The End of Democracy?

8 May

[Prefatory Note: This post is an expanded and somewhat modified version of an opinion piece published by the online publication, global-e on May 1, 2018. It seeks to raise questions and suggest different ways of conceiving of democratic governance.]


The End of Democracy?

As demagogic leaders with popular approval or at least acquiescence now dominate the political process of several important ‘democratic’ states, questions about the core or indispensable content of democracy are more appropriate than ever. How should we understand the meaning of democracy in a variety of national circumstances? Is democracy, as properly defined, the best mode of governance under all conditions for every society enjoying sovereign rights? Or in the more reserved spirit of Churchill’s quip, is democracy just ‘the least bad?” Do China or Singapore offer the world, or at least certain societies, a preferred alternative compared to democracy as it evolved and perceived in the West?


Many states seek the imprimatur of ‘democracy’ but limit drastically the choices open to the citizenry or proclaim themselves ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘an Islamic Republic,’ which means they are more accurately regarded as an ethnocracy(Israel) or theocracy(Iran). The legitimating imprimatur of democracy should be based on something more objective than the language of self-identification, that is, claiming to be a democracy because the governing arrangements have a formal appearance that resembles what is expected in a democracy, nothing more, nothing less. Instead, it seems an opportune time to delineate the particular institutions, values, and practices that identify the distinctive features of democratic forms of governance.


It is not only a matter of taking note of the weakening of the democratic character of ‘democracies’ in recent decades. It is also the attractiveness of China as an efficient developmental model and functional problem-solving mechanism. This Chinese political system is recently being identified as ‘pragmatic authoritatianism.’ Such a comparison of political systems is currently of particular interest because of the disturbing behavior of the United States in this period, both its repudiation of liberalism at home when it comes to the protection of human rights and a kind of blustering militarism abroad that is accentuated by Trump’s retreat from responsible global leadership that had previously given American foreign policy a certain legitimacy despite being the first ‘global state’ in world history. In this regard it is notable that China has shaped its ascendancy in recent decades by mastering soft power diplomacy while the U.S. decline has been accompanied by costly demonstrations of the growing deficiencies of continued reliance on the hard power geopolitics, unsuccessfully defying the realities of the post-colonial world in the early 21stcentury.


Against this background, the remainder of this essay explores the notion of democracy from a number of perspectives, seeking to distinguish between political arrangements that serve their citizens normatively as well as materially. There are also historical questions about whether democracy can flourish in an atmosphere in which intense stresses are generated by wide inequalities in circumstances that produce hardships and resentments, creating a susceptibility to opportunistic politicians who scapegoat outsiders and vulnerable groups. Such a pattern has surfaced in the West, increasingly so after the declaration of ‘the war on terror’ that has contributed to the massive generation of refugees, especially as a consequence of prolonged warfare and chaos in the Middle East. This has itself exerted pressures on humane governance by pushing political parties and publics further and further to the right, creating a populist base for fascism if the system becomes further stressed by economic crisis or through fears of terrorism, whether real or contrived.


Procedural and Republican Democracy

The idea of ‘free elections’ is certainly a prerequisite of a governing process in which the leadership is somehow accountable to the citizenry. It is not possible to think of a political system as democratic if it does not allow its citizens to select, without fear or interference, among a wide range of candidates of their choice, even if the process is filtered through political parties or primaries or otherwise. What qualifies as a free election can be debated endlessly, but it seems enough to suggest that candidates should represent significantly divergent societal viewpoints on major issues that compete for support, that votes are counted honestly, and no obstacles are intentionally placed in the path of those in the electorate who are poor, less educated, and not fluent in the native language.


The relationship of money to the electoral process is increasingly problematic, and abetted by well-funded lobbying. As might be expected, the configuration of these issues varies from state to state. A crisis of democracy in the United States has highlighted these issues. On the one side, many, perhaps most, qualified candidates are discouraged from taking part in the political process or are subjected to defamatory treatment if they do. On the other side, NGOs such as the NRA and AIPAC distort the political process, making it politically impossible to serve the public interest, for instance, by rendering unlawful the sale and possession of assault weaponry and in the case of AIPAC making it as difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policies in the Middle East that reflect the national interest of the country and the global interest of people due to the overwhelming and often mindless pressures to follow Israel’s policy priorities no matter where they might lead. The pressure exerted to repudiate the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 illustrates the way lobbying obstructs the implementation of the public interest. In some sense, it is this interplay of money, influence, and regressive policies that raise fundamental questions about the political and moral legitimacy of governing process. A clouding of public interest in democratic practiceresults from this lethal mixture of private sector money and a frustrated public that poses fundamental threats to American democracy as it formerly operated, and in different ways, to other political systems that purport to retain a democratic system jiust because they hold periodic, free elections. 


