Democracy – Its Substance and Meaning: Can One Size fit All?

By Seán Cleary

This article was written in preparation for the 17th Trilogue Salzburg and is an original piece of research. The opinions and views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the Bertelsmann Foundation or its employees.

I. Introduction

Of course, “one size” of democracy cannot, and should not, fit all! We are familiar with two variations, notably direct democracy 1 and representative democracy 2, and three democratic systems, parliamentary 3, presidential 4 and mixed 5, the last combining elements of the former two. In parliamentary systems, election to the lower house may be based on “first past the post” principles, electing members to constituencies, or on those of proportional representation.

Some parliamentary systems combine elements of both to ensure that a representative is accountable to voters in a constituency and that the distribution of votes between parties is reflected in the composition of the (lower) house.6

Proportional representation ensures that the popular vote is reflected fairly in the legislature, but predisposes to the emergence of many parties 7, especially if thresholds for entry into the legislature are low.8 Meanwhile, as the composition of constituencies is susceptible to manipulation – often known as gerrymandering 9 – to favor the party in power and able to delineate boundaries, a variety of rules have been developed to discourage, and punish, attempts at such manipulation.

Finally, not all representative democracies are centered in republics 10 although these were their origin; many parliamentary democracies thrive today in constitutional monarchies.11

So, with that simple question disposed of, let us ask why it matters.

II. Governance and Government

As the extracts from The Analects of Confucius (after 479 BCE), Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE) and the Declaration of Independence (1776 CE) make clear, the system of governance that we style “democracy” was not regarded as prudent or desirable before the 20th century. Indeed, it was associated with “mob rule” or “rule by the masses,” a circumstance which, before the advent of widespread education, and the assumption that this would enable prudent judgement, was tantamount to anarchy. Plato, in the Republic, reflects Socrates as suggesting not only that in democracy “…anarchy finds a way into private houses, and ends by getting among the animals and infecting them,” but that “…tyranny naturally arises out of democracy, and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty.”12


In the ancient Chinese tradition, Confucius assumed that rule was exercised by one man, but his Analects provide precepts for the conduct of all in society vis-à-vis one another.13 Confucius argues that an excellent example by a leader, an understanding of the respective roles and stations of each person in society, and the practice of rituals to reflect these, will induce the people to observe propriety [禮] and “…order themselves harmoniously.”


In his Politics14, Aristotle distinguishes between six constitutions, classified by the scale of rulership, and the effect of the rule. A constitution is just when it benefits all citizens in the polis and unjust when it benefits only those in power. Rule by one person may thus constitute a monarchy if the ruler governs for the benefit of all, and a tyranny if he serves only himself. Likewise, a small governing elite constitutes an aristocracy if all citizens benefit, and an oligarchy if the elite rules selfishly. Wise and inclusive rule by all citizens gives us a polity; selfish rule by the majority constitutes a democracy. A citizen is one who may participate in the deliberative or judicial administration of a state, which comprises a body of citizens sufficient for the purposes of life.

Aristotle suggested that a polity15 may be least susceptible to corruption if the laws enjoy primacy over the governors. He advocates distributive justice, with benefits conferred upon citizens according to the contribution that each makes to the well-being of the polis. The key premise of his analysis is that it is the purpose and effect of the system – the welfare of all citizens – that determines whether it is just or unjust. The quantum of rulers is less important.

congress 1776

Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence was, likewise, no “democrat” in our present sense, but a “republican” who argued that citizens bore a civic duty to aid the state in resisting corruption, monarchism and aristocracy. Female suffrage was far from his mind: In his draft of the Constitution of Virginia in 1976, the same year in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Jefferson proposed that:

“All male persons of full age and sane mind having a freehold estate in [one fourth of an acre] of land in any town, or in [25] acres of land in the country, and all elected persons resident in the colony who shall have paid scot and lot [taxes] to government the last [two years] shall have right to give their vote in the election of their respective representatives.” 16

Jefferson was not seeking to entrench economic privilege. Those without land were entitled to it:

“Every person of full age neither owning nor having owned [50] acres of land, shall be entitled to an appropriation of [50] acres or to so much as shall make up what he owns or has owned [50] acres in full and absolute dominion.” 17

He believed that an effective republican government rested on the active participation of persons who owned property and assumed the responsibilities of citizenship. The values underpinning this were to be expressed through an organized political party, in Jefferson’s case, the Republican Party, in contradistinction to the Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton.

