Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Democracy in Trouble? Conference Report
Democracy in Trouble? Conference Report

Democracy in Trouble? Conference Report

On September 14, 2018, the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy at the University of Pennsylvania held the opening conference of its 2018-19 Speakers Series entitled Democracy in Trouble? The conference, co-sponsored by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Perry World House, the Fels Policy Research Initiative, and the Penn-Temple European Studies Colloquium sought to explore and analyze the growing sense of democratic decay and disorder around the world.

In his welcoming remarks, the Director of the Andrea Mitchell Center, Dr. Jeffrey Green, set the tone for the conference by asking both where democracy has gone right and where it has gone wrong. He also challenged the panelists and the audience to consider whether the current liberal form of democracy is its final form, and whether or not traditional conceptions of democracy are correct.

Dr. Mitchell Orenstein, Chair of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Senior Fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, served as conference program coordinator and built upon Dr. Green’s comments by asserting that only by openly discussing the flaws of democracy can we save it. However, the discussion must remain public and accessible.

The day-long conference consisted of three panel discussions, a moderated debate, a keynote address by Dr. Francis Fukuyama, and closing remarks by former Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Panel I: Why Do Democracies Fall?

Panelists: Steven Levitsky and Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

Moderator: Trudy Rubin

The first panel of the day was moderated by Trudy Rubin, foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The two panelists were Steven Levitsky, Professor of Government at Harvard University and author of How Democracies Die; and Alina Mungiu-Pippdi, Chair of the European Research Centre for Anti-Corruption and State-Building at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, and a recognized leader of civil society anti-corruption coalitions in Romania.

Dr. Levitsky opened by asserting that democracies no longer die in the way they used to. In contemporary times democracies do not perish at the hands of generals, but instead at the hands of elected officials. The latter contrive to make their gradual erosion of democratic institutions appear legitimate and justify their anti-democratic actions by their own popular mandate. Consequently, citizens are not aware of what is happening until it is too late. According to Levitsky, the solution to this problem lies in cultivating “mutual toleration” among political parties. No matter how much political leaders may disagree with their rivals, they must recognize in public as well as in private that their opponents are fellow citizens and not enemies. Applying this idea to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Levitsky commented that, although numerous Republicans saw Donald Trump as unfit for the presidency, they were nevertheless unwilling to endorse Hillary Clinton on the premise that Democrats were the enemy. He stated that mutual toleration between U.S. political parties began to diminish during the presidency of Barack Obama. Currently, polls indicate that 49% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats admit that the other party inspires feelings of fear rather than of legitimate political rivalry. This type of polarization between political parties can ultimately lead to the use of extraordinary means such as violence and election fraud to prevent the other party from assuming power. Dr. Levitsky concluded by noting that the country must remember that Donald Trump is a symptom of this polarization, not the cause of it. He is thus concerned that, even after Trump’s term of office comes to an end, this polarization will remain.

Dr. Mungiu-Pippidi began her comments by stating that there is nothing wrong with democracy itself as a system of government. However, what is problematic and needs fixing is trust in government. She used the last European parliamentary elections as an example: they showed that trust had dropped dangerously low. Europeans have lost trust in government for two main reasons. First, the very poor economic performance of the European Union since 2008 and, second, the belief that the EU is not doing enough to control corruption within certain countries. Mungiu-Pippidi said that there are two types of countries: those that have reached the historical threshold of trust, and those that have not. However, she noted that there has been regression even in some countries that had previously been thought to have reached that trust threshold. The crucial characteristic of developing democracies is hope. Dr. Mungiu-Pippidi concluded by saying that many people vote simply to punish the elites, but that they in fact end up weakening traditional political parties.

Keynote Speaker

The keynote address was given by Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and Director of the Institute’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. He has written numerous books, most notably The End of History and the Last Man.

Dr. Fukuyama began his address by defining three characteristics associated with populism: the quest for economic security, a demagogic leadership style, and a stress on championing a certain ethnic or national identity over all others. He stated that American democracy does not exert the same global attraction that it used to because of its decaying style of governance. For example, Chinese students currently in the U.S. are much more likely than in the past to speak highly of their own authoritarian regime, rather than expressing a preference for the American democratic structure.

Dr. Fukuyama then introduced the theme of his new book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, which stresses the cultural dimension of populism. He argued that there is an authentic need for recognition within each person that differs from the social “me.” The rest of society often fails to adequately recognize this part of the person. According to Fukuyama, this authentic self is more fundamental than the social “me” that interacts with other people, and it is the ultimate source of human dignity. Consequently, this demand for basic dignity can either stimulate or undercut people’s commitment to democracy, depending on how a given country is governed. Dr. Fukuyama brought forth the examples of the French Revolution and the Arab Spring as evidence for the existence of the inner self that yearns for the universal recognition of human dignity.

Dr. Fukuyama also provided examples from within American history, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Suffrage Movement, as well as the more recent Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements. He raised the concept of the invisibility of some individuals and the story of marginalization, as well as the transformation of the way the American left thinks about itself as a set of aggrieved groups rather than as a broad civic grouping. Fukuyama argued that the push for the universal recognition of human dignity has brought forth the identity politics that have become problematic under certain specific interpretations of identity. The election of Donald Trump has succeeded in legitimizing the use of antagonistic identity language by the political right. This is not good for democracy, he argued. Dr. Fukuyama concluded by stressing the need to return to a focus on national identity: an identity that is rooted in civic ideals, or in a universal set of beliefs such as those embodied in the American Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, rather than on specific cultural, religious, or ethnic identities.

