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  Number 464 | Marzo 2020
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Is democracy dying?

Up until the 1980s, democracies died suddenly. Today they die slowly, bit y bit. Voter indignation and the corrosive acts of demagogues bleed them dry. Uncertainty and turmoil seem to be fixtures of the democracy awaiting us. Fascism and communism were “alternatives” to 20th-century liberal democracy. What does the 21st century have in store?

Andrés Malamud

Is democracy dying? The short answer is No. The long answer for the detail-oriented is “of course not.”

And yet, concepts like “democratic recession,” “democratic erosion,” “democratic backsliding” and “the slow death of democracy” are legion.

Ironically, this is taking place 30 years after Francis Fukuyama’s followers declared democracy’s eternal triumph. That was clearly an exaggeration. But if democracy was not eternal then, neither is it ending now.

Reality is not black or white, instead mixing spots of color among shades of gray. After all, democracy is the least epic of all political systems. Perhaps that’s why, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is the least bad.

Coups d’état “with adjectives”


Recently, European political scientists Anna Lührmann and Staffan Lindberg published an article on the “third wave of autocratization.” They argue that each democratizing wave —there have been three—has been followed by a reverse wave in which democracy retreats.

Working from a giant database, however, they conclude that there’s no need to panic: the current democratic decline is milder than the previous reverse wave, and the total number of democratic countries continues to hover around its all-time high. Nevertheless, fatalists abound.

Some see coups d’état around every corner. Others proclaim that while coups have gone out of style, democracies continue to flounder, now from the erosive action of those who attack from within. Both arguments should be studied.

The typical image of a democratic breakdown features an army general unseating and taking the place of a democratically elected President. This usurpation meant a change in government and, above all, a regime change. The usual adjective was “military”: a military coup gave rise to a military regime. But there was commonly an underlying assumption that it needed no such verbal reinforcement: what other kind of coup was there? Then that changed.

Today we face a plethora of qualifiers for coups: soft, mild, parliamentary, legal, electoral, market-based, slow-motion, civil society.… We mustn’t naturalize this profusion. We must instead ask ourselves why we have shifted from the classic idea of a coup toward this panoply of lesser sub-types.

Working with Norwegian political scientist Leiv Marsteintredet, we conducted a study called “Coups with adjectives”—paraphrasing David Collier and Steven Levitsky’s classic text “Democracy with adjectives.” In it we observed that although coups d’état are ever less frequent, the concept is increasingly used. What accounts for this discrepancy between what we observe and what we name?

More coups d’état or
more unstable democracies?


We were able to identify three reasons. The first is that, while coups are less and less common, political instability isn’t: in Latin American countries, several Presidents have had their terms cut short over the last 30 years.

Authors like Aníbal Pérez Liñán have demonstrated that both the causes and the results are diverse, and these days even when Presidents are unseated, democracy carries on. However, inertia leads us to use the same word we used before, as if Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Brazil’s Michel Temer embodied the same phenomenon.

The second reason stems from what psychologists call “prevalence-induced concept change,” a phenomenon that refers to broadening a concept’s coverage when its appearance becomes less frequent. A more intuitive name for this is inertia.

The third reason is political instrumentalization: those leaders who suffer from instability find it convenient to present themselves as victims of a coup rather than of their own incompetence or of a constitutional procedure like impeachment. The contrast between today’s “coups” and classic coups is so clear that adjectives are needed to camouflage it.

The “classic” coup d’état
and variations on the theme


A classic coup involves the unconstitutional interruption of a government by another state agent. Its three constituent elements are the target (head of State or government), the perpetrator (another state agent, usually the armed forces) and the procedure (secret, quick and, above all, illegal). These days, although terms of office continue to be interrupted, it is increasingly uncommon for these interruptions to contain all three elements. Where one is missing, qualifiers multiply to justify the use of the word “coup”, in fact only revealing that it’s not really a coup.

Combining the three constituent elements of a classic coup gives rise to four possibilities, in three of which one or another of those elements is absent, leading to the proliferation of adjectives.

1. If the perpetrator is a state agent, the target is a head of State and his or her removal is illegal, it is a classic coup d’état. Typical examples include the replacement of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet in Chile (1973) and of Isabel Martínez de Perón by Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina (1976).