Hofstadter observed:

“It seems hardly enough to say that [Jefferson] thought that a nation of farmers, educated, informed and blessed with free institutions was the best suited to a democratic republic, without adding that he did not think any other kind of society a good risk to maintain Republican government. In a nation of large cities, well developed manufactures and commerce, and a numerous working class, popular republicanism would be an impossibility – or at best an improbability.” 18

Little had changed when the Union was created in 1789, with George Washington as its first President. J.P. Greene notes:

“Free people of African and Amerindian descent, like women and children, were not thought to have the discretion requisite for the responsible exercise of citizenship. For the time being, the American commitment to equality could be limited to citizens, that is, to white independent males.” 19

Miller estimates that of the 3,250,000 persons in the 13 states after the Revolution (other than native Americans who were not tallied) perhaps 120,000 could meet the qualifications of gender, religion and property needed to vote.20

Zinn observes, moreover:

“[The Constitution did not] provide for popular elections except in the case of the House of Representatives, where the qualifications were set by the state legislatures (which required property-holding for voting in almost all the states), and excluded women, Indians and slaves. The Constitution provided for Senators to be elected by the state legislators, for the President to be elected by electors chosen by the state legislators, and for the Supreme Court to be appointed by the President.” 21

While the electoral qualification was eroded progressively in the next 18 decades – from the enactment of an extended franchise in Maryland in 1801; through the 14th amendment22 passed in 1866 and ratified by 1870; the 15th amendment which prohibited abridgement of voting rights on grounds of race or prior servitude in 1870; the 19th amendment admitting women in 192023; and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – social commentators maintained the link between voting rights and civic duty until the Civil War.24 The belief of the Founding Fathers of the 13 united States that the responsibilities of government would be exercised properly only by those who, as landowners or taxpayers, had a stake in an orderly society, was sustained by the belief that all, but only, those who contributed to the welfare of the polity, should elect and direct it.

This theme extends from Confucius’ emphasis on the central importance of propriety, recognizing the proper roles of each in a harmonious society; through the rights and duties of Athenian citizenship; and the renaissance of republicanism in the 18th century; to the thesis of the English constitutionalist A.V. Dicey25, that for every right there is a corresponding responsibility. In its simplest form, it underpinned constitutional law and theory until the end of World War II.

III. The Rise of the New Paradigm

The past two-and-a-third centuries have seen the political map of Europe redrawn many times, and the growth of the United States from 13 to 50 states by conquest, purchase and pacification. The origins of these changes lay in the crisis of absolute (or largely unrestricted) monarchy 26, and the alliance of monarchy with clergy and nobility at the expense of commoners. The institutions of the agrarian era, based on kinship and hierarchy – clan membership, feudal aristocracy and monarchy – and ownership of land as the index of wealth, became dysfunctional in the late 17th and 18th centuries as cities multiplied, and the rising power of merchants and bankers disrupted the estates of the realm, the social hierarchy that had underpinned Christian Europe from medieval times.

The Ancien Régime, premised on a centralized monarchy, the clergy (the First Estate), the nobility – noblesse d’épée and noblesse de robe – (the Second Estate), and urban wage-laborers and rural peasants (the Third Estate), survived until the French Revolution of 1789. En route to that crisis, however, Voltaire 27, Rousseau 28, Montesquieu 29, Adam Smith 30, Hume 31 and Bentham 32, building on Descartes’ proposition that cogito, ergo sum 33, provided ethical and logical rationales for political change in a radically transformed social landscape. Their views fueled the American and French revolutions, enabled la Terreur between September 5, 1793 and July 27, 1794 34, and opened Europe for the ascendancy of Napoleon, and his containment thereafter at Vienna in 1815. John Stuart Mill 35, Hegel 36 and Marx 37 pressed the logic forward, reflecting a new social reality driven by the Industrial Revolution, and presaging the collapse of empires (though the Austro-Hungarians and the Ottomans passed from the scene only in 1918–22), the birth of nations, and the October Revolution and the Bolsheviks’ assumption of power in Russia in 1917.

