Citizens are losing faith in democratic systems

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

“Signs of democratic dysfunction are everywhere, from Athens to Ankara. Brussels to Brasilia. In the United States, the federal government has shut down 12 times in the last 35 years…a Gallup tracking poll shows that trust in the presidency and in the Supreme Court stands at historic lows – while faith in Congress has plummeted so far that it is now in the single digits.”

“Some citizens of democracies have become so unhappy with their institutions that – according to disturbing new studies of public opinion around the world – they may be tempted to dispense with partisan politics altogether.”

The above quotes are from one section of a special report on “Democracy in the 21st Century” featured last month by the International New York Times. In view of the national and local elections in May 2016 and the periodic tracking by Social Weather Station and Pulse Asia surveys of public trust in government and political leaders, it may be instructive to mull over some highlights of the report.

(Authors of the main article are Roberto Foa, a Harvard University doctoral candidate in government and principal investigator of the World Values Survey, and Yascha Mounk, Harvard political theory lecturer and Carnegie Foundation fellow at a think tank, New America. The World Values Survey “studies representative samples of citizens’ views in almost 100 countries.”)

Although the studies cited by the authors ought to provide a worldwide perspective of the trend, they focus much of the discussion on the situation in the US – the touted leader of the “seemingly stable democracies,” as the authors describe them.

They cite, for instance, the following World Value Survey findings:

• In developed countries such as the US, Sweden, Netherlands, and Japan, citizens over the last 30 years “have become less likely to endorse the importance of democracy, less likely to express trust in democratic institutions, and less likely to reject nondemocratic alternatives.”

• In 1995, one of 15 Americans surveyed approved the idea of military rule in their own country. Recently the number of those who agreed rose to one out of six. The authors say this reveals a “deep disillusionment with democracy, one that should concern everyone living in an advanced democracy, including those in Europe and Asia.”

Since the early 1990s – when the onslaught of neoliberal economic globalization accelerated and spurred the 2008 global financial-economic crisis, the Great Recession that still lingers today – “votes for populists have soared in most major Western democracies, whether the National Front in France [ultra-Right] or the People’s Party in Denmark [ultra-Leftist].” (The Leftist trend is evident in Greece, Spain, Britain, and to some extent in the US.)

Scholars who long ago concluded that post-war Western democracies had “consolidated,” the authors suggest, must now reckon with the possibility that a process of “democratic deconsolidation” may be underway. They forward three explanations:

First, although by international standards most Americans still are materially comfortable, “a long period of stagnating incomes for average citizens has led to a shift in perspective.” Gone is the optimism that had prevailed for two centuries: that Americans of one generation knew they were better off than their parents, and expected their children to be better off than they were.

Second, “rising income inequality has transformed the view of the rich more radically than the views of the poor.” Whereas in egalitarian societies the elites identify with the middle class, and believe that “uncorrupted democratic institutions serve their own economic interests, in oligarchic societies economic elites share few material interests with ordinary people, and have much to lose from policies that would improve (the latter’s) lot.”

Although by any objective measure economic policy has treated wealthy Americans favorably over the past decade, many of them believe they are the victims of a “war on the rich,” According to the survey, in 1995 less than 20% of the very rich Americans approved of having a “strong leader who (didn’t) have to bother with Congress or elections.” Today more than 40% take that stand.

Third, the less comfortable the rich are with the democratic process, the more inclined they are to invest in influencing electoral results, by lobbying legislators or funding electoral campaigns. However, the greater the role of paid influence and campaign spending, the more ordinary citizens feel that the political system ignores them.

Backstopping their findings and analysis, the authors cite a recent study by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page: In the past 30 years, economic elites and narrow interest groups have been most influential in determining policy-making in the US, while the views of ordinary citizens and mass-based interest groups had virtually no impact.

Their conclusion: “In the United States, the majority does not rule.”

So what’s to be done? The authors endorse Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig’s recommendations to undertake the following:

Carry out “institutional overhauls” to curb the political power of the rich. Impose strict limits on campaign finance contributions. Curtail corporate lobbyists’ influence. Jam the “revolving door” between Washington/government and Wall Street/big business. And, replace the majority members of Congress who are millionaires with a “more economically diverse generation of politicians.”

These institutional changes, however, are only initial steps. What’s really needed, the authors say, are “redistributive policies that improve the standard of living of citizens…channel a much greater share of our economic output to them.”

This is one instance where the recommendations for resolving America’s “democracy crisis” can equally apply to similar conditions in the Philippines.

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Email: [email protected]


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