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A voter holds a ballot while walking out of a booth at a polling station during the second round of a presidential election in Kiev, Ukraine April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko - RC1248C64FB0
Order from Chaos

The four “I”s undermining democracy

It will be an important year for democracy around the world. In April and May, India heads to the polls in what will be the largest organized political activity in history. Israel, Indonesia, and Ukraine just held very contentious elections while Spain, Australia, Canada, Tunisia, Argentina, Sri Lanka, and the European Parliament are set for important votes later this year. Meanwhile, the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign season is already underway.

These electoral contests come at a tough time for democracy, not just because of notable instances of resurgent authoritarianism and populism, but also disruption and corruption in places like France, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. But it would be premature to conclude that democracy is in crisis. Pessimists often forget the tumult that democracy in the United States, France, and India experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Most large-scale assessments of democracy suggest stagnation in recent years rather than decline: Today, over two-thirds of people living in democratic societies are outside the West and in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America democracy is broadening and deepening. And public opinion about democracy remains strong in India, Africa, and Northern Europe, even as skepticism is growing in the United States, Middle East, Japan, and Australia.

But it is true that democracy is facing some sharp challenges everywhere. Specifically, four of them—the four “I”s—identity, inequality, information, and interference.

First, consider the role of identity in contemporary politics. Whether in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Indonesia, or Myanmar, the deepening of identity in political organization and discourse is becoming more pronounced, whether among religious majorities, ethnic minorities, or regions such as Scotland or Catalonia. This is occurring despite prior expectations that globalization would lead to great cosmopolitanism and the dilution of strong collective identities. In the United States, Europe, or Australia the question of identity is largely grounded in debates about immigration. In India—or other post-colonial states such as Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, or Kenya—identity politics have deeper roots, and relate to the distribution of power among various sub-national groups. Nonetheless, a shared challenge that all democracies will have to face is how to negotiate political pluralism in a globalized world.

A shared challenge that all democracies will have to face is how to negotiate political pluralism in a globalized world.

A second shared challenge relates to inequality, especially real and perceived inequality of opportunity. Despite consistent economic growth in many parts of the world and improvements in human development indicators among most developing economies, the perception of growing inequality has tested the functioning of democracy. Populist nationalism is consequently interspersed with populist economic policies: Consider the interspersing of white nationalism in the United States with stagnant wages among blue collar workers. Economic malaise among youth or the aspirational middle class can also be exploited by populists. Finding ways to improve the semblance of equality of opportunity will be a common challenge among both developed and developing democracies, particularly with the advent of new technologies that could contribute to productivity increases and capital gains. These factors risk disproportionately benefiting wealthier investors at the expense of employment opportunities for the poor and middle class.

The third shared challenge is the new information environment. Although the availability of information via digital telecommunications had been expected to bolster democracy, it has also paradoxically resulted in the undermining of democratic functioning. This appears to be the result of a number of factors, including online political echo chambers, misinformation (“fake news”), and increased political theater. Digital democracy has recreated elements of direct democracy, undermining the mechanisms for deliberation and compromise that are necessary for representative democracy to function. In India, for example, online propaganda has become a major battleground for democratic politics, but as in other countries, it risks compromising informed decisionmaking, one of the essential criteria of a functioning democracy.

Finally, while less uniform, all democracies remain vulnerable to interference by external actors. This has become a particularly contentious issue in the United States and Europe. While a country like India has so far been relatively immune to external interference in its political processes—thanks to an innovative Electoral Commission and tight controls on foreign involvement in academia and the media—this phenomenon has started to be well documented in other more vulnerable countries, often through the use of economic leverage. In Sri Lanka, for example, a Chinese port construction firm made large payments towards the re-election campaign of President Mahinda Rajapaksa (who narrowly lost in 2015). Rajapaksa had earlier approved onerous Chinese lending terms for an unprofitable but strategically located port, and China offered to waive the resulting debt in exchange for equity in the project. Similar interference has been documented in other democratic systems, while various other forms of direct political interference have become hotly debated, whether in Washington, Paris, or Canberra.

There are no easy solutions to these collective challenges. While identity politics can be managed in various ways it will require leadership and compelling narratives. But it cannot be entirely ignored, as cosmopolitan elites have been wont to do. Populist measures to address inequality—tax hikes for the wealthy, stimulus packages, and job guarantees—may provide seductively easy solutions that appeal to voters. But as the extreme example of Venezuela reminds us, such steps can be taken too far. Meanwhile, addressing misinformation opens up the Pandora’s box of censorship, which is difficult given various countries’ laws and norms concerning freedom of expression. And while electoral systems can be hardened against foreign interference, countermeasures can also result in subjective, arbitrary, or seemingly discriminatory decisions.

For now, the democratic community could do more to cast a wider net and learn from each other’s experiences. In the near future, democracy won’t be the same. But all democratic polities, if they are to evolve, will have little choice but to learn and adopt best practices from each other.

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