A countervailing trend was triggered in Europe by Napoleon’s conquests when the Great Powers united to defeat the revolutionary upstart. A balance of European power, based on state legitimacy and limits, was established at Vienna in 1815 through the diplomacy of Metternich and Castlereagh, providing some stability until 1914. Napoleon had bequeathed codified systems of law 38 to continental Europe, however, establishing a legal framework that still shapes the present.

Britain, more pragmatic and privileged by its insular location, read the lessons of the social and industrial revolution better than the European continental states. The 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act created a middle-class electorate in the cities, and the Reform and Redistribution Acts of 1867 and 1884–85 extended the vote to most working men in both rural and urban areas. Effective management of the “modern age” enabled the survival, in modified form, of the British monarchy, a Parliament of Lords and Commons, courts, parliamentary convention and legal precedent, and the established church.

The United States, born out of the concepts of the modern era, faced a less daunting transition. It progressively redefined the accidents of its character, reinterpreting and amending the Constitution, but remaining true to its founding principles. The traumatic Civil War defined its modern form as an industrial state; and its insular character afforded it, in the 20th century, the same privilege as Britain enjoyed in the 19th of remaining aloof from continental wars until it could intervene decisively.

While Britain and France, victorious in the great wars of the 20th century, were devastated in fighting them, the US emerged stronger from both. Woodrow Wilson sought to create a utopian system after World War I. The League of Nations failed, however, because of the punitive reparations imposed on Germany, and the Nazis’ exploitation of German resentment in the aftermath of economic collapse, to fuel xenophobia and anti-Semitism. 39 Fear of communism promoted the rise of Fascism and Falangism in southern Europe, and the League’s impotence in the face of Mussolini’s aggression against Abyssinia sealed its fate, paving the way for Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the second Great War of the 20th century.

Roosevelt’s entry into World War II after Pearl Harbor swung the tide against Germany and Japan. As the war was fought on the territory of others, the US grew stronger economically. The country’s dominance until the end of the 20th century was due to its having shaped the post-World War II era, whose pillars – the United Nations, NATO, the IMF, the World Bank and GATT (succeeded by the WTO) – reflect the values and interests of the country whose economy constituted 50 percent of global GDP in 1946. Washington was not unchallenged: Stalin’s expansion into Central Europe produced a peer competitor and Mao Tse-tung’s victory over the Nationalists in China paved the way for China’s consolidation, even if it required Deng Xiaoping’s reversal of Mao’s economic policies in 1978 to enable its resurgence. These tensions continued until the Warsaw Pact fractured after the Wall fell in Germany in 1989, and the USSR imploded in 1991.

It was a remarkable moment, but one that was poorly understood. A triumphalist sense was abroad. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man 40 reflected the spirit in the West. Fukuyama argued that “…a remarkable consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy had emerged…over the past few years… [and that] liberal democracy may constitute the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and ‘…the final form of human government’.” To interrogate that extraordinary thesis, one must ask: What is liberal democracy?

IV. Liberal Democracy

What we usually refer to as “democracy” today is liberal democracy, a political system marked by constitutional entrenchment of:

  • fundamental human rights, including rights of person; and freedom of belief and speech, of assembly and of political organization;
  • the rule of law and equality before the law;
  • the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers; and
  • free elections with universal adult suffrage.

Liberal democracy is representative democracy in which the ability of the elected representatives to exercise power is subject to the rule of law, under a constitution that protects the rights and freedoms of individuals and constrains the majority from overriding the interests of minorities. It is premised on acceptance by all parties of the legitimacy of the state and the political system, entrenchment of the sovereignty of the people, equal rights to participate in social institutions and the economy, and political competition.

winston churchill

Free elections do not guarantee a transition from autocratic rule to democracy. A wider shift in political culture and entrenchment of the institutions of democratic government are needed. There are many examples of countries being unable to sustain democracy without emergence of a political culture of constitutional constraints on state power based on entrenchment of the rule of law and acceptance of the rights of individuals against the state 41.

The concept of a loyal opposition is central. All parties in a liberal democracy accept the legitimacy of the state, and the principles and values of the political system. Political parties disagree on how best to advance national welfare and constituency interests, but their advocacy is moderated by acceptance of the legitimacy of the political system and the right of other parties to advocate their positions. Parties whose positions do not secure majority support in the polls accept the judgment of the electorate and allow a peaceful transfer of power, knowing that they will not lose their lives, liberty or economic opportunities and can still participate in public life. Their “loyalty” in opposition is not to the policies their opponents will implement, but to the legitimacy of the state and the emocratic process. Experience teaches that it is difficult to achieve this in societies where transitions have taken place through violence.