Looked at from a different angle, a state should not necessarily jeopardize its democratic credentials if it disqualifies candidates and parties that deny basic human rights to segments of the citizenry on some principled basis or espouse fascist agendas, or if rights are somewhat abridged during periods of national emergency as during wartime. This contingent dimension of democratic governance is almost always controversial. It can be discussed in relation to specific instances by reference to the acceptable limits that can be imposed on the practice of procedural democracy. Such a form of government is sensitive to the dangers of abuses and corruptions when power becomes too concentrated, invoking ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers’ as institutional bulwarks of restraint on ‘the tyranny of the mob’ or the predatory behavior of the tyrant. To the extent that such restraints are regularized the governmental form is more precisely identified if labeled asrepublican democracy.’ There is some concern that minorities with strong agendas can encroach on free speech by overreaching by suppressing dissident views of contested historical happenings, as with the Holocaust denial laws of several European countries and in relation to the effort by Armenian communities to make it a hate crime to question the description of the 1915 massacres in turkey as ‘genocide.’


Such restraints on the capricious exercise of power tend to be challenged, however, by technological legerdemain and excessive government classification procedures that seriously undermine political transparency and the constitutional constraints on war making by leaders if present, leaving weighty decisions in the hands of an unaccountable few. Without democratic accountability in such instances, democracies lose legitimacy, especially considering the risks and dangers of the nuclear age. Whistleblowers, although often subjected to a criminalizing backlash, are an indispensable resource of contemporary democracy.


It may be that only the elimination of nuclear weapons from the arsenals ofallcountries can restore a semblance of substantive reality to a procedural or republican understanding of democracy, and the primacy that could then be again accorded ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers.’ There is growing concern that what Bruce Franklin and Chas Freeman call ‘the forever war’ can be reconciled with the political freedom of the citizenry. Security concerns are now associated with the behavior of persons not necessarily associated with formal military or intel activities, putting the whole society perpetually under suspicion, a condition that provides pretexts for pervasive intrusions on privacy and technically feasible totalizing surveillance.


Liberal versions of democracy—especially in their republican form—almost always includes a guaranty of intra-governmental friction and judicial protection of civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression and the right of assembly, but not necessarily (and likely not at all) social and economic rights. In this sense, these seemingly unresolvable tensions between neoliberal versions of capitalism and political democracy are of paramount importance in many societies widely regarded as ‘democratic.’


Normative Democracy

To achieve an inclusive political order a substantive commitment to deal with basic social and economic rights is essential, although infrequently acknowledged. This raises questions about the potential compatibility of real democracy with contemporary forms of capitalism. The protection of social and economic rights are necessary so as to satisfy the material needs of all people under sovereign control, especially with respect to food, health, shelter, education, environmental protection, responsibility to future generations. Yet a market-driven ethos has not been effectively challenged in ideologically or behaviorally even by large-scale homelessness or extreme poverty so long as the gates of opportunity pretend to be available to all. This dimension of democratic governance is rarely analyzed, and is best considered by reference to values-driven, inclusive, andnormative democracy. A society should also be protected against war-prone leadership that defies transparency by relying on claims of secrecy and national security, and authorizes leaders to engage in reckless coercive diplomacy and even to make war on their own without the participation of other branches of government.


Somewhere in between selecting leaders, upholding rights, and ensuring a minimal standard of living that entrenches human dignity and enables a humane society are considerations of internal and external security. Meeting the threats from within and without while avoiding hysteria, paranoia, and different forms of suppression is a fundamental responsibility of every legitimate state, and especially of those that claim a democratic pedigree. There is no satisfactory label, but since a state unable to protect sovereign rights and internal political order loses the respect and allegiance of its citizenry, the security dimension of governance can be associated witheffective democracy. For without political order, and a capability to address external threats and internal disorder, no form of governance can avoid chaos, foreign penetration, and a hostile backlash from its own citizenry, although specific assessments of this kind involve subjective appreciations of capabilities and political will.


