international analysis and commentary

Democracy’s night shall pass


Election by election, the growing consensus for populisms and a virulent opposition to democratic institutions have started a new historical phase for politics all around the World. The optimistic preconditions of a gradual global democratization without limits are faltering, and the perspectives describing democracy as the “only game in town”, as Linz and Stepan put it, became dashed hopes. In some cases, where democracy looked solid enough to be considered the undisputed rule, its institutions are turning out to be nothing more than houses of cards. This is for example what happened in Hungary since 2010, where the “revolution of the ballot boxes” proclaimed by Viktor Orbán, opened the way to a gradual but relentless process of change, which dismantled many constitutional guarantees and pushed an entire democratic regime to the point of non-return.

A new season of attacks against democracies began ten years ago, with threats and challenges which had mainly arisen – with some rare exceptions – within the borders of their own political dynamics and procedures of participation. As already stressed by Alexis de Tocqueville in the famous Democracy in America, new forms of despotism can develop themselves from the dysfunctions of representative democracy.

Other threats to our political systems emerged from within, i.e. from the very electoral and political dimension of democracy itself. Some of these threats can be equally or even more deceitful. In the last years, we have witnessed that democracy cannot rely anymore just on elections: as the vote can defend democracy, sometimes it can condemn democratic institutions as well. Here is the not entirely understood insidious conundrum that the crisis of democracy has raised: democracies cannot avoid electoral results leading to the power leaders and movements who raise up against their institutions, and they must be able to cope with them instead. Democracy will be strong, strong enough to survive to its own risk, or it will kill itself.

On the one hand, as freedom is the core value of this political culture, democracy has to let them govern: who wins the elections has this right and duty, also if this is a threat for the institutions. On the other hand, the institutions need defenses capable to preserve themselves and protect their democratic identity, which allows for threatening leaders to govern but cannot allow them to destroy values and rules of democracy.

In order to say that some inevitable difficulties cannot last forever, the popular wisdom of Naples – a town that has been able to survive to its own contradictions for millennia – tells us: “The night shall pass.” The challenge that politics has put before many democracies is how to survive to this night? Will democracies be able to cope with populist leaders as democracies cannot avoid them? If democracy allows populists to govern, how to avoid that they dismantle democracies from within?

The electoral risk is not the only aspect that deserves to be reconsidered as we are concerned for the survival of many democracies. Hence, our interest in not so much in these challenging electoral results, rather on what they reveal on democracy and its crisis. For instance, when we observe several democracies where electoral outcomes can be more or less harmful for democracy itself, this risk affects each of them in a different way. Forasmuch as populism and other menaces will not disappear immediately, this seems to me the most intriguing aspect. If it is true that these are ever more frequent and recurrent events, rather than exceptional cases, questions arise on the strength of democracies: why democracies react differently, collapse or survive, to similar threats (for example, populism)? which democracies can cope with the crisis better and why?

Little is known about what causes these differences in strength of democracies, on what their capacity to resist depends and why it varies so much across countries. The very fact that populist parties win and achieve their plans of change of democratic institutions, sometimes without limits, shows us that our knowledge of democracy and its capacity to hold out against similar threats is still backwards.

Regardless of the type of menace or risk to their identity, some democracies are structurally stronger than others as better designed for protecting themselves from political threats, attacks and other dangerous conditions. As their strength and institutional defenses vary, we can say that there are weak and strong democracies.

The former will not suffer as the latter. While the former will be easily manipulated and left defenseless, moving backwards and farer from our current ideal type of contemporary democracy, the latter will find themselves fighting and resisting to preserve their political identity. These ones will not see their institutions in ruins or completely damaged. And hence, we should ask to ourselves: will the people “take back control” (Boris Johnson’s slogan) of their institutions? When antidemocratic leaders threatening the institutions will be out from them, it will be only a matter of time before democracy can flourish again. If they will survive they might mature as after this experience they will have some new political antibodies to prevent similar crises from occurring again.

For instance, in this night of democracy, the most important unknown remains the future health of American democracy, as its political model and priorities have still a worldwide influence on other societies.

Thousands of books have been written about the risk to American democracy under President Trump and there are many legitimate reasons to justify this fear: high polarization, the loss of the truth in public debates and opinions, less attention for inequalities and social rights, etc. However, behind the pessimistic perspective we receive from media and news, it is time to get to the essentials: is the American democracy dead or dying? This question deserves a strict answer: “Yes” or “No.”

Perhaps, a realistic approach would suggest: “no.” Let us see quickly why. Some like President Trump’s leadership and policies, others not. But this is not a problem for a democratic polity, actually this is its core: dissent. No matter how extreme Trump’s decisions are, political preferences not always match with the results of elections. As what matters is to let those who win the elections to govern without abusing of the power the citizens gave them, if there are doubts on abuses of power the institutions have mechanisms – most of the times counter-majoritarian ones – which check.

After three years at the White House, Trump has shown a different model of leading the US. Despite the strong transitional changes subsequent to 2016 election, the American institutions appear to be working without losing their effectiveness. d above all, the mechanisms to check over the executive power work well within the boundaries of the rule of law and without being manipulated or misused. This is particularly clear from the end of the debate on the impeachment: the capacity of the American institutions to accomplish the most delicate function that the founding Fathers enshrined in them – that one knows as “checks and balances” – works. It has been possible to debate, to investigate and to vote. These processes are what matters for the future of a democracy. Moreover, the Democratic Party presidential primaries are revealing a process of political renovation pushing back against the rise of strongman politics.

The American democracy will have a different story to tell than those of other democracies in which constitutional guarantees have been attacked and weakened by populist leaders in government, as is currently the case in Hungary, where electoral consensus, a political majority and referendums have been used to implement and reforms that have led to a centralisation of power.

And if it does, it will be among the few that have been able to resist attacks of anti-politics and survive the crisis, further demonstrating the capacity of American democracy to adapt to the challenges of its times while preserving its institutional integrity.

Contrary to most of the alarms of those ones who cry wolf on democracy in America as a hopeless case, I argue that the U.S.A. will be able to succeed in coping with the current danger as its democratic strength depends in considerable measure on the integrity of its institutions and constitutional order. Both these aspects will be barely manipulated, and the effects of this administration will not damage in an irreversible way the institutions of the American democracy and its chances to thrive again.

This different scenario we believe in is justified by the idea that not every institutional system has the same capacity to cope with these democratic crises. If we try to embrace a long-term perspective out of this horizon of democratic darkness, it is still plausible to see hope.