Year LX, 2018, Single Issue
The Roots of the Crisis of Democracy
in Europe and Worldwide*
According to today’s prevailing interpretation, the crisis of national democracy is rooted in processes of a predominantly extra-national nature. First of all, globalisation and the weakening or elimination of national borders, be these economic, cultural or political-administrative, are preventing those in power from transferring the costs of national politics to local consumers and taxpayers, and precluding experiments and solutions at local level. At the same time, powerful non-national economic institutions and the markets are forcing national rulers to subject citizens to measures that they would have preferred not to impose, and preventing them from making choices that they would have preferred to make. Finally, the European Union and indeed the process of regional integration as a whole have now evolved to such a degree that struggling member states are no longer able to use the various currency, budgetary, fiscal and economic policy control mechanisms that were once available to them in times of crisis.
In other words, this line of reasoning (and action, of course) concludes that globalisation, European integration and powerful international players are responsible for throwing democracy (meaning a normative model founded on the prevalence of the popular will over every other consideration) into crisis. Essentially, democracy, understood in this way, is finding itself suspended and constrained to a degree proportional to the extent to which the popular will it expresses (through the interaction between universal suffrage, electoral competition between parties, and political representation) is being betrayed or manipulated. All this is leading to the conclusion that democracy needs to be “restored”; that it needs to regain a predominant role and genuinely express what the voters and the people want, without allowing itself to be deflected by the malign external influences mentioned above, which, on the contrary, must be strenuously resisted at both national and international level.
Interpreted in this way, democracy, revolving around three key components — inclusion (universal suffrage), competition for citizens’ votes, and representation — emerges in its genuinely popular dimension and becomes, ultimately, a sympathetic response to the prevailing demands and forces. If we add in other factors — the desire of politicians to be elected and re-elected, political competition in the form of elections, propaganda and campaigns, and the rule of anticipatory reactions that drives the elected to anticipate what the electorate might wish for —, then it becomes clear that all unmet demands should have no trouble finding those willing to champion them. Since, from this perspective, politicians clearly need to give the voters what they want, all the impediments, limits and procedural and consultative obligations they encounter must inevitably be seen as elements that distort the relationship between voters and those that they elect. And the more this particular vision of democracy — for the sake of simplicity I shall define it “responsive” — “responds” to and satisfies the aspirations of voters, the more is democratic it is deemed to be.
There is no doubt that the concept of responsive democracy is one of the normative aspects of democratic theory. Democracy that “fails to respond” ceases to be democracy. The question, therefore, is not whether an element of responsive democracy lies at the heart of democratic theory, but rather whether it is its only undisputed element, which must take precedence over every other principle. The fact is that, both from a historical and from a normative perspective, there is more to democratic theory than just the responsive element.
For the sake of brevity and simplicity we usually refer simply to “democracy”, thereby bypassing twenty-five centuries of discussion and debate on the limits and flaws of a wholly popular-plebiscitary vision of the concept. In truth, the democracy that has developed in the Western world can more accurately be defined as a “liberal-democratic” form that combines the principles of inclusion and popular support with those of limited and responsible government. However, out of laziness and a fear of seeming pedantic, we often (if not always) omit that little word “liberal”, which actually defines the nature of the Western democratic experience.
In the history of constitutionalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, the term “liberal” has come to mean “limited government”, and thus to indicate a set of principles serving to define, or otherwise limit, the powers of whoever bears the responsibility of government, be it an absolute monarch or an elected president. The Europeans agitating for a “constitution” between 1830 and 1848 were seeking to secure guarantees against the arbitrary use and abuse of power, in favour of a government constrained by some general principle. Their objective was to legalise power by ensuring, through mechanisms serving to limit the so-called sovereignty of power, special protection of specific freedoms held by those governed. This is the fundamental meaning of the term “constitution” as used in the tradition based on the Federalist Papers (1787-1788), the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and Benjamin Constant’s classic systematisation of constitutionalist thought in his Cours de Politique Constitutionnelle of 1818-1820.
