It’s undeniable that the Western imperial legacy of spreading democracy around the world has failed. If we look at the 2019 democracy index of the British newspaper The Economist, we can see that the world is sharply divided between the authoritarian East and the liberal West. Countries colored red in the map below are governed by an authoritarian regime whereas only the dark green countries are considered to be full democracies.
The Economist assigns countries a score ranging from 1 (very authoritarian) to 10 (full democracy). The average score in 2019 was 5.44 which is the lowest average score since the first democracy index in 2006. Only 5.7 percent of the world population lives in full democracies. A mere 22 countries in this world are considered to be full democracies.
Germany is one of them whereas the US is ranked as a flawed democracy. Yes, you heard it right. The US is less democratic than countries like Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, Costa Rica, Chile, France, Mauritius, and Canada.
Now, it is not a disaster that the US is considered a flawed democracy. However, we should keep in mind that it was in the year 2016, that the US for the first time dropped below 8 points and is currently at 7.96 points. In the same timeframe, Germany increased its score from 8.63 to 8.68. Canada did even better than Germany and increased its score from 9.15 in 2016 to 9.22 in 2020.
While many Western European countries have retained or even improved their status as free democracies, the US has developed in a similar way as China. While China has always had an authoritarian regime, the country was getting more “democratic” from 2012 (3.00 points) until its peak in 2016 with 3.14 points. However, since then China’s score has sharply decreased to a mere 2.26 points in 2019.
Of course, it’s unfair to compare the US with a score of 7.96 to China with a score of 2.26. However, we can see a similar trend over the past 4 years.
Factors that determine the democracy index of a country
The Economist uses five categories to determine the final score of a country in the democracy index:
- Civil liberties
- Political culture
- Political participation
- Functioning of government
- Electoral process and pluralism
While in general, the score for political participation has increased over the years for many countries, the score for civil liberties worldwide has continuously decreased. China currently has a score of only 1.18 in the category of civil liberties.
The biggest problem of the US in the last years hasn’t been a loss of civil liberties though. The main problem of the US is that it scores only 7.14 points in the category functioning of the government. The main reasons for the low score of the US in this category according to The Economist is insufficient transparency and a lack of accountability of the US government. Adding to that, the US score is dragged down by low public confidence in the government and political parties.
Germany certainly has problems with this too. There is a growing number of skeptics in this country who distrust our current government and have no acceptance for it. There are even people who claim the Federal Republic of Germany doesn’t exist and that current-day Germany is still an imperial empire.
Yet the problem is not as bad as in the US. If a large amount of US citizens hate their current president, their distrust in their own government is a sign that the US democracy is failing. If someone is elected by the public, the general public needs to put its trust into the elected president and his government for a democracy to work.
The flaws of current-day democracies
I don’t want to say that a democratically elected president shouldn’t be called out for his mistakes. But there needs to be a mutual trust between the population and the governing body for a country to thrive. If there is no mutual trust, then what is the point of living in a democracy?
Well, this is actually a very relevant question for all of the democratic Western world in the future. Do we want to restore and reinforce a free democracy or will we just get rid of it? Democracy, after all, is a very recent Western phenomenon. For most of the time in history, Europe consisted of monarchies. And yet that didn’t hinder the continent to become the world leader in science, technology, and to conquer all its colonies. Many European countries thrived under authoritarian regimes.
Adding to that, Democracy isn’t as stable and superior as we often think. Germany’s democracy after World War I was a mess. It led to the rise of Hitler who just abolished it and turned Germany into an authoritarian state again. Nowadays, Germany’s constitution ensures more stability, however, this stability also means we’re in a political deadlock. Nothing moves forward here because no one is really powerful.
Adding to that, the German chancellor Angela Merkel has been governing the country for 15 years straight now. The German population doesn’t seek out change in its leadership. Helmut Kohl was chancellor for 16 years, Konrad Adenauer for 14 years. German elections nowadays are only about electing the small partner of the governing party CDU.
However, the governing party in Germany never has the full power to decide anything by themselves because they need to cooperate with a smaller party to hold the majority in the parliament. This hinders any major changes from happening. We conserve the status quo in Germany, but we don’t move forward.
Why the US democracy is in a recession
In the US, the mechanism of constant change works a bit better because presidential terms are limited, and because of the two-party system. Yet, a few of the main reasons for the democracy recession in the US are:
- an increasing emphasis on elite governance rather than popular participatory democracy
- a growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies
- the removal of substantive issues of national importance from the political arena to be decided by politicians, experts, or supranational bodies behind closed doors (not just the US, but also the European Union is very guilty of this)
- a widening gap between political elites and parties on the one hand and national electorates on the other
The biggest downfall of democracy is obviously that we vote for a political elite whom we don’t know if they have any competence to run a great country such as Germany or the US. Politicians often don’t have any background knowledge required for the large array of complex decisions they have to make every day. They rely on experts to advise them. A politician’s job is not to be a climate change expert or virologist. Politicians are expected to make an informed judgment based on the information they receive from experts.