Perhaps the most important element of a functioning liberal democracy, however, is the application throughout society of the rule of law, the framework of fundamental rights and the rules established to protect them, to enable a fair society that permits human advancement. 42 There are four principal components:

  • Accountability: The government, its principal office bearers, officials and agents, as well as private persons and entities, are all subject to, and accountable under, the law.
  • Clarity: The laws are clear, public and just; they protect fundamental rights, including the security of person and property; and are applied equally to all.
  • Accessibility: The processes of enactment, administration and enforcement of the laws are accessible and equitable.
  • Efficacy: Justice is delivered in a timely manner by competent, ethical, independent officials who are sufficient in number, properly resourced, and reflect the makeup of the communities they serve.

No polity in which the rule of law is not systematically applied can be described as a (liberal) democracy. The thought is not new: Aristotle’s advocacy of politea was premised on the primacy of the laws over the governors. The defining element of (liberal) democratic polities is a constitution that protects the rights and freedoms of individuals and constrains both the government, and the majority that it represents, from acting solely in their self-interest.

Fareed Zakaria introduced the concept of “illiberal democracy” in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1997, citing a concern expressed by Richard Holbrooke that free and fair elections in Bosnia in September 1996 might lead to the election of “racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration].” A year later, Zakaria recorded:

“Democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines, we see the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life – illiberal democracy.” 43

As both Holbrooke and Zakaria observed two decades ago, while electoral democracy and civil liberties are intertwined in liberal democracies, democracy without constitutional liberalism can, and often does, lead to the erosion of liberty, and ethnic domination. 44

V. The Weakening of the Appeal of Liberal Democracy

In its annual publication, Freedom in the World 2018, Freedom House 45 has noted:

“Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.

“Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” 46

weakening appeal of liberal democracy

Since 2006, moreover, the Economist Intelligence Unit has published an annual Democracy Index.47 In the 2017 Index48 the average global score fell from 5.52 in 2016 to 5.48 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Overall, 89 countries saw their aggregate scores fall from 2016, more than three times the 27 that recorded an improvement. This is the worst performance since 2010–11. The other 51 countries stagnated, with scores unchanged from 2016.

While 49.3 percent of the world’s population, in 76 countries, lives in a democracy of some sort, only 4.5 percent, in 19 countries, inhabit a “full democracy,” down from 8.9 percent in 2015. The US was demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016. Around one-third of the world’s population, in 52 countries, lives under authoritarian rule, with a large share in China. The other 39 countries are “hybrid regimes,” accommodating 16.7 percent of the global population.

democracy index 2017

No region recorded an improvement in its average score compared with 2016. The regional score for North America (Canada and the US) remained the same. All other regions regressed, with Asia and Australasia, the best performer in recent years, showing a fall in its regional average score for the first time since 2010, chiefly due to significant declines in the scores for India and Indonesia.

democracy index 2006-2017

The EIU report cites Larry Diamond’s 49 suggestion that the world is experiencing a “democracy recession” even in Western Europe, reflected in falling participation in elections and politics; weaknesses in the functioning of government; declining trust in institutions 50; dwindling appeal of mainstream parties; the growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies; a widening gap between political elites and electorates; a decline in media freedoms; and the erosion of civil liberties.

To understand why this is happening, one must examine the social purpose of governance systems, including liberal democracy.

Political systems allow individuals, with different interests, to live together in society. The political system of a society reflects its political culture, notably the values 51 of its members, and the norms 52 they employ to promote appropriate behavior. All political systems have six functions: (i) to allow for the expression of diverse needs and interests; (ii) to aggregate similar needs and interests and facilitate reconciliation with those that diverge; (iii) to clarify the normative context within which expression, aggregation and reconciliation will occur; (iv) to elevate certain norms to the status of laws 53 and to attach penal sanction to their violation 54; (v) to provide institutions to implement the laws 55; and (vi) to adjudicate, through courts with widespread legitimacy, cases in which rights are disputed, either between persons, or between one or more persons and the state 56.

The social norms of each (national) society thus underpin its political system.57 When a national executive, a legislature or a judiciary deviates from the norms of the society it governs, social tensions erupt. These may either displace the government, or force political reform.

