Is democracy in crisis?
Demonstrators clash with police in Athens during protests over Greek austerity cuts in February.
May 24th, 2012
09:48 AM ET

Is democracy in crisis?

Editor's note: Ravi Agrawal is the Senior Producer of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." You can follow him on Twitter @RaviAgrawalCNN

By Ravi Agrawal, CNN

I was browsing through the website of the magazine Foreign Affairs when I came across an article titled “The Present Crisis in Democracy.” The author describes dire times: a world “in a state of hysteria” where an “intoxication of unusual prosperity” was followed by “the harassing uncertainty of the depression.”

From finance boom to housing bust, it reads like a description of inept governance in the last decade.

But it’s not. The article was written in 1934 by Lawrence Lowell, a former president of Harvard University and frequent contributor to Foreign Affairs.

It turns out we’ve always talked about a “crisis in democracy.” A Google search of the phrase throws up articles written not only from the past few years, but from almost every decade of the 20th century.

Lowell began his essay 78 years ago by stating that we have enough examples to estimate democracy’s effectiveness because the extension of suffrage had “reached its limit in several large nations.” He was, of course, ignoring much of the world. At the time, India was undemocratic; it is now the world’s largest democracy. Most of Africa, the Middle East and Asia were yet to fully realize self-determination; that has changed, and is still changing further.

Eight decades later, the world is in a much better position to pass judgment on democracy — although one could argue the prognosis is especially dire. A Gallup poll from September shows that Americans feel a historic negativity toward government, both Democrats and Republicans. A record 81% said they were dissatisfied with the way the country was being governed.

This has already been a year of electoral upheaval. Greece’s George Papandreou and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy have lost their jobs. Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi was forced out in November. Incumbents the world over have record-low approval ratings. Many countries head to polls this year; more churn is inevitable.

But isn’t that democracy’s work at its finest? Is churn not a vital ingredient in refreshing good governance?

History suggests it is. But the difference right now is a sense of despair over the tools that democracy offers, that it’s proving incapable of solving the current fiscal crisis. In my previous article on this series, I wrote of how populism can often stand in the way of solving economic problems. From Nigeria’s stalled economic reforms to India’s spluttering growth, democratic answers seem hard to come by. The euro’s problems seem almost intractable; and in the U.S., investors nervously await another partisan battle over the debt ceiling.

Perhaps the strongest case against democracy comes out of Italy. As Fareed Zakaria put it in an interview last week with Prime Minister Mario Monti, democracy had to be “suspended” to solve Italy’s troubles. Is the fact that Italy had to turn to an unelected economist not the surest sign that Western democracy is truly in crisis?

Monti’s answer is instructive.

“The reason why democracies are very poor these days,” he said, “is that democracies, like markets, have become much too short-term.

“The combination of very important media, of frequent elections, of even social networks which tend to polarize people towards more extreme positions, has the consequence that in democracies, politicians… tend to embark on solutions that imply short-term costs and longer-term benefits with great reluctance, and only when they are faced with an actual huge crisis.”

So it seems the answer is this: Democracies need an absolute power who forces us to eat our vegetables.

What of models only loosely based on representative democracy? Monti says the Chinese alternative is an option, because it projects itself and its decisions into the longer term. But it comes at a cost.

“It would be a very sad conclusion if we were to need to reduce the rate of democracy in order to get better government,” Monti said.

China, of course, has its own troubles, with as many as 500 protests taking place every day around the country.

During the recent scandal over the ouster of Bo Xilai, the disgraced party secretary from Chongqing, a little-known fact emerged. Beijing had not revealed its income gap statistics in more than a decade. But Bo let them slip, telling reporters in March that China’s gini coefficient had exceeded 0.46. (The index measures inequality: 0 indicates everyone is perfectly equal, and 1 indicates one person has all the wealth; anything above 0.4 is considered dangerously high, creating conditions ripe for social unrest.)

Democracy has forever been messy. The solution to its crises is more of the same medicine: more dialogue, more debate, more democracy. Perhaps the greatest endorsement of people power comes from those who don’t have it. The revolutions of the Arab Spring show that millions of people who have experienced autocracies or dictatorships yearn for the freedoms that come with the right to vote. More than anyone else, they know that the alternative is far worse.

Winston Churchill had it right, all the way back in 1947: “Democracy is the worst form of government … except for all the others.”

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Topics: 2012 Election • Analysis • Governance • Politics

soundoff (456 Responses)
  1. wade

    It has always been in crises. You cannot put ten people in a room and get an outcome for anything that makes them all happy. Here in the USA we no longer have free elections because we have CNN, CBS, MSNBC and sometimes ABC working for and promoting Obama while attacking day and night Romney. I do not mind that the attack Romney but they should do the same to Obama as well and they do not

    May 25, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  2. Rabbit One

    if you worry about your humanity first and your democracy second all will go well. as a human you have to breathe, eat, drink, sleep, etc – and be part of a human family – whose survival depends on the health of that large family – all the democracy coming in addition to that is kind of temporary and changing

    May 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  3. hillwilly

    When people elected make choices not in the interest of the country...but in the interest of their own finance and own ability to be re-elected...then the people of that government should stop them.

    Where are the heroes of the government? We can not see them because they are not in the media...only those who are working to make the cash can be seen.

    Democracy is not the problem... citizens allowing a circus to take place in the government is the problem. So the task at hand is to remove the clowns and put people in who will not lie to us, will work for us, and who know that if they do not they will be out of work.

    I am tired of watching people elected ignore the issues and work for the next election. and when I get tired, I get cranky...