The aim of limiting arbitrary power was pursued (with varying degrees of efficiency) through a combination of different mechanisms that included the identification and specific application of inviolable rights, an independent judiciary and the separation of powers, constitutional control of laws, reciprocal checks in the exercise of autonomous powers (as for example, in Italy, with regard to those of the prime minister and the president of the republic), verification by technicians of coverage of expenditure, and non-negotiable federal/regional decentralisations and autonomies. More recently, these mechanisms have also included greater autonomy of central banks and other unelected independent authorities — as such, these cannot be considered democratic in the electoral-popular sense — that are entrusted with sometimes considerably important tasks and functional jurisdictions. Finally, the inclusion, in Constitutions, of explicit relinquishment of shares of national sovereignty in areas involved in integration pursued through supranational entities, such as the EU, constitutes a further example of such efforts to limit arbitrary power.
In the constitutionalisation process that began in Philadelphia, these principles were expressed in two dimensions: horizontal (the courts, Congress and the presidency) and vertical (the states and the federation). But the nature of the relationships between the centre and the periphery, based on the vertical distribution of powers and competences between the federal centre and the federated states, represented the fundamental structuring principle. In the European setting, on the other hand, the pre-existence of central and centralised governments and strong executives meant that checks and balances were essentially embodied in institutions that ensured a horizontal equilibrium, whereas (with the exception of Switzerland) the territorial balance of powers was less important.
But regardless of whether we are talking about purely horizontal, or also vertical, counterpowers and limitation principles, the fact remains that this “liberal” element of democracy is crucial in order to balance out the popular-representative one. Contrary to what was suggested at the start of this essay, the fact that the liberal principle imposes constraints, limits and sectoral safeguards on the responsive democracy principle should not, from a historical perspective, be interpreted in terms of limitations or impediments. Instead, the former principle completes the latter, given that these constraints, limits and safeguards constitute an additional element that lends substance both to the responsibility of those in power to respect inviolable rights and procedures, and also to the “rules” concerning that which is not and cannot be done in a democracy, even when you have the numbers to do it. In other words, “responsible democracy” tempers “responsive democracy”, i.e. it reins in the possible irresponsibility of majorities and of the popular will.
The combination of the democratic principle, based on inclusion, representation and the ability to respond to demands, with the liberal one that limits the breadth of government action, has had the effect of turning democracy into a “moderate” and sometimes even “conservative” system, but also a system of protection that curbs the sometimes dangerously powerful will of peoples, majorities and governments.
The Difficulty Marrying These Two Conceptions of Democracy.
Obviously there exists an implicit and ever-present conflict between the purely popular principle of responsiveness (based on inclusion, representation, popular will) and the liberal one of limited government (based on checks and balances, constraints and boundaries to government action). However, in the twentieth century, three mechanisms allowed democracy to incorporate both responsive and responsible elements. From an institutional point of view, as mentioned before, we have seen a gradual expansion of the sectors in which the limits and procedures of public decision making are constitutionally safeguarded. From a second, this time mainly cultural, point of view, it has to be acknowledged that the “responsible” part of our twentieth-century democracies was based on a still predominantly elitist political culture, and on processes of selecting the ruling class that were shaped by this culture. Despite the growing professionalisation of politics, and the fact that, as a result, careers in politics are no longer the preserve of dominant social groups, it remained, for a long time, an unwritten rule that the defence of liberal values fell to socio-economic, cultural and political elites that, on account of their particular expertise and historical sensibilities, were particularly tuned in to them.