Politics, more generally, is the means by which economic and social goods are allocated authoritatively. In most societies today, economics addresses the workings of markets – which allocate goods and services relatively efficiently without governmental intervention – although macroeconomic analysis, especially on fiscal and monetary policy, aims to guide policymakers in political decisions in the interests of citizens. Politics, economics and society are thus simply elements of a system that enable constructive coexistence between people without family ties, who must cooperate and compete, without conflict, to ensure their individual and collective welfare.

It is easier to achieve common welfare, and coordinate collective action for social purposes, at smaller scales; larger scales pose greater challenges. It is relatively easy to achieve harmony on the scale of a village; possible in a town or city; feasible at a national scale in culturally homogeneous, often smaller, states; more difficult at regional scales; and very difficult globally. Failure occurs when the scale is too large to accommodate the diverse interests of sub-national groups, or national states, especially when values diverge, making agreement on compromises and trade-offs difficult, and inhibiting agreement on normative formulae to distribute benefits equitably. Dani Rodrik pointed cogently to the tensions between economic globalization, national governments and democratic systems in 2011. 58

The progressive integration of nation states into a global economy in recent decades has led to constraints on the authority and sovereignty of states, weakening trust in governments. Both individuals’ sense of responsibility to institutions, and government’s acceptance of accountability to citizens and stakeholders, have declined. Digital technologies effecting economic connectivity through global financial systems, transnational supply chains, integrated energy networks, and global broadcasting and advertising consortia, have weakened the ability of national governments to deliver on their campaign promises and promote the interests of their citizens. Civic disaffection follows naturally, leading many to express cynicism and defect from voting. These tensions at the national level also exacerbate the difficulty of enabling collective action at transnational scales.

This is apparent in democratic polities in the advanced economies, and in the developing world 59. Membership of political parties and participation in elections has either fallen, or flattened, in all European countries in the past 40 years, while the “third wave” of democratization in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, apparent between 1975 and 2005, has stalled, with evidence of regression from freedom 60 in the past decade.

Social media have transformed social, political and media landscapes, creating virtual communities, enabling instant feedback, disrupting traditional media, enhancing expectations and disintermediating political parties as means to satisfy needs61. As most city-dwellers are overwhelmed by information flows, noise tends to cancel out signal, and prejudice to displace reason. Distinguishing fact from opinion is more difficult. By exacerbating the echo chamber effect born of competing, mutually exclusive assertions by partisan broadcast media decades ago62, and by enabling algorithmic manipulation of verbal and visual information through You Tube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, digital media platforms inhibit congruent perception, interpretation and translation into policy. Political polarization, and the rise of populism, are natural consequences.

The efficacy of social media in mobilizing political protest in Tunis, Cairo, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Bangkok, Kiev, Hong Kong and Johannesburg, and in coordinating protests through the Occupy movement a decade ago, is evidence of their disruptive power, but none of these campaigns defined remedial programs, or generated identifiable leaders or institutions. We have weakened the authority of our political systems, without enabling their improvement or replacement. Social media provide access to information without context, and prompt an illusion of expertise, leading to engagement with less reflection than is needed to contribute constructively. Most of these platforms privilege emotion and expression, but discourage analysis and insight.

The implications for democratic institutions are obvious. Our democratic constitutions provide for representative government through election of persons to executive and legislative posts for fixed terms, to implement campaign promises. This is not unqualified: Some countries permit referenda and initiatives; recall elections allow citizens to remove an official from office; and impeachment of a sitting President is possible in defined circumstances. Parliamentary systems permit votes of no confidence, requiring an office-bearer to tender his or her resignation. But social media have enabled new revolts from Egypt to Brazil and South Korea in recent years. Even well-intentioned governments, required to respond urgently to mass demonstrations, are not given time for mature consideration. Succumbing to popular pressure, exacerbated by social media, weakens the authority of representative governments; while suppressing demonstrations forcefully, destroys their legitimacy.

Trivialization of political discourse, with reliance on “tweets,” and communication professionals who mold candidates’ positions to the constituencies needed to secure nomination and election have opened the door for populism. Thoughtful analysis of socio-economic circumstances or geopolitical challenges is increasingly rare. Neither stylized debates, broadcast as info-entertainment, nor the stream of “tweets” and video-clips on social media, enable insight, or permit voters to judge prudently which candidate will best serve the commonweal. Stereotypes are reinforced by commentators more concerned with ratings than integrity. Truth is the first victim, with reputation in its wake. Civil discourse 63 is becoming rare 64, as the norms requiring it are thrown overboard.

