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Four crises of liberal democracy by Alasdair Roberts

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Angst produced by the current bout of ‘democratic malaise” – that feeling that things are falling apart for the modern world – is often both confused and intense. The new book that I am going to discuss furnishes us with a way of thinking about what might be wrong with liberal democracy in any specific national context that is as elegant and as thought-provoking as anything that I have encountered recently. The formulation is the very opposite of the often bewildered and bewildering musings of perturbed pundits.

The author, Alasdair Roberts, is Professor of Public Affairs at the Truman School of Public Affairs, University of Missouri. He is a Fellow of the US National Academy of Public Administration and co-editor of the journal of Governance (the journal is my favorite on governance matters looked at from a global perspective). In February 2015, Roberts delivered the S.T. Lee Lecture in Political Science and Government at All Souls College, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. The book I will be discussing is based on the lecture.

The book is actually titled Four Crises of American Democracy. I have chosen my focus …liberal democracy simpliciter… for two reasons. First, the short book is, in parts, self-consciously global, containing as it does examples from around the world. In fact, the first of the six chapters is almost entirely global in focus. Second, I am not interested in discussing the minutiae of American politics. I always try to find generalizable lessons from the books that I decide, from time to time, to review. As you read what follows I urge you to think about your own context. Does the analysis ring true to you? All of it? Some of it? None?

So, what are the four crises of liberal democracy?

  1. The crisis of representation: As is well known, the principle of popular representation says, in the words of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government”. According to Roberts: “Complaints about representation arise when ordinary people feel that they no longer exercise real control over their government – or to put it another way, when government appears to be serving some group or special interest other than the general public”. (p.5). The crisis of representation bedevils perhaps the majority of liberal democracies in the world today. In the most severe cases, entire groups within the nation-state feel that some other group is lording it over them because of a winner-takes-all approach to the spoils of electoral victories. The basis of disquiet can be ethnic, sectarian, geographic/regional, or class (where the moneyed interest conquers all and dominates all). The crisis of representation is the commonest reason, I would argue, for widespread cynicism about liberal democracy today.
  2. The crisis of mastery: If you live in a liberal constitutional democracy do the trains run on time? Are the streets safe? Are hospitals and schools functioning well? Is refuse collected and competently processed? Is there water to drink in homes and is the water safe to drink? In most of the liberal democracies of the rich world these things are taken for granted. But in many parts of the world liberal constitutional democracy is undergoing a crisis of mastery. And it has been doing so for a long time. In these places, liberal democracy as a form of rule has not mastered the basic tasks of governance. It is the problem of weak-capacity-states, also known as areas of limited statehood. Several states do not even have basic control over their territories. Entire enclaves have been ceded to gangs, warlords, insurgencies…and in these places what you have is the Hobbesian state of nature. There is a Pidgin English query from the country I was born in, Nigeria, that captures the crisis of mastery well. It is: “Na Democracy we go chop?” It means: are we going to eat democracy? What is the point in democracy if it does not put food on the table for citizens? What this means is that while the most important justifications of democracy focus on its intrinsic value, without evidence of its instrumental value as a form of rule people will rush to strong men and sundry authoritarianisms.
  3. The crisis of discipline: The problem here is how often in liberal democracies politicians pander to voters and keep adding to the cost and the sheer size of government. People vote for ever more benefits but do not want tax rises.  Subsidies of all kinds overwhelm fiscal discipline and the entire edifice teeters on the brink of collapse or staggers from crisis to crisis to crisis. Leaders who impose austerity measures get voted out. Leaders who promise tough love are ignored by voters. It is arguably the most important reason why governance reform is usually horrendously difficult.
  4.  The crisis of anticipation: According to Roberts, the issue here is that many people believe that liberal democracy struggles to “anticipate and manage long-term problems” especially now that many countries are “dealing with next-generation problems, rather than next-year problems. This raises questions about our willingness and capacity to look very far into the future, and also about our duties toward people who may not yet be born”. (pp. 10-11). For instance, in many countries the powerful elderly voters are consuming public resources massively and governments are meekly passing the bill to future generations. And then there is the vexed issue of climate change. Who is going to pay right now for a catastrophe that might be 100 years in the future?
Before I conclude, it is important to note that both the crisis of discipline and the crisis of anticipation have produced the growing phenomenon of what one might call technocratic authoritarianism or the authoritarian temptation that many technocrats are succumbing to. These days, many technocrats are sick and tired of the messiness of democratic politics, its lack of efficiency and its insufficient rationality. They admire strong leaders who simply get things done regardless of public opinion. Those working in international development often salivate over something called the developmental state (a dictatorship masquerading as a liberal democracy where poverty alleviation is actually happening). I was delivering a lecture in one such country recently and a senior civil servant in the class said to me: “People are stupid and short-sighted. We don’t listen to them.

I end where Roberts ends by asking: can liberal democracies heal themselves? The long view, he concludes, gives reason for optimism, at least with regards to the American case that he discusses in detail. The same can be said for the other well-established democracies. They will muddle through somehow and adapt the form of rule. As for the younger and frailer liberal democracies, well, in each case the answer is blowing in the wind.

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