Democracy challenged

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A Europe Refugee Crisis Border

In 2017, it has become apparent that the future of democracy – not just in Africa but worldwide – is increasingly in question. The question at hand is the health of democracy in the industrialised world as well as in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. In the United States and some countries in Europe, long upheld as exemplars of what it means to be a democracy, faith in the working viability of democratic institutions has appeared to be shaken and challenged in ways not seen since World War II.

This challenge has arisen not only within countries but perhaps, equally serious, at international levels in terms of democratically inspired norms, practices, and institutions established over the last seventy-five years that have undergirded democracy domestically within states. Fundamental dissatisfaction with democratic institutions and practice in mature democracies and at the level of international regimes has surfaced just at the critical juncture for nascent post-Cold War democracies when their democratic momentum has appeared to stall and, in some cases recede, and at a time when leaders with an authoritarian bent have been emboldened to test limits on their tenure and to erode basic human rights and democratic processes. It is time for all who believe in democracy to address the underlying causes of democratic failings and rally to restore democratic momentum, including a continuing healthy majority of Africans across the continent who prefer it to the alternatives, according to Afrobarometer.

The current manifestations of shaken faith in democratic countries long understood to be “mature,” and supporting international regimes, have so far been more visible and evident than their underlying causes. To get at those fundamental causes, it is important to review what are the fundamental elements of democracy. The late distinguished American political scientist Robert Dahl, in a path-breaking and lastingly influential book on the subject first published in 1971, captured the common fundamentals of democratic practice, shorn of numerous country-specific institutions, as they have continued to be understood nearly half a century later. In Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition, he postulated that the essence of democracy consisted in (1) political and civil freedoms to articulate one’s preferences, (2) freedom to organise and create associations to advocate those preferences in elections for public office, and (3) the right to have those asserted preferences weighted equally without discrimination as to their source (e.g. race, gender, etc.) or content (i.e. a marketplace of ideas in which all compete equally for followers). Significantly, Dahl added a fourth requirement that there be “institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference.”

Fundamentally, what seems to have happened is that for significant populations in so-called developed countries as well as developing countries socioeconomic circumstances in the form of globalisation, and states and ruling regimes within them, have evolved and changed very rapidly without their prior knowledge of consent, thus sapping the legitimacy for them of each of Dahl’s requirements. For States to become and remain democratic, theory holds that States must be stable and certain levels of socioeconomic development must have already been achieved.  Increasingly, however, it now appears that democracy must be seen as a means to the ends of State stability and appropriate socioeconomic development, not just as an end in itself and an outcome of state stability and socioeconomic development.

In other words, significant populations in developed as well as developing countries have awakened to the realisation that democracy as practiced in their countries and globally has not been a means to those ends, as they would have them be. Democracy has not produced or sustained states or viable economies in parts of the world, hence tens of millions of refugees have given up and washed up on European shores.

But significant populations in Europe have concluded democracy at the European level has not achieved those ends either, nor have governments within some of those countries, including the United States) done so. During the Cold War democracy, was frontally challenged by Communism. However, since the end of the Cold War the challenges have instead come from within.  Immigration controversies in the developed countries, ironically perhaps generally more than at least in most African countries, have dramatically posed the question of terms on which people can share membership within a polity.

Dahl’s fourth requirement, institutions for effecting the other three requirements, tacitly begs the question of what those institutions should look like but, even more importantly, how they should be established. The fundamental proposition, latent in this inquiry, is the existential one that only the practice of democracy as Dahl understood it, can legitimise and institutionalise those three requirements, which implies mighty struggles. But the prize for undertaking these struggles is remaking the state in democracy’s image as based, not only upon coercion but also upon consent to sharing viable membership in a polity.  ^

Writer is Professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

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