2. If the head of State is illegally deposed, but the perpetrator is not a state agent, the act would be a revolution. However, those who prefer to stretch the meaning of the concept use “civil society coup”, “electoral coup” or the ubiquitous “market coup”, cited, for example, as the motive for Raúl Alfonsín’s resignation as President of Argentina (1989), while Nicolás Maduro blamed an “electoral coup” when he lost Venezuela’s legislative elections (2015).

3. If the perpetrator is a state agent and the removal is illegal, but the target is not the head of State, we are witnessing what is often referred to as a self-inflicted coup. This phrase is tricky, because it refers to a coup aimed against another government body, such as when a President shuts down the legislative body. These cases include “judicial coups” and the “slow-motion coup.” An arch¬etypical self-inflicted coup is that of Alberto Fujimori in Peru (1992). A judicial coup applies to cases like that of Venezuela in 2017 when the judicial branch ruled to strip the National Assembly of its legislative functions.

4. If the perpetrator is a state agent and the target is a head of State, but the procedure used for removal is legal, the act involves a political trial or impeachment, as it is known in the United States and Brazil. This is controversial because the victim can allege partisanship and question its legitimacy even though the judicial branch validates the procedure, giving rise to the so-called “soft coup,” “parliamentary coup” and the even more paradoxical “constitutional coup.” The removal of Fernando Collor de Mello (1992) and Dilma Rousseff (2016) in Brazil has been condemned by the victims as soft coups or parliamentary coups, since there was no use of military force and the processes were channeled through the parliament with the compliance of the judicial branch.

The debate over whether such an overthrow is a coup continues to ignite passions. Meanwhile it is increasingly irrelevant since, in the end, democracy has broken down not when an elected government fails, but when it keeps itself in power anyway.

The current problem is
democracy’s slow death


Up to the 1980s democracies died suddenly. Literally at one blow. Not so today: now they die slowly, bit by bit. Voter indignation and the corrosive action of demagogues bleed them dry.

Looking farther back in history, US political scientists Steven Levitsky and Gabriel Ziblatt warn in How Democracies Die (2018) that what we’re seeing today is not a first-time appearance: before democracies died suddenly, they also died from within, gradually. The specters of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler haunt the book as examples of how democracy is always under construction, and the elections that build it up can also destroy it. This work is a clarion call to stay vigilant about protecting freedom.

Although comparing Hugo Chávez to Hitler and Mussolini is obviously an exaggeration, the authors emphasize the similarity between the paths that led each to power: all three were little-known actors who were able to capture public attention, and the key to their respective rise lay in establishment politicians missing the warning signs and handing over power (in the case of Hitler and Mussolini) or opening the doors to put power within their reach (in Chávez’s case). In other words, the abdication of political responsibility by moderates is the gateway to victory for extremists.

What democracy’s
success depends on


One problem with democracy is that, unlike dictatorships, it is considered permanent, although like them its survival is never guaranteed. Democracy must be cultivated every day. Since this requires negotiation, compromise and concessions, reversals are inevitable, and victories always partial. Any democrat knows this from experience and accepts it by training, but it’s frustrating for newcomers. And impatience feeds intolerance.

In light of these obstacles, some demagogues abandon negotiation and prefer to co-opt the referees (judges and monitoring organizations), buy out the opposition and change the rules of the game. Since this can be done slowly and under cover of apparent legality, the drift toward authoritarianism doesn’t set off alarms. Like the proverbial frog put to boil in cold water, only too late do citizens realize that democracy is being dismantled.

Political practice
vs. institutions


Levitski and Ziblatt provide three lessons, each related to a specific challenge. The first is that it is not institutions that sustain democracy, but certain political practices. The distinction between presidentialism and parliantarianism, or between majoritarian and minoritarian electoral systems, may be the ambrosia of political scientists, but it determines neither the stability nor the quality of government. Democracy’s success depends on other two points: tolerance toward others and institutional containment, meaning the decision to do less than the law allows.

Constitutions hold no requirement to treat rivals as legitimate contenders for power, or temper the use of institutional prerogatives to guarantee an even playing field. Without the informal norms supporting these ideas, the constitutional system of checks and balances cannot function as Montesquieu and the US Founding Fathers foresaw, nor as those who adapted this model to other latitudes would expect. The first challenge, then, is to behave with more civility than the law requires.