There are increasing critiques of democratic states for having weakened the bonds between what citizens seek and what the government does. In the United States, for instance, special interests inflate the prices of pharmaceutical products to astronomical heights, insulate gun control from public opinion to a grotesque degree, and allow corporations, banks, and billionaires to contribute unlimited amounts to (mis)shape political campaigns. Markets are further distorted by corruption of various kinds that undermine the capabilities of government to serve the people. This dimension of democratic governance can be considered under the rubric ofresponsive democracy. Without a high degree of responsiveness on central policy issues, a governing process will steadily lose legitimacy, especially if seen as deferring to special interests.


Majoritarian Democracy

It becomes increasingly evident that in some political systems free elections occur, demagogues participate—and sometimes prevail—and a majority of the citizenry is either submissive or supportive. In this kind of atmosphere toxic, win/lose polarizations develop, with extremist and paranoid rhetoric justifying suppression and demonization of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and even asylum seekers. Walls are proposed and built; borders are militarized; and exclusionary ideas of political community gain traction in the marketplace of ideas. One result is that the values, views, and security of vulnerable and oppositional populations are ignored or even condemned. Genuine news is dismissed as fake news, and vice versa, creating fact-free political leadership. This kind of political order can be termedmajoritarian democracy, and contains worrisome attitudes that are pre-fascist in character.It also generates a mirror-image opposition that demonizes the leadership, as in Turkey, in ways that grossly exaggerate wrongdoing, generating a vicious circle of denunciation and abuse.


This majoritarian form of democracy tends to rest its claims on passion and a perversion of Rousseau’s ‘general will’ rather than on reason and evidence, and is contemptuous of limits on the exercise of state power on behalf of the nation, especially if directed against foreign or domestic ‘enemies.’ As a result, the rule of law and, especially, respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations are weakened, while deference to the ruler increases in conjunction with claims of indefinite tenure atop the political pyramid, ratified by periodic votes of approval in which the opposition is ineffectual, being demoralized, split, suppressed, and disfavored by most of the mainstream media. Such leaders as Putin, Xi, Trump, Erdoğan, Sisi, Modi, and Abe manifest the trend, remaining popular while often treating ‘citizens’ as if they were ‘subjects’, thereby blurring the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism when it comes to state/society relations.


Aspirational Democracy

In opposition to these disturbing trends are more humanistic and spiritual concerns that focus attention on the protection of human rights, especially of those who are vulnerable and poor. The idea of ‘democracy to come’ as depicted by the deceased French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and recently developed further by Fred Dallmayr, is being taken more seriously by those dedicated to achieving genuine democratic forms of governance.


This idea centers on the belief that democracy in all its manifestations, even at its best, remains an unfinished project with unfulfilled normative potential. It represents a call to work toward an inclusive democracy based on the serious implementation of ‘the spirit of equality’ (Dallmayr), the goal of humane governance best articulated by Montesquieu. Such a political order goes beyond upholding the rule of law by seeking to promote justice within and beyond sovereign borders. Such a democratic political order would now subordinatenationalinterests tohumanandglobalinterests as necessary in relation to climate change, nuclear weaponry, migration, disease control, peace and security, and the regulation of the world economy. No democracy of this kind has so far existed, but as a goal and ideal this political vision of democratic fulfillment can be understood asaspirational democracy, and might take different forms depending on the societal context and civilizational orientation.


Concluding Comments

These different forms of democracy overlap and are matters of degree, but do call attention to the various and variable features of political life that rest on the shared proposition that ‘the people,’ or their representatives, should be regarded as the proper source and validation of political authority and legitimacy. Yet such a mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people, superseding God-given or self-anointed authority figures legitimized by ritual and reinforced by claims of a monarchical or divine aura of absolutism, is in many societies again being scrutinized, and under all conditions, is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized. Many informed and concerned persons are asking whether democracy is any longer the least bad system of governance for the challenges confronting their societies, yet these critics seem at a loss to propose an alternative. In this setting, the question posed for many of us is whether democracy, as now practiced and constituted, can be restored and extended by legitimating reforms. As engaged citizens we must accept this challenge in ways that are sensitive to the particularities of time, place, traditions, challenge, and opportunities.


Because of globalization in its manifest forms, it is no longer tenable to confine the ambitions of democracy to national spaces. Global democracy has become, is becoming, a matter of ultimate concern. Issues raised concern transparency, accountability, participation, and responsiveness of global policy processes, and of course, how the global is to be linked to the regional and national so as to pursue the goal of global humane governance: equitable, stable, sustainable, peaceful, compassionate, and attentive to threats, challenges, and policy choices.