Finally, from a political point of view, the reconciliation of responsive democracy with responsible democracy was entrusted to the new political actor that dominated the processes of government in the 1900s — the same actor that drives the preferences and aggregates the demands coming from different social groups: the political party. In the last century, the mass political parties, in particular, sought to ensure that these preferences and demands coincided with their own long-term interests and coherent and integrated ideological visions. It was after the Second World War that political parties became, increasingly clearly, the dominant form of both political representation and political leadership, in many cases inheriting the mantle of the bankrupt political institutions of the prewar period. The stalemate equilibrium that characterised the Cold War years made national decision-making processes relatively straightforward, especially when they concerned international issues. The scope of the European economies was still prevalently national, and they were therefore little conditioned by competition and trade on the world markets. There was a high and stable level of cultural homogeneity within the states, a phenomenon that, if anything, had been accentuated by the border changes that were decided at the end of the Second World War. Strong and persistent group identities continued to underlie a high level of similarity in the political behaviours of different groups. Finally, the post-war recovery ushered in a period of unprecedented growth for the national economies; in this setting, an increased and legally defined role of the state in economic planning and control ensured that the national political elites had plenty of room for manoeuvre.
This favourable set of circumstances gave political parties an exceptional and perhaps unique opportunity to promote expansive economic and social policies at national level. The parties, being collective subjects and relatively united both ideologically and socially, became the key players in the political stabilisation of the twentieth century’s rapidly changing societies. The internal discipline of the parties and the models of inter-party competition also provided means of managing the tensions between various phenomena: the electoral process, the representation of sectoral interests, relations between the executive and the legislative, and policy leadership. Political parties, concretely reconciling the function of representation with that of responsibility, became the pillars of democratic stability, without which democracy was not even conceivable.
There can be no doubt that, since the end of the twentieth century, the last two of the three mechanisms that supported the vision of responsible democracy have increasingly found themselves in crisis. On a cultural level, recent developments have increased the individualistic attitudes of citizens and the growing multiculturalism of societies. Together, these two elements have reduced the homogeneity of national culture, profoundly undermined traditional collective identities, and accentuated the tendency of every area of life, including that of political persuasion, to move progressively into the private sphere. Finally, they have accentuated new or previously latent cultural identities that, unlike those of the past, are not historically linked to traditional political parties. All these processes have been strengthened by the development of modern information and communication technologies. Certainly, it was never anticipated that changes in education, communication and technology would be such key factors in eroding the relationship of delegation that, through political parties, linked the elites with the masses.
These new cultural and political processes have only aggravated the tension between responsive democracy and responsible democracy, with the result that the balance between the two, while still deeply rooted in the institutional aspects of democratic functioning, no longer has a cultural and political basis. But the question is, can the responsible form of democracy sustain and defend itself on purely institutional foundations, i.e. without the cultural and political underpinnings that once supported it? Or is it not, instead, more likely that responsive democracy will emerge as the increasingly widely accepted form — a form, moreover, destined to clash more and more with the existing institutional order? Responsiveness is the credo adopted by the new parties and movements that have come into being in recent years, whereas they have rejected that of responsibility. They frequently regard the elements of limited government, listed earlier, as mere obstacles, impediments or constraints, introduced with the sole purpose of limiting and curbing the popular will as expressed in its purest form, that of an electoral mandate.
Thus, and contrary to the version of the crisis of democracy set out at the start of this essay (wherein democracy is perceived as betrayed and in need of being restored), the real crisis that is now deepening before our eyes is, above all, the crisis of the liberal and responsible part of democracy, or more accurately, the crisis of the balance between responsive democracy and responsible democracy (i.e. the fact that the former is increasingly outweighing the latter). In fact, responsive democracy, if we consider its ideal assumptions and popular and electoral dimension, hardly seems to be in crisis at all, given that it is nowadays widely equated with the will of the people and of the majority, as opposed to that of the so-called establishment, i.e. all the various traditional elites — political, technical, cultural and social. Furthermore, even from an institutional perspective there seems to be no crisis of responsive democracy, given that it is increasingly defined in opposition to the raft of constitutional, institutional and procedural constraints, which are seen as mere obstacles or defensive stratagems implemented by the aforementioned establishment purely for the purpose of conserving privileges and benefits. Whatever the elements of truth these arguments contain, and they certainly contain some, they are threatening to sweep away liberal democracy, and this is an outcome that can only be likened to throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
In some ways, this situation seems paradoxical, since the developments of the last few decades, while weakening the responsible vision of democracy, have been expanding the set of responsibilities that democracy has to reckon with. The traditional liberal principles of limited government were originally established in order to counter despotic forms of government, with which Europe was certainly well acquainted. Today, even though this concept of responsibility often appears weak and outmoded, responsible democracy has still not managed to culturally embrace, in a systematic way, the new responsibilities thrown up by our twenty-first century world, and the new and modern constraints that they engender. Today’s most widely accepted theory of democracy indeed struggles to incorporate the new responsibility issues created by the interdependent and interconnected world towards which we are now moving.