Attitudes toward “others”…


The second lesson is that practices of tolerance and self-control are—paradoxically—more fruitful in homogeneous and exclusionary societies. The success of democracy in the United States is due as much to its origins in slavery and then segregation as to its Constitution and political parties. Today’s challenge is in practicing tolerance and self-control in a pluralistic, multi-racial and even multi-cultural society, where “the other” is both very different from us and also part of us. All democracies face this challenge.

…and the measure of polarization


The third lesson is that the problem of polarization lies in its measure. A little polarization is fine, since the existence of distinct alternatives improves representation. But excess is harmful, because it makes agreement difficult and, as a result, worsens policies. The challenge for democrats is not to eliminate the breach, but to measure it out. Levitsky and Ziblatt put it this way: “Polarization can destroy democratic norms. When socioeconomic, racial or religious differences give rise to extreme partisanship, in which societies sort themselves into political camps whose worldviews are not just different but mutually exclusive, toleration becomes harder to sustain. Some polarization is healthy—even necessary—for democracy. And indeed, the historical experience of democracies in Western Europe shows us that norms can be sustained even where parties are separated by considerable ideological differences.

“But when societies grow so deeply divided that parties become wedded to incompatible worldviews, and especially when their members are so socially segregated that they rarely interact, stable partisan rivalries eventually give way to perceptions of mutual threat. As mutual toleration disappears, politicians grow tempted to abandon forbearance and try to win at all costs. This may encourage the rise of anti-system groups that reject democracy’s rules altogether. When that happens, democracy is in trouble.”

What carries more weight:
institutions or shared practice?


Levitsky and Ziblatt conclude their analysis with a heresy: they state that the US Founding Fathers were wrong. Without innovations like political parties and informal norms, they say, the Constitution so carefully crafted in Philadelphia would not have survived.

The institutions turned out to be much more than mere formal rules; they are cloaked in a higher level of common understanding of what is considered acceptable behavior. The genius of the first generation of US political leaders “was not that they created foolproof institutions, but that, in addition to designing very good institutions, they—gradually and with difficulty—established a set of shared beliefs and practices that helped make those institutions work.” For many, Donald Trump’s rise to power marks the end of these shared beliefs and practices. The question that arises is if the institutions can survive without them and for how long.

Crises are ever present
in “real democracies”


Humans are living the best stage of our history. Never have we been so numerous, so healthy and so democratic. In the West, however, we believe otherwise, sensing that, for the first time in decades, the next generation will be worse off than our own.

Both things are true: although the West led global progress over the last two centuries, today non-Western societies are the fastest growing. At the same time, inequality is increasing in the West. The accumulation of frustrations and relative deprivation—the perception that others are doing better than we are—is leading citizens to rebel at the ballot box and in the streets.

Democracies are facing troubled times and the impact won’t be homogeneous. It will differ in old Europe and the ever-changing United States, as well as between the US and Latin America, identified by Alain Rouquié as the “extreme West.” Together with the Argentinean Guillermo O’Donnell, US political scientist Philippe Schmitter is one of the fathers of transitology: the study of democratic transitions. His focus of study is what he calls “really existing democracies”—paraphrasing “really existing socialism”—used to justify the limitations of the Soviet system. According to Schmitter, there is nothing new in the fact that democracies are in crisis. The distance between the democratic ideal and existing regimes has always required constant adjustment such that both crises and the capacity to adapt are constituent elements of true democracies.

For Schmitter, the seriousness of the current crisis stems from the way it involves a collection of simultaneous, rather than consecutive, challenges, where the latter could be addressed using gradual reforms. The economic crisis is coinciding with that of legitimacy, and changes to the economic structure are overlapping with transformations in mass communication. Worse yet, there are threats to democracy but no alternatives to it, such as the Soviet Union could have represented. The system’s reputation depends on its performance.

What can the symptom
of populism tell us?


