Democracy is in crisis, says major new report

Revolutions: 1789 (left) and yesterday (right). Paris has long been a flashpoint for protest. © Getty

Is democracy in trouble? Politicians don’t listen and political opinions divide. A new survey shows that people in developed countries are more and more unhappy with their political system.

Winston Churchill famously quipped that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”.

Today, across North America and Western Europe, “the rule of the people” is losing its appeal.

Academics at the University of Cambridge have analysed thousands of surveys based on the attitudes of over four million people. They found that, since 1995, the percentage of people “dissatisfied with democracy” has risen from 48% to 58%.

“Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise,” said one of the authors of the report, Roberto Foa.

Indeed, a number of recent events have suggested that our political system is failing to keep up in an increasingly individualistic and fractured society.

Social media should have been a positive thing for political participation. But by allowing everyone to voice an opinion, it often only accentuates the divide between different perspectives.

For the 17.4 million people who had supported the UK leaving the European Union, the last few years have seen British democracy in crisis. Whilst a slim majority of people had voted for Brexit, the government could not make it happen.

Newspapers described elected members of parliament as “traitors”. Both sides saw the other as endangering British democracy.

In the US, Trump’s impeachment trial can be seen as an attempt by his political rivals to defeat him without having to win an election. Then again, he is on trial for abusing the power of the presidency in order to manipulate his own chances of re-election.

Across the world, leaders like Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey and Duterte in the Philippines are winning elections only then to crack down on their opponents. It is not democracy as we typically understand it.

Other countries like China don’t even pretend to be democratic. Nonetheless, they wield huge political power. It can even be argued that if it were not for China’s autocratic system, the current deadly virus would have been able to spread far more quickly.

So, is democracy in crisis?

Let’s have a vote

Yes. The modern world has moved too quickly for politics to keep up. Lies can be exposed instantly and claims can be fact-checked. We no longer trust politicians to know what is best for us. The politicians who succeed are doing so by stirring up anger against others, such as migrants. What is more, today, it is the companies that wield more influence and power than citizens.

No. Democracy has always been imperfect. To ensure that it survives, we have to lower our expectations and remember what matters. Votes are still being counted. Politicians still sometimes listen. In a fast-changing world, with greater numbers of people to represent, politics is going to get messier – that does not mean it is not ours to change. Believing in that change is believing in democracy.

You Decide

  1. What is your earliest memory of politics? Do you think you trust politicians less or more than back then?
  2. Think about the last election in your country. Was there any party that you felt actually aligned with your political beliefs?

Activities

  1. Research the original, Athenian form of democracy and compare it to the structure of a modern democracy. List all the aspects that are similar and all the aspects that are different.
  2. Imagine that you are responsible for rewriting your country’s constitution. How do you think you would organise its political system? Who would be in charge? Who would select them and how?

Some People Say...

“What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?”

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), Indian lawyer and political activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Democracy comes from two Greek words that mean “rule by the people”. In a democracy, the people have a say in how the government is run. They do this by voting, though there are usually rules about who can vote. According to the Economist, Norway, Iceland and Sweden are the three most democratic countries, whilst the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea were the least democratic.
What do we not know?
We do not know whether being more aware of the faults of democracy is the same as there actually being more faults. We do not know exactly what people expect from democracy in 2020, or how they define it in their minds. For all democracy’s imperfections, we do not know if there will ever be a better system of government.

Word Watch

Malaise
A general feeling of discomfort, illness or unease whose exact cause is difficult to identify.
Individualistic
Attitude that sees individual people as more interesting than society as a whole.
Fractured
Broken apart, divided.
Accentuates
Emphasises, makes clearer.
Impeachment
American political process where an official is accused of misconduct.
Autocratic
A country where a single person or party has all the power.
Wield
Hold or use, usually a weapon or tool.

Subjects

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