Democracy, as a value, is not dying – especially where it was never born

My response to Paul Mason’s article “Democracy is dying – and it’s startling how few people are worried.”

“Democracy is dying”.

This is what Paul Mason, a British journalist, states in the article published by The Guardian.
To support his argument, the author mentions different kinds of leaders, such as Trump, Erdogan, Putin. But also Orbàn, Duterte, Maduro. He denounces Poland’s presidential veto that stopped the evisceration of judicial independence, and Hungary’s government-funded poster campaign depicting opposition parties as puppets of George Soros.
He goes from Turkey’s show trial of leading journalists from the newspaper Cumhuriyet, to Trump accusing some press agencies of publishing fake news.
He seems to be shocked by Putin’s ban on the virtual private networks used by democracy activists to evade censorship, and by Venezuela’s boycotted constituent assembly poll.
Mason ends his article providing some sort of solution to the death of democracy, leaving the reader with the responsibility of taking action in all of this, since there are no public institutions ready to do that on his/her behalf.

When we say “democracy is dying”, we need, first of all, to understand what we mean by “democracy”. Is it what Schumpeter said, i.e. “The democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.”?
Is it just a matter of elections?
Let’s say it is so; in this case, many may agree that democracy is not dying at all. We still have elections, in most countries of the world. Even Venezuela had three elections this past year. All the countries mentioned by Mason actually have elections, so the issue can’t be it.
Then, maybe, democracy is a political and moral value. It is not a given system, method or procedure. It is a value. In this case, many may agree that democracy, as a value, is not dying either. Modern Western society, indeed, can’t be equated to the 1930s one, where tolerance and multiculturalism were nothing but a surface under which hierarchical and nationalist ideals resided. The commitment to human rights and their universality, the new tolerant behaviors, and the new international values are the product of both technological development and education – as well as of the two World Wars of the past century, of course – and are deeply rooted in the majority of young people, shaping their understanding of the world.

What can be argued, instead, is that the Western world is facing a democratic crisis. Distrust towards the institutions of democracy started spreading around ever since the 2008 economic crisis and, nowadays, many citizens do not feel protected and represented by the political body. The Parliament is not perceived as a microcosm of the society anymore, as it happens in the descriptive representation.
The great majority of the society sees a gigantic ravine between the people and the politicians, and the latter do not seem capable of filling such a gap.
Everywhere in the West, political parties are among the least trusted institutions in society.
Although a certain level of skepticism is essential to have a free society, many scholars are now questioning at what point healthy skepticism tips over into outright aversion.

The system seems not to work properly anymore. Some scholars even say that elections are outmoded, as David Van Reybrouck does in his article “Why elections are bad for democracy”, published by The Guardian.
According to Van Reybrouck, the system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.

Overall, we can say quite confidently that the Western world is now facing a democratic crisis, but “democratic crisis” is not the same thing as “democratic death”, at all.
Western democracy is much more than Trump claiming unverified facts, or than some European countries not reaching a great majority.

As for most of the other countries mentioned in Mason’s article, democracy, as we neoliberal Westerns intend it, never even existed. Venezuela has never had a democratic experience, from our point of view. Nor did Turkey or Russia. The British journalist seems not to consider the major differences that characterize each country he mentions; he claims the death of democracy, as Western Europeans intend it, citing countries that are not Western European, and that have never experienced what he sees as dead.
Something can’t die if it was never born, can’t it?
We can’t equate the British experience to the Polish one, for example. Poland is a country that hasn’t had fully free elections for about 40 years, from the end of WWII to 1989. Of course, its citizens find it much harder than the British to realize their rights as individual human beings. Their consciousness about their primary and secondary rights is obviously weaker and frailer. Can we really use such a country as a parameter to state that democracy, as we intend it, is dying? Can we use Venezuela instead? Or, even, Turkey or Russia?

Comparison is a healthy process. As the scholar Pierre Rosanvallon said, in his “Democratic Universalism as a Historical Problem”, comparison is a “springboard for thought”. It allows us to better understand what we already know, and what we don’t know yet. Professor Rosanvallon, though, also states that we need to consider a given country’s history, before making any consideration regarding that country’s politics: “One must thus seek to think democracy by tracing the course of its history”.

In conclusion, what could be argued about Paul Mason’s article is that it doesn’t take into account neither the historical differences of the countries he mentions, nor any other form of democracy but the Western one. Western democracy, though, is not the only possible model, and that is simply because democracy is not a model. We can’t export it as if it was corn, and we can’t use it as a standard of judgment between diametrically different countries.

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