The democratic emperor has no clothes and his subjects have noticed. Uncertainty and turmoil are perhaps no longer signs of the times but a fixture of democracy to come. Populism is one of its more ubiquitous symptoms. To be clearer, populism is a phenomenon that appears in democracy, but regimes like that of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua are now authoritarian rather than populist. Having said that, the exacerbation of populism understood as the Manichean concept of a people victimized by an oligarchy, can corrupt and, in extreme cases, end democracy.

In a 2018 article titled “Do Poor Citizens Vote for Redistribution, against Immigration or against the Establishment?”, Paul Marx and Gijs Schumacher published the results of an experiment conducted in Denmark, but it’s not difficult to see how well it applies to other regions. In it, they show that the lower class votes for reasons differing from those of middle- and upper-class voters. Surprisingly, the reason is not immigration; there are no differences on this issue.

What distinguishes the poor is their tendency to vote against established parties and career politicians, even in detriment to their own interests, for example supporting proposals to roll back social policies. When they get angry, the poor commit a theoretical heresy and stop voting with their pocketbook. Democratic parties are in danger if they fail to understand that rage can win out over personal interests.

What about the new
European nationalisms?


The Italian-Argentinean sociologist Gino Germani described the source of populism as “status inconsistency.” In the case of Peronism, or Latin American populism in general, this has meant that economically upwardly mobile sectors failed to achieve political and social recognition, which they went on to acquire through leaders who promised to break with the oligarchic status quo.

Populism inverts this logic in developed countries: there the inconsistency stems from how previously dominant sectors feel threatened by rising social groups, whether ethnic minorities as in the US, or immigrants, as in Europe. The decline of relative status ties together the phenomena of Trump, Brexit, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

The new European nationalisms question not just democracy but also its greatest international sub-product: regional integration. Understood as a process by which neighboring States merge patches of sovereignty to make joint decisions on shared problems, in the European Union integration was its pioneer and most advanced case. Brexit is just one of the three crises currently facing Europe, where those of immigration and the euro pose an even greater threat to its integrity.

Corruption, smuggling and
drug trafficking Latin America


In other regions, the threat to integration is less serious. After all, that which has yet to be integrated cannot be disintegrated. In Latin America, for example, regional integration is just rootless rhetoric.

Despite some progress in coordinating policies and the free movement of people, Latin American borders—that is, the formal ones—are still expensive and unyielding. Where the region has really made progress is in informal integration, which is established not by treaties but by criminals. The three areas in which Latin American societies have become most integrated are corruption, smuggling and drug trafficking. The State actively intervenes in all three, but especially in corruption while in contraband and drug trafficking it has responsibility but is mainly a victim.

It is very likely that a fourth dimension of integration, also informal, involves a lot of money and will have a profound political impact: the transnationalizing of organized religions. Evangelical religions in particular will consolidate their regional network with the benefit of access to power in two key countries: Brazil and Mexico.

If national governments fail to strengthen the rule of law and their capacity to apply it nationwide, Latin American integration will increasingly become the realm of preachers and criminals… just like their democracies, some cynics might say. The reality is less thorny, though far from comforting. Today Latin American democracy runs less risk of breakdown or mafia takeover than of irrelevance.

How does the economy
influence election results?


Common sense and academic research agree on one thing: the economy is the main determinant of election results. Just as recessions favor the opposition, economic growth gives the incumbent overnment the advantage because voters see them as responsible for its performance.

This is true in countries at the center, where the positive results of public policies depend above all on domestic factors. But what happens in peripheral countries, where the economy depends on external factors?
Brazilian political scientists Daniela Campello and Cesar Zucco showed that in South America—not to be confused with all of Latin America—the popularity of a President and his or her chances for reelection depend on two variables beyond control: the price of natural resources and international interest rates.

The price of natural resources sets the value of these countries’ main exports and is defined above all by growth in China. Interest rates determine the availability of capital for foreign investment and are set principally by the US Treasury Department, the famous Fed.

Thus, when natural resources are expensive and interest rates are low, Presidents are re-elected; when the ratio is inverted, the opposition triumphs.

This dynamic affects democracy negatively, because good governments can be thrown out due to bad times, while bad governments can stay in power thanks to winds not of their making. The way out of this dilemma of democracy is probably not better political information, but more economic development.

The extreme case of democratic
breakdown in Venezuela


This analysis brings us to an extreme case combining economic collapse with democratic breakdown: Venezuela.