Substantially, these new responsibilities are the responsibilities that national electorates have towards “absent” voters, towards groups and territories that are not directly represented and whose interests and expectations can only be fed into the democratic system through farsighted visions of the future. Modern political responsibility thus equates with guarantees that the effects of “democratic” political choices will not damage the interests and assets of those who are unable to participate in the democratic electoral process; in other words, guarantees designed to safeguard needs and requirements that have yet to evolve and be expressed. To clarify this, let us consider, as examples, three types of new responsibilities that democratic theory should incorporate and respect.
First of all, we have new and increasingly obvious intergenerational responsibilities. There is no doubt that responsive democracy cares little about the interests of tomorrow’s citizens, who do not yet vote, and those of future generations. The issue of the debt that we are passing on to our children and grandchildren, and of the pensions and services that may be denied them as a result of the costly choices made by previous generations, is not considered, or not adequately considered, within the political-institutional circuit of responsive democracy. We have never really culturally explored the notion of intergenerational irresponsibility as an expression of the popular will. There are two main reasons for this, a general one and another perhaps more specifically Italian one. First of all, in previous times governments controlled much smaller amounts of resources than they do now, and this had the effect of concealing the problem of the future depletion of these resources. Second, given that family ties continue to be very strong in our country, the frequent intergenerational transfers of resources within family units have meant that that there has been no perception (or less perception than elsewhere) of the explosive potential of a vision of democracy based on short-term responsiveness.
More broadly, we are also seeing the emergence of new intertemporal responsibilities, which are different from intergenerational ones. These are responsibilities towards measures and policies that, while they are not necessarily being pursued in the setting of political competition right now, and perhaps will not even be in the short term, may well be demanded by many or all people in the long term: in other words, future choices that are still to be expressed. The issues of climate sustainability, land and sea pollution, the depletion of natural resources, the need for renewable energy, and long-term infrastructure all spring to mind in this regard, as do concerns over the education, skills and expertise that could one day prove indispensable. It is unthinkable to ignore these responsibilities on the basis of the fact that virtually no one is seeking to organise and mobilise efforts to address these issues in the here and now. It is also clear that fulfilling these responsibilities demands commitment and resources that will thus be unavailable for immediate consumption.
Finally, we are also seeing a real increase in intercommmunity responsibilities, i.e. responsibilities towards other communities. Responsive democracy operates at national level, but the decisions made in its name have considerable effects of the members of other communities that do not vote and perhaps will never vote within our own national setting. In addition to the important example of non-citizen immigrants and asylum seekers, we should therefore also think of the effects, both direct and indirect, that our fiscal, budgetary, commercial, military and regional decisions can have on our partners. Accordingly, the placement of government bonds on the global market generates obligations in relation to the savings of others, beyond the community of the voting citizens. Similarly, membership of a single currency obliges us to make choices that respect collective and not just national preferences, while rules and procedures designed to ensure fair and non-discriminatory competition limit our capacity to tax, regulate (through quota measures) and drive consumption and lending.
These new intergenerational, intertemporal and intercommunity responsibilities need to be upheld in the constitution, and on occasions steps have been taken in this direction. But the fact remains that until these responsibilities are systematically embraced as constitutive elements of democracy, they will only go on increasing the conflict between responsive democracy and responsible democracy.