Voters are frustrated with their politico-economic systems. Populism is on the rise among persons dis-empowered by the workings of global markets, and angry at the inability of national governments to secure their welfare. The progressive and near-universal adoption of free-market economic systems in the past 50 years has boosted domestic productivity and international trade and investment and created a global industrial and financial system. But the power of most governments to influence the welfare of their citizens has been reduced. Liberalization of capital flows for investment (and speculation) and the reduction of trade union power has led to relocation of manufacturing and service facilities to low-cost, high-productivity locations, and transformed the labor structure of many advanced economies. All this has transformed democratic politics, and governments and the political class are struggling to adapt.

VI. Structural Effects 

This is a problem on two levels. First, global governance is structurally weaker. No shared concept of a future global order will emerge from the G7 65 or the G20 66. Despite the importance of a common vision, the cultural preferences of the elites, and the rhetoric of the populist forces on the right and the left, will frustrate that possibility. 67 Neo-liberalism is in retreat, and neo-nationalism on the rise. 68 The interplay between long-range geo-economic trends 69, geopolitical tensions 70 and domestic social inequality and anger, exacerbated by the radical technological transformation of work and education now underway 71, is fracturing national societies and weakening the institutions of representative democracy.72 The nationalistic, nativist 73 populism that emerged in the United States in 201674 is already familiar in Russia and Turkey, in parts of Latin America, Africa, the Arab region and South Asia, and has been rising in both Western and Eastern Europe for over a decade.

Analyzing populism in Europe, Takis Pappas 75 suggests that there are three distinct revolutionary challenges to democracy: antidemocrats 76, who oppose the representative democratic system; nativists 77, who oppose deeper European integration 78; and populists 79, who, while democratic, oppose liberalism. 80

To understand the threat of populism to liberal democracy, one must examine populist political campaigns and governments. Populist campaigns achieve legitimacy by manipulating reality symbolically and locating social grievances in a structural narrative with well-defined protagonists and antagonists with distinct identities, thus defining the need for intervention. Populist campaigners claim to be on the side of light (or progress) against the forces of darkness (or backwardness). 81 Once in power, successful populist governments incorporate key figures and groups into structural alliances, where information asymmetries allow them to cultivate a diversified base, promising different benefits to different groups. 82 Some special interest groups are vested with symbolic roles to bolster the legitimacy of the leader. Some populist governments thus achieve legitimacy that proves resilient with their supporters, even in adverse circumstances. Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan, and Mr. Trump offer examples.

Populist politics is often disconnected from policy. Its legitimacy reflects the priority of symbols over substance, with ideology being replaced by a scenario of power. 83 Populism thrives when many people feel marginalized, with their livelihoods and identities threatened. And populist politics in one cause breeds antithetical campaigns by others who feel threatened by the populist(s). The protests and clashes in US cities after Mr. Trump’s election, and “Black Lives Matter” marches over a longer period are examples. That path can rend the social fabric, destroying civic tolerance. Minorities – the “other” in every society – are most at risk.

In Europe to date, populists have routinely won elections only in the post-communist east. Of 15 Eastern European countries, populist parties hold power in seven, belong to the ruling coalition in two more, and are the main opposition force in three. While populist parties captured 20 percent or more of the vote in only two Eastern European countries in 2000, they have done so in ten by 2018. In Poland, populist parties have gone from winning 0.1 percent of the vote in 2000 to holding a parliamentary majority in the PiS party’s current government. In Hungary, support for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has at times exceeded 70 percent. 84

After the US election in November 2016, a New York Times article described Mr. Trump’s victory as a “stunning repudiation of the Establishment” 85, calling it “a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.”

VII. Addressing the Challenge – What can we do? 

Pappas posits that antidemocratic parties should be countered by a resolute state that uses legal and constitutional means to restrict extremist behavior. He cites Germany’s Basic Law and the decisions of Belgium’s Court of Appeals in Ghent and the Greek Constitutional Court as examples. He argues that a policy response is needed to contain nativist parties that exploit or respond to citizens’ fears of immigration, globalization and European integration, observing that “…there can be no doubt that solutions to the migration crisis, Greece’s debt problem, and terrorism would take the wind out of contemporary nativism’s sails.” He warns, however, that if the political class cannot do this, nativism will continue to rise.

