of the masses, originating in social groups on the periphery, in rural regions, in the middle and lower classes, and among members of excluded, suffering groups. They rose up not only against the ruling politicians but against politics as such – against the establishment and against the elites. But, not content with this, they also wanted to destroy the political system itself. That’s why so many were willing to support dubious heroes, as long as they portrayed themselves as revolutionaries.

Steve Bannon is an archetype of a revolutionary of this type, who has been able to enchant with his false doctrine not only the ignorant but also a young Israeli intellectual who writes for this newspaper.

In Britain, the revolt was manifested in the vote for Brexit, even as the elite in London preferred to stay in the EU. In Turkey the rural population paved the way for the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and has continued to consolidate his rule. In Poland, inhabitants of the rural regions ousted the liberal party and brought the nationalists back to power. They stand behind the government in Warsaw in its drive to curtail the power of the Supreme Court by replacing a large number of its justices.

Steve Bannon.Credit: JOE RAEDLE/AFP

These developments have constituted not only a change of parties, but have also spelled a change of regimes. In place of a party system of liberal democracy, support surged for a government of a different stripe: illiberal, autocratic and populist. The essence of populism is the assertion that corrupt parties must be replaced by a single strong leader, someone who represents the people and expresses its will. The fact that in most cases these populist leaders are demagogues and charlatans is beside the point.

Surveys in Britain showed that 20 years ago, a quarter of the population preferred a regime of “a strong person who will rule and won’t have to deal with elections and parliament.” Today, 50 percent of Britons advocate this. In 2010, only 9 percent of Americans said that Congress could be shut down in “very difficult times.” By 2017, 15 percent backed a shutdown of Congress. On top of that, no fewer than 25 percent of Americans replied that they would support a military coup as a response to a precipitous rise in crime.

In his book, Mounk cites similar figures for Germany and India. This tendency is especially pronounced among millennials: According to a Harvard University survey, only 19 percent of Americans in their 20s and 30s today rule out the idea of a military regime.

Abiding by norms

The principal victims of the nationalist, populist surge have been liberal- and social-democratic, left-wing parties. In 2010, the Labour Party in Britain sustained a near-mortal blow, and that same year the social-democratic party in Sweden suffered a major defeat. Last year, the socialists in France took their biggest loss since 1993.

The characteristics of illiberal democracy are by now well known. They go beyond nationalism, a thrust toward religion and xenophobia, to encompass structural changes in the regime that include the weakening of gatekeepers, such as journalists, the judicial system and human-rights activists in civil society. The illiberal democracies aspire to beef up the executive branch of government at the expense of the legislature, and thereby to heighten the leader’s powers.

Even the promising president of France, Emmanuel Macron, is attempting to weaken his country’s house of representatives with his plan to reduce by 30 percent the number of seats in the General Assembly and by a similar percentage in the Senate. When Trump returned from his meeting with North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, in June, he related, without hiding his enthusiasm, “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

U.S. President Donald Trump.Credit: \ LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

In their book, “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt emphasize the importance of the democratic rules of the game. Enforcing the strict letter of the law, they explain, cannot by itself safeguard democracy: Fascist and authoritarian regimes have also come to power by way of democratic elections. The norms, they argue, are no less important than the laws, and a basic principle among them is that the majority in the government must give consideration to the position of the minority. Another principle is the legitimacy accorded to opposition views. In post-democratic regimes, the majority ignores the view of the minority and casts its political rivals as traitors and enemies. That’s what Trump did when he incited his supporters against Hillary Clinton and roused them to chant, “Lock her up!”

A further distortion that characterizes post-democratic regimes is that they ignore the principle of equality before the law. In the U.S. this contempt was evident when one of Trump’s lawyers announced that even if special prosecutor Robert Mueller decides to indict the president in the case of Russian intervention in the 2016 election, Trump could pardon himself.

Democracies die due to a weakening of their institutions, particularly the judicial system and the press, and the slackening of political norms.

Decline of Israeliness

We can expect the publication in the years ahead of books and articles that will try to imagine how to save democracies that have already lost their way. In Israel, at least, it seems as though over the past two months awareness has begun to arise that something has gone awry in the existing order, and that the character of the state and the society has been twisted beyond recognition. At present, those who are warning against this development are being tagged as leftists, in the best case, and as enemies of the state in the worst case.

It is sufficient to observe what has happened in the past decade in the post-democratic countries and to compare the processes that are unfolding in Israel: enactment of the nation-state law and the attempts to change the method for choosing Supreme Court justices so as to allow the Knesset to override the Court; the ongoing incitement against the media and the attempts by the government to increase it influence over newspapers and other media outlets; the persistent incitement against immigrants and asylum seekers as well as to Palestinians, whether they live under occupation in the territories, or are Israeli citizens; the curbing of the freedom of operation of human- and civil-rights organizations; and the labeling of opponents – even officials such as the chief of staff or the president – as traitors.

In Israel, of course, what happened in Turkey – where 160,000 opponents of the regime have been jailed since an attempted coup two years ago – hasn’t yet occurred. And in contrast to Russia, agents of the regime are not murdering journalists here. But some of the developments in Poland and Hungary, on the other hand, are already being played out in Israel. Israel, which aspired to be Western Europe in the Middle East, has distanced itself from this liberal-democratic model and shifted eastward toward the illiberal countries of the “new Europe.” It’s no coincidence that Israel’s diplomatic ties with the latter have become closer than those with the states in the Western part of the Continent.

Thus, our new elites, those who rebelled against the veteran Ashkenazi elite, with its origins in Central and Eastern Europe, are making the Israeli political system increasingly resemble the regime in Poland. Historical irony at its finest.

Prof. Yoram Peri is director of the Gildenhorn Institute of Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. An adviser to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, he is author of “Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel” (Stanford University Press).

Francis Fukuyama. His prediction that all countries would adopt the liberal democratic model failed to come true.Credit: REUTERS

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