Yet the experts who advise politicians receive funding from private cooperations. This process of funding experts, scientists, and politicians to influence a political decision is better known as lobbying. Whoever has the money has a lot of influence in a democracy.
The second big downfall of democracy is that decisions are always compromises. It is very hard to react in an effective way if a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic comes along. The same is true for climate change. A democracy always aims to please everyone involved. Yet that is not always the best way because it leads to half-assed decisions. In the end, no one is truly pleased with the outcomes.
But what are the alternatives to our modern-day democracy? What could a post-democratic system for the Western world look like?
The civil state
The civil state model was first introduced by Adrian Papst from the University of Kent who is a German researcher in the field of post-liberal politics and political economy. Papst argues that our current free market system favors the collusion of big businesses and big governments so that we nowadays live in post-democratic ‘market-states’. We are not as free as we think we are. We are governed by wealthy elite politicians that get funded by the big corporations. So the politicians will obviously always act in the interest of the wealthy elite that finances them.
A post-democratic ‘market state’ lives within three paradoxes:
- It requires more centralized authority for the government yet all governments will be weaker.
- There is more public participation in government, however, the individual’s participation will count for less, and the individual acts more as a spectator.
- The welfare state gets greatly retrenched but infrastructure security, epidemiological surveillance, and environmental protection will be promoted by the state as never before.
Papst lists some indicators that mark the shift from a nation-state to a post-democratic ‘market state’:
- The decline in the number of members of political parties (a long ongoing trend in Germany!)
- The collapse in the membership of civic and fraternal organizations
- A long-term drop in voter turnout
- Growing intensity and extension of ‘spectacular politics’ where political debate is superseded by a tightly controlled spectacle of endless electoral campaigning, televised shows, media spin, and other public relations techniques that reduce citizens to passive spectators (we can observe this in Germany and to an even larger extent in the US)
What a civil state looks like
Papst’s alternative, the ‘civil state’, revolves around three arguments:
- Focusing solely on the individual (Western societies) or fully on the collective (Eastern societies) neglects the importance of autonomous, democratically self-governing groups and associations that mediate between the citizens and the state.
- The active participation of groups and associations is indispensable to a properly functioning democracy and market economy.
- The social bonds and civic virtues that provide the glue for civil society are needed to make constitutional-legal rights and economic-contractual ties work.
In a civil state, there is no divide between the purely private capitalist markets and the exclusively public sector. Instead, voluntarily and self-governing associations exist that cooperate with state authorities and market actors to deliver services such as healthcare, education, and welfare. There is no centralized government but an association of agencies that share power through cooperative links according to necessity and contingency.
The economy of a civil state does neither follow the logic of a ‘free market’ nor is it bureaucratically planned by the state. Instead, companies are governed not by a central board but jointly by investors, managers, and workers so that everyone profits from them.
There is no chance to exclusively privatize gains and to accumulate mountains of wealth for individuals. Instead, there are only collective profits for everyone involved with the company to be gained. If the company is doing great, the workers will profit as much as the investors because it is democratically governed.
Papst suggests that we need to democratize private institutions rather than our government. Private corporations follow an authoritarian rule in which the power is centralized and the wealth falls into the hands of a few. This leads to a rising inequality and ‘market states’ which are governed by the wealthy elite. In a civil state, companies act as independent democratic agencies.
For a long time, Western philosophers believed that rising education levels worldwide would lead to rising demand for democracy. Because what happened in Europe has to happen anywhere else in the world, right? Well, they couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Many East Asian countries like Japan, China, or Korea have astonishingly high education levels yet the support for liberal notions of democracy in these countries is relatively low. The main reason for that is that the Western and East Asian value systems are fundamentally different. Confucian values still play a key role all over East Asia.
The rise of secular-rational values in the West
The modern Western society that replaced traditional societies from the 17th century onward was characterized by two processes:
- National Revolutions
- Industrial Revolutions
Our traditional-religious values were replaced by secular-rational or modern values that have given rise to modern capitalistic societies. Religious teachings were abandoned because they couldn’t be rationally explained. Modern Western societies follow a materialistic and atheistic value orientation.
Traditional-religious values emphasize:
- Parent-child ties
- Deference to authority
- Traditional family values
- Rejection of divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide
- High national pride and nationalistic outlook
Secular-rational values oppose traditional religious values. There is only little emphasis on religion, traditional family values, and authority. Divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide are seen as acceptable.
Secular-rational values place little emphasis on national pride and identity. This has led to continuous cultural globalization and denationalization since the late 1970s. Neo-liberalism has become the guiding principle in Western countries.
A majority of the Western population nowadays has a universalist, cosmopolitan worldview and pursues an individualistic lifestyle. However, there are also many economic losers of globalization. These are the people who are represented by right-wing populist parties in Europe that aim to safeguard their national culture and shield their nation from the outside world.