Panel II: Why is Authoritarianism Suddenly Appealing?

Panelists: Cas Mudde and Ruth Ben-Ghiat

Moderated by Mitchell Orenstein

Dr. Orenstein moderated the second panel, featuring Dr. Cas Mudde, Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia, and Dr. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Professor of History and Italian Studies at New York University.

Dr. Mudde began his address by defining “populism” as a set of ideas based upon the opposition of the common people to the elite. Populists separate society between the “true people” and the corrupt elite or ruling class, often speaking in terms of the morality or immorality of each side. Populism tends to adopt other positions depending on which end of the political spectrum employs it. Right-wing movements tend to combine populism with nativism, and left-wing movements tend to combine it with socialism. Populist movements usually arise as a consequence of structural changes in the culture. At the moment, right-wing populism has emerged as a response to broad neoliberal economic policies and supranational organizations that have in some ways weakened the appeal of domestic political parties. Dr. Mudde referred to this as an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” Because it supports popular sovereignty and majority rule, populism is democratic, but it is illiberal because it views “the people” as a homogenous group.

Dr. Ben-Ghiat’s address focused on the psyche and characteristics of the “strongman.” She described the modern era as the “Age of the Strongman,” positing that for every liberal world leader still standing, such as Justin Trudeau, there is a demagogue rising. Dr. Ben-Ghiat emphasized that strongmen view the world in terms of hierarchy and power, but she also noted that normal politicians do this as well. She cited French President Emmanuel Macron’s public handshake with U.S. President Donald Trump at the 2018 G-7 summit as an example. Photographers captured the striking red and white marks on President Trump’s hand after the handshake, indicating that President Macron had employed a vice-like grip. These types of overt displays of power, she said, are not limited to strongmen and are often used by democratic leaders to assert dominance and legitimacy. One of the common environmental factors that facilitate a strongman’s rise is high anxiety amongst the population, whether it is cultural, economic, security-related, or something else. The strongman emerges because that person is seen as able to fill a void that a normal politician cannot. Another common factor, according to Dr. Ben-Ghiat, is that the strongman decries the decline of his people while blaming others for said decline, fostering a bunker mentality amongst the population. Dr. Ben-Ghiat concluded her remarks by stating that strongmen tend to fall for the same set of reasons, which lead to hubris, arrogance, and surrounding themselves with family and “yes men.”

Panel III: Debate: Is Democracy Worth Saving?

Debaters: Dr. Jason Brennan and Dr. Hélène Landemore

Moderator: Jeffrey Green

The final panel of the day was a debate between Dr. Jason Brennan, Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the Georgetown University Business School, and Dr. Hélène Landemore, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University. It was moderated by Dr. Green and capped by the closing comments of former Mexican President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). The debate over the question “Is democracy worth saving?” turned into a discussion over the merits and pitfalls of direct democracy in a representative republic like the United States. Dr. Landemore staked out a position largely critical of the democratic processes that characterize much of the developed world, while Dr. Brennan argued that there are other alternatives which, while still democratic, could potentially yield more desirable results.

In his opening statement, Dr. Brennan began by putting forth a metaphor he titled “hobbits and hooligans.” According to Brennan, the average voter falls into one of two categories. Hobbits (per J.R.R. Tolkien) keep to themselves, enjoy the pleasures of life, and generally avoid paying attention to things that do not directly influence their lives, such as politics. He argued that the typical American falls into this category. Hooligans, on the other hand, are incredibly biased and well-informed partisans. Like an extreme sports fan (or hooligan), they view any call against their team by the referee as unjust and every call against the other team as well-deserved. For many of these voters, party affiliation is tied to their identity and thus rarely questioned. This dynamic makes it largely pointless for politicians to campaign on issues, which incentivizes them to appeal to identity.

Following Dr. Brennan’s opening remarks, Dr. Landemore posited that democracy is in danger because the process itself has grown undemocratic. She opposed Dr. Brennan’s position by arguing that power needs to be re-delegated to the people. In the modern age, to most people, “democracy” means being ruled, while never having the opportunity to rule. Because it is nearly impossible for an average citizen to reach elected office, the notion of a government “by the people” seems more and more distant. Dr. Landemore pointed out that when certain groups are neglected for too long, demagogues rise to cater to that feeling of disenfranchisement and powerlessness.

In his closing remarks for the debate, President Calderón spoke about the importance of democratic representation in our modern era because, in this time of great uncertainty, we are better off having a voice, having a choice, and feeling invested in our country’s future. When faced with authoritarianism, we must preserve our democratic norms and find a democratic solution, even when we feel that democracy is no longer delivering the results we feel we need. President Calderón identified three major problems that need to be addressed if democracy is to survive: removing the large sums of money that are corrupting politics and reserving it as a playground for elites; dealing with the unexpected societal disruption of social media; and counteracting the proliferation of self-constructed media echo chambers. President Calderón stressed that, if we fail to find a solution to these problems, we may slip further and further from our democratic ideals, only to wake up after it is too late.