In fact, thinking about it, the idea of democracy based on inclusion, representation and popular will contains no principle ensuring responsibility towards these communities that lack voting rights. Furthermore, it offers no guarantee that that “democracy” will remain “liberal” or “responsible” in the modern sense, and in the current climate, it is also hard to imagine what cultural visions, political forces or institutional mechanisms might be capable of achieving a new synthesis between democracy understood as a sympathetic response to the demands of the citizens and democracy understood as a responsible response to long-term problems and the long-term need for systemic compatibility. If today’s vision of “democracy” is, in a normative sense, dominated by the need to respond to demands, then pursuit of the normative principle of responsibility is left only to ineffectual stances and ethical choices that electoral competition does nothing to encourage (i.e. they don’t win elections).
The European Union Caught in a Perfect Storm.
From the perspective of the framework presented in this essay, it seems useful to analyse briefly the stance gradually adopted by the European integration process. The European Union never tires of pointing out its own “democratic” nature. However, European integration has unfolded in a way that has made the EU a model of democracy almost exclusively in the liberal (responsible) sense, which is quite the opposite of the form that prevails at national level. There is a precise reason for this.
For a long time, the member states, their parties and their elites regarded the external constraints placed, by the Treaties, on the national democracies as welcome effects of the process of integration. In fact, the difficulty encountered, at national level, in bringing lobbies to heel and managing local interests made them ready to accept and indeed welcome the various binding rules, which could be presented as emanating from forces that were somehow anonymous and beyond their control. It became, and indeed remains, common practice for political forces within the member states to blame the EU for choices that they actually welcome, but which, within their own countries, would have been politically damaging to them had they pursued them themselves. It was easier for them to tell citizens, more or less explicitly, that unpopular choices were imposed by others, and not their fault. In short, rather than assume direct responsibility for necessary reforms and for electorally costly plans, they chose to outsource responsibility for them.
European integration thus advanced in a mainly economic direction; the economic borders between the member states were gradually removed with the aim of achieving an economy of scale sufficient to overcome their individual weaknesses. For a long time, it continued to be held that the elements responsible for defining a state’s “national character”, “democratic nature” and “social make-up” should be kept shielded from the integration process, as indeed they were, and that management of redistributive capacity, national cultural symbols and political authorities should remain in the hands of the national state. However, it was inevitable that, in the long term, this removal of solely economic borders would also impact on national, democratic and welfare systems.
In actual fact, as recently as the mid-1980s there were still alternative solutions to the development of the EU on the table. At the start of 1984, the Draft Treaty Establishing the European Union, promoted by Altiero Spinelli and colleagues, proposed that the Union should be founded on a federalist basis. Although Spinelli did not use the term “constitution”, his proposal was constitutional insofar as it: 1) established a clear separation between two legislative chambers designed to vote by majority (the Parliament and the Council) and an executive (the Commission); 2) clearly established the political responsibility of the Commission before these chambers; 3) introduced the crucial difference between organic laws (mainly concerning the organisation and functioning of the institutions) and ordinary legislation for enacting policies; 4) specified that the fiscal power of the Union should be expressed through organic laws; 5) introduced the principle that Treaties could be modified subject to the approval of a simple majority of countries representing at least two thirds of the population of the Union. As we know, his proposal was rejected by the member states.
The solution presented, at the time, as the alternative to founding a federal union was to complete the internal single market (and subsequently introduce the euro) within the substantial stability of the existing institutional framework. This was indeed the solution that found favour among the member states. Many argue that it was a “pragmatic” choice. Had Spinelli’s new treaty been approved, it would have made both the completion of the internal market and the introduction of the euro even more complex and controversial than they have proved to be (as well as, I might add, the eastward enlargements of the EU). However, this choice definitively established the nature of the EU. Together with the Single European Act and relative directives, it showed that the EU was conceived as a regulator required to take on a series of technical tasks and supranational “responsibilities” — an institutional setting largely shielded from political competition. The European Parliament, despite its constantly increasing legislative powers with regard to specific issues, has never been permitted to fulfil any political guiding role and has remained a limited legislative body whose competences do not extend to the major issues of interest to the Union and its member states.