14 Responses to “The End of Democracy?”

  1. Fred Skolnik May 9, 2018 at 5:49 am #

    Nice to see you touting China as a “model.” No problem with apartheid and human rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang. is there? Not about to go after them, are you? And still can’t being yourself to recognize that Israel is a national state and the Palestinians a national minority. Wouldn’t want to spoil the argument, would you?

    • Fred Skolnik May 10, 2018 at 11:52 pm #

      Can’t handle it?

      • Richard Falk May 11, 2018 at 9:21 am #

        You are blinded by pride and vanity if you suppose that your insults
        are unanswerable. The question for me is whether they deserve to be answered,
        given their ideological closure and mean-spirited tone.

      • Gene Schulman May 12, 2018 at 2:15 am #

        Perhaps the above hasbarist troll would be less comparative of Israel’s democracy if he could be reminded of the crimes it has committed since its independence:

    • Richard Falk May 11, 2018 at 9:19 am #

      I pause before posting such a sarcastic, mean-spirited message.

      As for your suggestion of recognizing Israel as a national state with a Palestinian national minority, this is
      such a provocative airbrushing of the Nakba coercive expulsion (coupled with the denial of any right of return
      and the destruction of at least 400 Palestinian villages) that I am surprised that even you have the nerve to
      propose such an outrageous rewriting of recent history.

      • Fred Skolnik May 12, 2018 at 11:53 am #

        And you? Are you forgetting that five Arab countries attacked Israel with the declared aim of destroying it and massacring its Jewish population. Are you forgetting that nearly a million Jews were displaced from Arab lands and lost everything they owned. Are you forgetting that the Arabs refused to end the conflict and live in peace with Israel, as Resolution 181 stipulated as a condition for the return of refugees?

        No one needs you to recognize Israel as a national state. It is a national state. I am pointing out your hypocrisy, as with China.

      • Fred Skolnik May 12, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

        And my congratulations to Netta Barzilai, winner of the 2018 Eurovision competition.

        If you support a movement that called for a boycott against her, why shouldn’t Israel’s supporters boycott you and seek to undermine your professional life in the same way that you sought to undermine hers. Don’t answer me. Take a good look in the mirror and work it out with yourself.

      • Mike 71 May 15, 2018 at 12:39 am #

        After seven decades of “Never Missing an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity (Abba Eban)” and repeated self-imposed “Nakbas,” what have the Palestinians gained? Nothing! Palestinian “President for Life” Mahmoud Abbas, now in the 14th year of the four year term to which he was elected in 2004, has not established democratic rule in his “West Bank (Judea and Samaria)” enclave, nor has Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas established democracy in his Gaza enclave.

        In 2000 and again in 2008, Israel presented two proposals which would have given Palestinians a shared capital in Jerusalem. The first was rejected by Yasser Arafat, with no counter-offer or offer to negotiate, in 2000. The second was rejected by Mahmoud Abbas, again with no counter-offer or offer to negotiate, in 2008. In twice rejecting offers to share Jerusalem, Palestinians bemoan that Donald Trump gave Jerusalem exclusively to the Israelis in recognizing the city as Israel’s capital. But Donald Trump did not give Jerusalem to Israel; Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas did!

      • Richard Falk May 15, 2018 at 10:11 am #

        I agree that the Palestinians have made a mistake not to offer their own conception of an acceptable ‘peace,’
        but the Israeli proposals were presented on ‘a take it or leave it basis’ with no assurance that the Israeli
        public would endorse what was being proposed.

        And your comment does not in any way validate Israeli cruelty and excess violence in addressing a protest based
        on legitimate grievances as to treatment and land.

      • Mike 71 May 15, 2018 at 7:16 pm #

        The 2000 and 2008 Israeli peace proposals for a shared capital in Jerusalem were not a “take it of leave it” proposition. The Palestinians neither offered any counter-proposals, nor any offers to negotiate differences, which they could have done! Such allegations are deliberate misrepresentations of fact. Israel, being a democracy, rather than an autocracy like the two Palestinian entities in Gaza and the West Bank, could not unilaterally guarantee the outcome of referenda to ratify any agreements, had they been reached through negotiations. Would Hamas, in particular, whose Covenant explicitly rejects all forms of negotiated solution to the conflict, deviated from the “take it or leave it” declaration of perpetual war against Israel, had the Palestinian Authority come to a negotiated agreement? Of course not; in. such a situation, Hamas would have called for the immediate assassination of Mahmoud Abbas! I’m certain. that you would not lose any self if that happened.