    May 25, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • 12ax7a

      Exactly, now if you want people who won't lie just make sure you choose people who don't make promises.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
  4. h2oclerk

    Democracy is an absolute essential. However, the founding fathers didn't envision the problems that would be generated by allowing politicians to serve virtually unlimited terms. Americans only limited the presidency to two terms after realizing the mistake they'd made with Roosevelt – seeing the prospect of being unable to pry a populist politician out of office..

    For several good reasons, the presidency should be only one six year term. However the greatest damage is done by allowing Senate and House members to continue on decade after decade. This places them in the position of extended political authority and power, and that power is something they can – AND ALL DO – sell to retain office. If the maximum time anyone were allowed in congress were twelve years total, with a minimum five year "cooling off" period where they could not perform any lobbying work, their abuses "marketability" would greatly diminish.

    We'd see new blood and fresh ideas, and nobody would have enough time to build an undefeatable power base. It could virtually end pork barrel politics.

    May 25, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      We need new blood in the State House or blood in the streets. Either one will do.

      May 25, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  5. Bill

    We do not have a democracy.

    May 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  6. Jo

    So China's "dangerously high" gini coefficient (0.46) has almost reached the level of the US's (0.47)?

    May 25, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  7. Patrick

    Author Fatima Mernissi
    Publisher Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.
    Whoever says that modern Arab intellectuals have not engaged in intelligent analysis and criticism of their society, its values and its politics has not read the books of Fatima Mernissi. A Moroccan sociologist, she writes from a feminist perspective, this time about Islamic concepts of freedom, order and responsibility, and their compatibility with democracy. She argues that establishment Islam, that conveyed by the state, has stressed the importance of order and obedience. In this version of Islam, limits on individual freedom must be respected for the sake of communal interests, the past must be veiled and women must be secluded. Other strands of Islam have encouraged the exercise of reason, respected public opinion and valued compassion, but these sentiments have been discouraged by ruling elites anxious to protect their own privileges. The author is at her best when she identifies the origins of a concept in the early days of Islam and shows how it has survived into the present, with all the connotations that can make words like "freedom" seem dangerous. She conveys the social setting in which extremist Islamic movements wave the banner of revolt against oppression while ignoring the corresponding need for tolerance. There are moments of real brilliance and insight in this extended essay. At times the attempt to relate the current crisis to the recent Persian Gulf conflict seems strained, but her fundamental message is powerful and worth hearing.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  8. Patrick

    Is Islam compatible with democracy? Must fundamentalism win out in the Middle East, or will democracy ever be possible? In this now-classic book, Islamic sociologist Fatima Mernissi explores the ways in which progressive Muslims–defenders of democracy, feminists, and others trying to resist fundamentalism–must use the same sacred texts as Muslims who use them for violent ends, to prove different views.

    Updated with a new introduction by the author written in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Islam and Democracy serves as a guide to the players moving the pieces on the rather grim Muslim chessboard. It shines new light on the people behind today's terrorist acts and raises provocative questions about the possibilities for democracy and human rights in the Islamic world. Essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of the Middle East today, Islam and Democracy is as timely now as it was upon its initial, celebrated publication.
    Quoted from editor's site: Perseus Books Group

    May 25, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  9. Patrick

    Liberal Syrian Intellectual Georges Tarabishi: Without Secularism, There Can Be No Democracy
    Tuesday, 07 July 2009 03:36
    This interview was conducted by the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Georges Tarabishi, a prominent liberal Syrian intellectual living in France, spoke about democracy in the Arab world, the fundamentalist challenge, and secularism. He argued that just as secularism emerged in Europe as a remedy to Protestant-Catholic sectarianism, so it is needed in the Arab world to overcome sectarian divisions and pave the way for a democratic future.

    May 25, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  10. jon

    What is coming is a class war between people who pay nothing to support government and the declining number of people stuck picking up the tab. 1/2 of all US homes now have a resident that gets at least one government check and 1/2 pay no taxes.
    There is a tipping point as seen by the colapse of the greek economy when 60% of Greeks no longer worked and were supported by the remaing 40%...the math simply does not work

    May 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      Advocates of kaos would like that. When people get jobs they will pay their fair share again.

      May 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  11. Voiceinthedesert/Troubledgoodangel

    Democracy is the best form of government … except for all the others that need yet to be discovered!

    May 26, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  12. JesterJames

    In democracy, you get the government you voted for. Simple as that. If democracy is dysfunctional, then it's because the voters made it so. working as intended.

    May 27, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  13. cons

    What about the irresponsible banking system that lends any amount of money to whoever asks for it, and then when a debt crisis ensues, takes over the internal policy of a whole country( vis-a-vis Greece)? If I go to a bank manager and ask for 5 million dollars, having no assets or business, will he lend it to me? If I find such a bank am I to blame if I take the money and can't pay it back? Or was the bank up to something a little more sinister, like wanting to take over my life? Why did bankers lend so many billions of euros to a country that they knew all along could never pay them back? I blame the bankers, not the Greeks.

    May 27, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
    • .

      You can rest blame squarely on the foreheads of the liberal democrat pseudo intelligentsia. After the Rodney King Riots in the early 90s, Janet Reno and Robert Reich amended Jimmy Carter's Community Reinvestment Act and forced the banks to make loans to people in "underserved" communities to stop the practice of redlining. The banks discovered they could make the loans to just about anybody, package them up, get AIG to underwrite the mortgage insurance, and sell them to unwitting investors on Wall Street.

      Liberalism is a mental disorder.

      May 28, 2012 at 8:56 am | Reply
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