He sees populism, which negates political liberalism, as the most menacing threat, as it thrives where political institutions are weak, and societies are polarized. Populism is contagious, leading other parties to emulate the success of the populists at the ballot box, further degrading liberal institutions and increasing social tensions. He cites Greece, Hungary and Poland as warning examples. 86

The particulars of populism, including its nativist and illiberal forms, differ from country to country, but the discontent is wide and deep throughout the “developed world,” and in parts of the “developing world.” The trend will accelerate as we automate, digitize and transform our economies. Many more traditional blue- (and white-) collar jobs will be lost each year. Human societies, and our educational and social institutions, adapt more slowly than technology, and we are ill-prepared for the social and political consequences! 87

The 2016 US election made clear that Mr. Trump’s populist narrative (“…you’re feeling pain; I can make it go away and make America great again…”), while simplistic and unsupported by policies, resonated strongly with almost half of the US electorate.88 It and its analogues around the world are shaking the foundations of representative democracy, just as the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries upended empires and monarchies in continental Europe, and drove radical extension of the franchise in Britain.

Our failure to respond adequately to this challenge is increasingly dangerous.89 To avoid an institutional crisis on national and regional levels, we must address the reality, and the sources, of acute inequality; restore possibilities for upward mobility for the bright but less privileged; provide social safety nets for those who cannot be reskilled and accommodated in labor markets in the next two decades; invest in transforming education and skills-training to permit horizontal mobility and lifelong learning; and build social capital and cohesion to enable collaboration and burden-sharing as we transition. To do this, we need suitable fiscal and social policies.90 We must also address the need of many people – often older, or more economically vulnerable individuals – to associate primarily, at least in their neighborhoods, with people of the same, or a similar culture. 91

If we are to preserve the rule of law and the principles of liberal democracy, we must achieve an approximation of fact-based knowledge in the political landscape. This has always been challenging. Very few people in London, four decades ago, regularly read both the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph. Polarization of media perspectives is longstanding and continuing 92, but the media landscape has become more fragmented.93 The echo-chamber effect in both broadcast media and, increasingly, social media, where messaging is narrowly targeted, is having a profound impact on political and institutional behavior.94 Within social media landscapes, the effects of data aggregation and algorithmic manipulation of messaging are reinforcing both preference and prejudice.95 We need to address this more effectively, through education, incentives and regulation.

We must recognize, however, that political institutions emerge from social, economic and cultural contexts. The institutions of representative (liberal) democracy emerged in Europe, the United States and the British Empire, and later, Commonwealth, from the Age of Reason, the European Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, displacing absolute monarchy and the Estates of the Realm, to accommodate a rising and increasingly educated bourgeoisie. The leitmotiv of the republicans of the newly united States of America was that all men were created equal and endowed with inalienable rights; that governments should secure the enjoyment of those rights; and that if a government opposed them, the people had the right to alter or abolish it, and to institute a government that was more likely to effect their safety and happiness. That is an enduring responsibility on a sovereign people. None of those who contributed to the institutions and political systems that emerged at the end of the 18th century envisaged their survival for all time. In a new context today, it falls to us, the people, to reconceptualize and reshape our dysfunctional institutions, and to institute such “new Government as seems most likely to enable our safety and happiness.”

The declining relevance of national governments in securing and advancing the welfare of citizens, in a globalized world, and the disintermediation of political parties as instruments of influence, by social media, are significant threats to representative democracy. Many citizens, especially the digital natives of the millennial generation, have come to believe that they can influence outcomes more effectively by digital engagement than through any established political process. Advances in data analytics, digital communication systems and machine learning enable us to transcend some of the constraints of radiational representative democracy and re-create direct democracy at substantially larger, virtual scales. The Athenian agora [ἀγορά] was the center of the athletic, artistic, commercial and political life of the city. Digital agoras, combining data analytics and machine-learning algorithms, already enable us to link citizens, at multiple scales, from the local, through the national to the global, in many different ways, to enrich the democratic experience. NESTA96 has highlighted six pioneers in digital democracy from Europe, through Latin America to Asia. 97