The Confucian values of East Asia
Confucianism is not a religion but more of a worldview that represents the shared cultural background fo all East Asian countries. Confucius teachings promote a feudal yet harmonious society and center around five constant virtues:
- wisdom/ knowledge
A large emphasis is placed on loyalty and obedience to authority. Confucianism is a conservative value orientation that stresses the importance of:
- proper manners
- paternalistic structures in families, society, business, and management
Yet Confucianism also embraces modern values and principles. A high emphasis is based on education which acts as a tool to select the elite of society. Decisions are made in a rational manner rather than through the belief in ancient religious teachings.
Confucianism, however, doesn’t support free elections of the government as we know them in Western countries. In Confucianism, there is no equality of all. There is an educated elite that is chosen by other elite members of society to govern the country.
This concept is not as foreign to Western society as you might think. In the older days of democracy, only wealthy and educated white men were allowed to vote for their government. This is because only these people were seen as competent enough to vote.
What a Confucian democracy could look like
The parliament and government of a Confucian democracy would not be chosen by the public vote. Instead, politicians would be chosen by a circle of experts based on their level of education and competence. Anyone in the state would get the chance to acquire a higher education that would enable him or her to get part of the government.
There would only be one party that represents all of the state’s citizens. This party would be open to any member of society. What is very important though, is that there needs to be a separation of powers. The judiciary needs to be independent of the party.
In a Confucian democracy, every citizen has the right to act individualistic and egoistic, just as in a liberal market democracy. Yet it is the task of the state to retain social harmony and ensure mutual welfare.
The idea of a Confucian democracy is not too different from the idea of a ‘civil state’ that values mutual well-being and social harmony over the individual acquisition of power and wealth. Yet it also undermines the Western ideal that all men are created equal. In a Confucian democracy, only the educated elite is deemed wise enough to make decisions that serve the mutual benefit of society rather than egoistic interests.
Thus it is of utmost importance that every member of society has the chance to become a part of the educated elite. In our current Western societies, this is often not the case because money and individual wealth are what make people elite members of society. Money can buy power and influence and thus it is very hard to counteract corruption in a Confucian democracy.
The term demarchy was invented by the Australian philosopher John Burnheim to describe a political system based on randomly selected groups of decision-makers. Our current democratic elections are corrupted by media campaigns, fake news, lobbying, and political trade-offs in parliament. We live under the impression that we have a large influence on governmental decisions by possessing the right to vote every few years. Yet, all the candidates are pre-selected by political parties.
The candidates with the most private funding are usually the most powerful ones because they have the financial means to launch media campaigns and are usually backed up by the wealthy elite.
Most democracies are representative democracies where the parliament governs the country and voters have to trust representatives to make the right decisions. It is obvious that we cannot live in a direct democracy because the general population has neither the time nor the background knowledge to decide about every political issue. We cannot hold public votes every week.
How a random selection of representatives could work
Australian philosopher Burnheim argues that a random selection of representatives prevents power-seekers from gaining exceptional power in a representative democracy. Instead of a centralized government, the state would be split up into functional groups such as education, garbage collection, health services, transport, food production. Each of these functional groups would then be governed by a randomly selected group.
The random selection should only be made from a list of volunteers that have an interest in being part of a functional group. Of course, a demarchy also favors change which is why the functional groups would need to be periodically renewed.
This procedure would limit the ability of big corporations to influence the composition of the functional groups by money. Yet, lobbying would still be a problem because of the possibility to donate for chosen representatives.
As you can see from all three alternative democracy theories, the biggest problem in Western democracies nowadays seems to be the widening gap between the rich and poor people as well as the immense influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals on political decisions.
In a post-democratic liberal society, power needs to be given back to the ordinary people. If elections are the best tool to achieve this task is doubtful as long as private cooperations are not democratized in the same way as the government.
We basically have two options:
- We democratize private institutions and abolish the authoritarian rule in privately run enterprises by dividing power equally between the managers, investors, and workers.
- We abolish elections of the government and replace them either by a random selection of representatives or by a value-based selection system that assigns leaders based on their intellectual background.
If we don’t act in time, we will see that current-day democracies will be gradually transformed either into ‘market states’ that are governed by the financial interests of a wealthy elite. Or we will see the rise of authoritarian governments that aim to reestablish a ‘nation-state’ that is based on a national ideology that serves as a unifier for the country. To keep an authoritarian rule stable, however, oftentimes human rights like freedom of speech, education, or religion will be severely limited in order to counteract any opposition.
The challenge will be to establish a post-democratic system that ensures civil liberties and human rights without sacrificing mutual interests in the favor of the individual. If Western countries fail to undergo this transition, we will see the collapse of the Western world. There’s no need for a foreign power to defeat Europe by war. Without any fundamental changes over the next decades, Western countries will undergo a massive act of self-destruction.