Democratic deconsolidation: Scientific debate or “alarmism”?

By Matteo Laruffa, PhD candidate LUISS University

“Crisis of democracy”, “democracies in crisis”, “demise of democracy”, or even “democratic deconsolidation” – these phrases, along with many others, have become the focal points of countless political debates from political tabloids to the highest degree of academia. This shows that the issue is once again in vogue.

As with many phenomena in political science, ones relating to “democracies in crisis” have captured the imagination of a diverse group of scholars from Classical Athens to modern day. In the ancient world, Plato was among the first authors to discuss it, while only two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville furthered the topic with a focus on the risks for representative democracies. In the Thirties with the first reverse wave, and in the Seventies with a massive decline of confidence in democratic institutions, there was significant growth of attention for this phenomenon. Today, political scientists are focusing their research to the crisis of democracy.

Many observers currently believe that democracies are in crisis, and this conviction has become the mainstream point of view both inside and outside academia. Beyond the limits of our current knowledge, and maybe because of the political pressure keeping many commentators distracted from the rules of our discipline, some recent analyses tend to superficially overestimate the weakness of democracies.

In 2016, Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk wrote an article on Journal of Democracy that marked some democracies as in a deconsolidation. Elaborating the issue of the crisis of democracy in terms of deconsolidation, their worrying conclusions have provoked an exaggerate negative perception of the conditions of many democracies as an alarmist bubble in the ongoing debate.

Following Foa and Mounk’s terminology, this perspective is opposed to what might be called that of the “optimists,” because they interpret the same conditions of democracies as benign indications within an optimistic view that Foa and Mounk affirm, may no longer be tenable.[1] For example, Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris have been explicit in reducing the impact of the alarm about the decline of democracies. Particularly, as Norris already put in 2011, the phenomenon can be seen as trend-less fluctuations rather than a secular decline in the support for democracy.[2] Inglehart contended that the long-term trend toward democracy has always moved in surges and decline.[3] Finally, Journal of Democracy recently published some critiques to Foa and Mounk, by Amy C. Alexander and Christian Welzel, Pippa Norris and Erik Voeten.

The overwhelming domination of the alarmist bubble is leaving unheeded many conceptual and methodological arguments, as well as open questions on the real entity of the phenomenon.

First, most of the current analysis do not adopt a distant perspective from single “alarm bell findings.” Namely, before going to quick conclusions, they do not insert the assessment of the risks into a more complete context of variables and compare that alarming information with other pieces of research (for example, the institutional features of a democratic regime). Hence, before going too far in predictions we cannot forget that even if one or more data reveal a possible weakness of democracy, other aspects can report what is the real strength and resources of democracy. Something we cannot ignore.

Let us look again at the alarmism currently dominating the debate. Analyses and predictions quickly evaluate the conditions for the democracy as under threat of deconsolidation as the beginning of a catastrophe. Nevertheless, there are serious arguments to believe in alternative scenarios for the future of many democracies (also for the U.S.A. and many European countries under the challenge of deconsolidation and populism).

To make an example, we can use the same arguments and strategy of investigation proposed by Foa and Mounk, for analyzing countries considered in a crisis of democracy, and it will be possible to show that we should not overestimate the risks for a democracy as well as we should never underestimate its capacities to react to a crisis. Let us consider the case of Brazil. In recent years, the Brazilian democracy has been in a deep crisis. Using the same data showed by Foa and Mounk from the World Value Survey (Wave 6)[4] about Brazil, there would be no reason to accept just a catastrophic scenario for the future of many democracies, also if there would be a risk of deconsolidation. Indeed, the Brazilian responses to the same question on “Having a democratic political system” offered a perspective that is overall worse than the current one for many European democracies and for the US.

It would have been more worrying to discover that – at the peak of the Brazilian crisis – citizens in Brazil resulted more hostile to the democracy, if confronted with the data related to the US. Regardless of this “alarming” information, it is overwhelmingly important to note how that democracy (that could be considered in a deep crisis if watching at the same data proposed in many current alarmist analyses) faced an unprecedented stress test as the impeachment of its president and overcame that crisis successfully. This shows how a democracy that is traditionally considered less consolidated than many western ones, can be more capable to react to its crisis than we expect from many predictions of disaster.

This proves that it is more scientific to recognize that there are alternative scenarios of futures for our democracies, rather than limiting our view to just one of them. A more realistic perspective cannot ignore that many democracies are reacting to the current conditions of stress tests (Trump is a case).

If a less consolidated democracy did work so energetically to its main threat, with a very good democratic reaction, when there could be many reasons to cry wolf and believe in a catastrophe, why would we believe in this alarm today for the US and many European democracies? For example, why not believe that the US democracy can pass the Trump administration and continue its story as a more mature and advanced democracy.

[1] Roberto Stefan Foa, Yascha Mounk, The Danger of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect, Journal of democracy, Volume 27, issue n.3, 2016, p. 6.

[2] Pippa Norris, Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 259.

[3] Ronald F. Inglehart, How much should we worry?, Journal of democracy, Volume 27, issue n.3, 2016.

[4] For more information: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSDocumentationWV6.jsp.

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