The prime challenge to political institutions is to craft effective means, seen as legitimate by citizens, to address social and economic challenges, in timeframes that meet both current and emerging expectations. There is a great tension between the assumption of many younger citizens that problems can be solved by digital search, social mobilization and the crowdsourcing of ideas, design parameters, prototypes and operating systems, and the slow, even dysfunctional process of consultation through parliamentary hearings, “White Papers,” draft legislation and debate and amendment in legislative assemblies. More effective deployment of digital solutions employing deep data analysis and machine-learning algorithms is needed to allow legislative, executive and judicial bodies to strengthen governance and adjudication in increasingly fast-paced times. Balancing speed with integrity and transparency, to ensure legitimacy, will be most demanding.

Just as representative (liberal) democracy in national (or pluri-national) states and an economic system of largely free markets, albeit with social objectives determined by elected governments, emerged from the detritus of empire in an age of rapid urbanization and transformation of social and class systems in the 19th and 20th centuries, so new forms of spatial configuration of ever more mobile human communities are emerging from our increasingly connected, digital age. Social and institutional transitions of this sort have always been disruptive, and the speed and scale of that which we are now entering guarantees significant turbulence. We thus need to design adaptive social, economic and political systems that are capable of organic evolution, are subject to popular validation, and will be resilient to shocks. Resilient systems 98 display autonomy, redundancy, distributed architectures, formal communication and negotiation protocols, and are designed to fail to safe-states 99, to enhance operational continuity and enable disaster recovery. These are important design considerations as we grapple with the creation of new systems.

The technological transformation 100 now underway will afford us the tools to address many of these challenges, but it also poses epistemological and ontological questions that humanity has never faced. The meaning of knowledge, traditionally conceived of as “information-in-context”; the attributes of consciousness, traditionally conceived of as an exclusively human attribute; and the meaning and significance of human identity, beyond personal, social or national identities, are being, and will all be, challenged.101 We are entering a new era and our collective ability to manage the transition will be tested, individually and collectively. May we rise to the challenge!

VIII. References 

Aristotle, tr. Benjamin Jowett. Politics. Oxford 1885.

François-Marie Arouet. dit Voltaire. Lettres philosophiques. Basel 1734; Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations, Geneva 1769.

Jeremy Bentham. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Amherst 1780.

James M. Buchanan, and Gordon Tullock. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. 1963.

Edmond Burke.Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), ed. Sir Philip Magnus, Prose of Edmund Burke. 1948.

Confucius, The Analects. London 2003.

Charles Louis De Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. De l’esprit des lois. Geneva 1748.

Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man, New York 1992.

Jack P. Greene. Values and Society in Revolutionary America, Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 426, July 1976.

Yuval Noah Harari. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. London 2016.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812, 1813, 1816; Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften, 1817; Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Leipzig 1821.

Richard Hofstadter. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York 1974.

David Hume. Political Discourses. Edinburgh 1752.

Karl Marx. Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction. 1843.

Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The German Ideology. 1845.

Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. 1848.

Karl Marx. Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, 1859; Das Kapital, vol 1. London 1867.

John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, 1859; Utilitarianism. 1863.

William Miller. A New History of the United States, George Brazillier Inc., 1958, pp. 109–110.

Plato, The Republic, tr. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford.

Dani Rodrik. The Globalization Paradox: Why Global Markets, States, and Democracy Can’t Coexist, Oxford 2011.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Du Contrat Social, ou Principes Du Droit Politique. Amsterdam 1762.

Adam Smith. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Oxford 1776.

Howard Zinn. A People’s History of the United States, Longman. London 1980, p. 95

About the author

Seán Cleary Managing Director at Centre of Advanced Governance and Executive Vice-Chair of FutureWorld Foundation; Chairman, Strategic Concepts (Pty) Ltd; Member of the Board, Salzburg Global Seminar; Chairman: Advisory Board, Global Economic Symposium; Strategic Adviser, World Economic Forum. Faculty member, Parmenides Foundation; Lecturer on global corporate strategy, conflict resolution and development; Chair, Working Group on Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Organizations, South African National Peace Accord; Trustee: SA Foundation for Conciliation; Peace and Reconstruction Foundation. He was a Diplomat and Chief Director of the Office of the Administrator-General, Namibia. He holds qualifications in social science and law from the University of South Africa, and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from Brunel University, UK.