        The “cruelty and excess violence” of Hamas, in impelling armed members to cross the border fence and “tear out the hearts” of Israeli civilians on the other side of the internationally recognized border can only be validated under the Hamas Covenant. Doesn’t sending a seven year old girl to the border fence in the expectation that the IDF would shoot and kill her, constitute “cruelty and excess violence?” In that instance, IDF troops, at the risk of their lives, intercepted her and returned her to the arms of her parents. How many children, expendable as “human shields (Hamas’ cannon fodder)” were sacrificed for propaganda purposes? What about sending incendiary kites and balloons across the border to burn crops awaiting harvest? If the IAF dropped napalm of Gaza’s fields as retaliation, that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it? Perhaps, the next time that will happen.

        As long as the conflict remains a “one to the exclusion of the other” proposition, Israel is entitled to engage in “armed struggle” to preserve her independence, as provided under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, recognizing an “inherent right to individual or collective self-defense.” Israel has the express right to resist the imposition of a 20% minority Arab Supremacist “Apartheid Regime” on a 75% majority Jewish nation!

        One last item omitted from my previous comment: In 1995, the U.S. Congress enacted the “Jerusalem Embassy Act” and then every six months waived its implementation to provide Palestinians an opportunity to negotiate peace prior to it took effect. That preceded the 2000 and 2008 rejected Israeli peace offers. After 23 years, it became obvious that the Palestinians were uninterested in negotiating for a shared capital in Jerusalem, thus that became another “missed opportunity.” Jerusalem is the united capital of Israel, as Palestinian forfeited numerous opportunities for a shared capital in the city!

  2. Gene Schulman May 10, 2018 at 10:40 am #

    As I see no comments on this post after two days waiting, I guess we might presume that no one believes in democracy anymore. Or at least given up hope for its revival somewhere in this world. Please excuse my cynicism.

  3. Beau Oolayforos May 10, 2018 at 11:49 pm #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    Thanks again for such a challenging lecture. Those of us not well-versed in the fine points of political science, however, can still focus on the more egregious features of our own ailing democracy.

    The chasm which now divides the rich and poor began with Reagan. “Greed is good”, intoned by Hollywood films, became a mantra for the 80’s. We became the biggest gaolers on Earth, along with its most belligerent military. The newly-rich neo-fascists naturally wanted to buy influence, which is, of course, for sale. Talk about vicious cycles.

    There is now no meaningful political resistance, either to nuclear weapons ‘upgrades’ nor to the coming trillion-$ “defense” budgets. Small wonder that the Chinese, with their 5,000 (?) years of experience, are out-foxing our purblind DC think-tanks.

    You speak of “…the lethal mixture of private-sector money…”. On the bright side, we still have ethicists to inform (and amuse) us about Trump’s cute little tee-markers, replete with the United States of America Presidential Seal, which are to adorn his golf courses.

  4. Beau Oolayforos May 15, 2018 at 9:55 am #

    Dear Professor Falk,

    As we all know, our ‘democracy’ has been supplying the Zionist “democracy” with billions of $ yearly, so that she may defend herself from unarmed demonstrators. To be fair, the sniper mentality has had a long history of nurturing. Somehow, the idea of sitting in a secure location and murdering innocent people has gained traction as heroism.

    Examples are endless, including the Kosovo action where our brave bombardiers at 30,000 feet rained death on wedding parties. Movies like ‘The Hurt Locker’ and ‘American Sniper’ helped to lionize such cowardice to the masses. The IDF killers may be heroes to certain lexicographers; not to this one.

    • Mike 71 May 15, 2018 at 7:32 pm #

      Very few of those demonstrators were unarmed. The IDF operates under “Rules of Engagement,” which limit snipers to shooting targets which constitute threats to the border fence, Israeli civilians and IDF members. Hamas, which promotes violence along the border, is funded by Iran, which is only a democracy, for which only those sanctioned by the Mullahs can be candidates for public office. Despite its failing currency and economy, which is the grounds for Iranians’ protests at home, the Ayatollah continues to engage in. foreign adventurism to spread the Shi’ite Empire as a threat to the Sunni states and Israel. The Palestinian cause is rapidly becoming an irrelevant sideshow to a far greater impending conflict which may see the implementation of a Saudi-Israeli “alliance of convenience” against a common threat.

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