In short, then, the EU was conceived to be an institution better placed than any national institution to ensure a responsible approach to long-term choices of the kind not demanding direct popular legitimisation at national level. The Commission, in particular, is the body that most clearly embodies the principles of intergenerational, intertemporal and intercommunity responsibility mentioned earlier. The European Union is democratic insofar as it undoubtedly adheres to liberal principles, and indeed is perhaps their most authentic expression. But implicit in this vision of the EU was the idea that responsive democracy would remain entirely the prerogative of the nation state. Accordingly, the EU has not been made to incorporate any principle of responsiveness to electoral and political pressures. These aspects were the province of others and had to be managed in other settings, in other words by the nation-states and in the party-political and electoral arena. To summarise, the EU was certainly designed in accordance with liberal democratic principles, but without any capacity for democratic responsiveness.
It should thus come as no surprise that the European Union, thus constructed, has become a focus of political controversy especially in cases and situations that, at national level, are dominated by the responsive and popular side of democracy that the EU has little capacity to manage. The Union’s peculiar nature — technically complex, politically weak and socially elitist — has made it the perfect scapegoat in the current phase of reaffirmation of responsive democracy, which began following the great crisis of 2008. From that time onwards, it has indeed found itself increasingly caught in the “perfect storm” created by the growth of the conflict, inherent in the modern conception of democracy, between liberal and popular principles: a technical regulatory “office” that, driven by the functional needs of integration, is constantly seeking to expand its scope of intervention as it seeks to navigate the difficult sea of national policies that are ever less amenable to constraints that have not been legitimised through the ballot box.
The conclusion of an essay of this kind should really go beyond mere analysis, in order to tackle the question of what can be done to improve the situation discussed. But I actually find it very difficult to go into specific proposals. At present my overriding feeling is one of pessimism stemming from the objective difficulty of finding a new way of combining responsivity with responsibility.
The term “populism” is nothing more than the label we attach to the parties and movements that have decided, and found it profitable, to focus on short-term responses, and that have decided, and found it profitable, to disregard long-term responsibilities, questions of systemic compatibility, and the potential long-term negative consequences of their positions; movements that wave the flag of responsiveness and scorn the responsible approach. At the same time, there can be no denying that “populism” feeds on the attempt by some elites to protect policies of responsibility from the excesses of responsiveness. At present, the principle of responsiveness in the popular-plebiscitary mould is quite clearly predominating over the liberal “responsibility” one, be the latter understood in its classic version (that of limited government and internal safeguards) or its modern one (protection of absent groups), and this situation is generating institutional tensions at both national and European level.
At the same time there seems to be little hope of there emerging “institutional” solutions capable of rebalancing the two principles. The decision to entrust a series of supranational institutions with the task of taking care of the issues of systemic compatibility and long-term responsibilities seems, for the moment, to be a failed solution. Similarly, the attempt to inject an element of democratic responsiveness into the European Union, through the European Parliament, competition between European political parties, Spitzenkandidaten, and other mechanisms designed to politicise the organisation, also seems to have run out of steam.
Consequently, all we can do at the present time is place our hopes in the development of new ideas: engaging in and fighting for a new, revised theory of democracy that brings out all the inconsistencies and risks inherent in applying one that is understood solely in terms of responsiveness at national level — a revision that proposes a necessary new synthesis between responsiveness and both old and new responsibilities. The other possible outcome, namely the possibility that an increasingly responsive and ever less responsible form of democracy will fully reveal its dark side (nationalism, protectionism, etc.) and only then, after the umpteenth catastrophe, lead people to start reasoning from different premises, seems to be too high a price to pay.
* This paper was presented in the session entitled The Crisis of European Democracy: the Challenges of Nationalism and Populism during the Italian meeting of the Debate Office of the European Federalist Movement, which took place in Florence on 13-14 October 2018.