We traditional political scientists mistakenly take government for granted, and study power in terms of political regimes. Thus, when we see an authoritarian regime, we expect that at some point it will fall and yield to a democratic transition. And in our believing we have made others believe.

Most Venezuelans now expect the Maduro government to end, whether through an internal coup or by external intervention, and anticipate that democracy will rebuild the country.

But democracy is only a mechanism for choosing the driver of the government car, and in Venezuela that car has no engine.

The Venezuelan economy does not produce 80% of what is consumed, including food staples and first-line medications. It only produces oil, and even less and less of that. Given that the United States, Venezuela’s main business partner, has become self-sufficient in shale gas and is visibly restricting its dependence on foreign oil, US interest in rebuilding Venezuela is much lower than the costs it would incur.

Thus, of the two countries with enough resources to rebuild a country the size of Venezuela, only China would be interested in doing so, and not for free. In this context of economic ruin, political authoritarianism, popular unrest and uprisings, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela faces five scenarios. Comparison with similar cases helps illustrate and understand them.

Three scenarios for a
“way out” in Venezuela...


The first scenario is a successful democratic transition like that found in Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring.” That country managed to put its autocratic President Ben Ali on a plane, send him to exile in Saudi Arabia and set up a pluralist, democratic regime. Optimistic Venezuelans get excited by the prospect of following the same path and retiring Maduro to Cuba or Spain. Probability: low.

The less encouraging second scenario would follow the Egyptian path, in which the pro-democratic tide managed to unseat the dictator Hosni Mubarak. However, after a brief democratic experiment, the authoritarian regime re-established itself under new leadership. Boli¬varianism without Maduro seems like a viable alternative, which would lower pressure on the regime without changing it.

The third scenario is that of Zimbabwe, a devastated country where authoritarianism and inflation coexisted for years while posing no threat to the regime. The final removal of Robert Mugabe, after 37 years in power, did not open the gates to democracy or resolve the economic problems. This is the default Venezuelan situation.

...and two other tragic ones


The fourth scenario is Libya, a huge, sparsely populated country in which a poorly planned and badly executed foreign intervention broke the monopoly on violence exercised by Muammar Gaddafi but failed to build another. The result was the effective disappearance of the State, whose nominal survival camouflaged myriad tribal and mafia groups that doled out territorial control and natural resources. Seeing the lack of control of Venezuela’s borders and the presence of Colombian organized crime in its territory, a development of this sort seems increasingly likely.

The fifth scenario is Syria, a country at civil war where the gangs aren’t fragmented, as in Libya, but rather are militarily fighting for territory. The probability of this evolution is low in Venezuela because the arms are all held by one side.

The possibility of China investing astronomical sums to extract natural resources from Venezuela decreases from the first to the fourth scenario and disappears with the fifth. This presents a paradox: the better Venezuelan democracy fares, the greater the possibility of having to become an economic protectorate.

What alternative is there
to 21st-century democracy?


Fascism and communism were left out of the running as alternatives to liberal democracy in the 20th century. The tragedy of Venezuela and its possible drift toward China illustrates the two alternatives that arise in the face of liberal democracy in the 21st century: on the one hand the utopian inefficiency of charismatic leadership and on the other, the dystopian efficiency of digital autocracy.*

Democracy may be less utopian or less efficient than its rivals, but it will continue to be the only political system that allows us to free ourselves from our rulers without bloodshed.


Andrés Malamud is a political scientist, lead researcher at Lisbon University’s Institute of Political Science. This text appeared in the July-August 2019 issue of New Society. Sub-headings and note by envío.

China continues taking steps to become the planet’s first dystopic digital autocracy. Next year it is anticipated that 600 million surveillance cameras will be in the country—nearly one for every two inhabitants—and the authorities will soon have a facial recognition database that will store information about all 1.3 billion citizens.
The ultimate goal is to have a social credit system functioning that connects all credit, financial, social, political and legal qualifications of each citizen, and should they be considered “low,” the individual could lose access to social security, be ineligible for a public post or have problems with customs or in leaving the country. All this, with the help of the country’s big technologies, such as Alibaba and Tencent, without anyone raising their voice. Experts believe these control systems are only effective where obedience forms part of the cultural context.

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