A Democratic Doomsday?

For years, liberal democracies have been beset by deepening political polarization, declining confidence in the rule of law, and widespread institutional decay. With the COVID-19 crisis accelerating these trends, the need for a clear strategy to defend liberal democracy has become more urgent than ever.

MADRID – In 1947, two years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were decimated by nuclear bombs, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists launched the Doomsday Clock to convey the world proximity to annihilation – and to spur action to “turn back time.” Today, it is worth considering the need to create a clock to show how close our democracies are to collapse. On such a Democracy Doomsday Clock, we would be rapidly approaching midnight.

Liberal democracy is founded on the idea that individuals acting rationally in their own interest will produce good outcomes. But almost every aspect of this premise has been eroded in recent years. For starters, widespread income stagnation and soaring inequality, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, are hardly outcomes that most rational people would choose.

Moreover, waning trust in institutions has undermined the conditions individuals need to make informed decisions. Traditional media, long expected to serve as gatekeepers of information, have been coopted and bypassed by online sources, whose business model encourages them to attract readers by playing to their beliefs and interests, often through the dissemination of false or misleading information.

In this context, political leaders attempting to act as moderating forces often lose out to those who use fearmongering and appeals to tribalism. All of this has fostered a narrowly drawn – and, at times, self-defeating – sense of self-interest, which makes the compromises that are necessary to build broad coalitions virtually impossible.
These trends have beset liberal democracies with deepening political polarization, declining confidence in the rule of law, and widespread institutional decay. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated every one of these developments. The pandemic has dealt devastating new blows to liberal democracies’ already-tattered reputation as bastions of relative prosperity, predictability, and security.

The challenges are well known. And yet even discussions of democracy’s decline have become deeply polarized. In the United States, Republicans and Democrats both spent much of their recent presidential nominating conventions suggesting that their opponents are intent on destroying American democracy.

In fact, the entire US presidential campaign has been featuring near-apocalyptic rhetoric, with both sides weaponizing the language of liberal democracy – liberty, freedom, the rule of law – to portray their opponents as an existential threat to the American way of life. This reflects a broader trend toward linking the defense of democracy with elections. Far from representing a credible solution, this approach now seems to embody a zero-sum ethos, which merely deepens the divides that are already crippling democracy.

Ominous warnings – even those that are grounded in reality – will never be enough to save liberal democracy. That will require a long-term strategy aimed at restoring the system’s foundations: good governance outcomes based on rational, informed decision-making.

Education and mobilization are integral to such a strategy. Recent developments – from a broad willingness to follow public-health guidelines to widespread protests against systemic racism – suggest that populations are ready and willing to act. But such efforts will mean little without better outcomes, and that will require political leaders to address systemic flaws, beginning with those that are fueling inequality.

The key to success – and democratic resilience – is to foster a stronger connection between government and society. That, in turn, requires a more robust understanding of citizenship.

As the nineteenth-century Italian politician and state-builder Giuseppe Mazzini noted, a liberal democracy can take root and flourish only if it is founded on duties, not just on rights. Citizens must be connected to one another by a higher cause. For Mazzini, who helped to bring about Italy’s unification and independence, that cause was the nation’s right to self-determination. US President Woodrow Wilson built on this at the international level following World War I in laying the foundation for what would ultimately become the liberal world order.

Such an effort does not, however, need to be based on nationalism. Indeed, today we see politicians resorting to ethnic nationalism as a means of dividing populations. What is necessary is a sense that we all have a responsibility beyond ourselves and to each other. That belief allows a functioning – let alone flourishing – liberal democratic society to exist.

In practice, this approach is quotidian and deliberate. It involves community building, a commitment to service, and a general conscientiousness. It will not be easy, and it certainly won’t be accomplished with a single election, not even the US presidential election in November. But that is not an excuse not to try, and to succumb to the centrifugal forces driving us apart.

Winston Churchill once quipped that liberal democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others. It may not be perfect, but it is undeniably worth saving. And the clock is ticking.