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Modern Democracy At The Crossroads

Illiberal rulers from Venezuela to Poland are assaulting constraints on their power. In Italy, anti-elite populists are using the internet to empower citizens and upend representative government.

04/08/2017 22:46 SAST | Updated 04/08/2017 22:51 SAST
Getty/WorldPost illustration
Demonstrators in Poland hold posters reading "constitution" to protest controversial judiciary reform.

John Adams, the second American president, famously warned that without constitutional constraints on the power of popularly elected governments, “democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

That these words of wisdom, which for so long remained dormant counsel in history books, now spring to relevance marks the crisis of modern democracy today. Drawing on his reading of the failures of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic in antiquity, Adams understood that predatory appetites are whetted when too much power is concentrated in any one place. To that end, along with the other Founding Fathers, he designed a Constitution with circuit breakers — an independent judiciary and a deliberative upper house selected to check the popularly elected lower house ― that would cut off power when too much of it flows to one set of interests, including, and especially, the electoral majority. As John C. Calhoun would later put it, a positive majority makes a government; a “negative,” or check on that power, makes constitutional rule. 

Barely a day goes by in the United States when President Donald Trump doesn’t assault one or another of the institutional constraints on his power, above all an independent judiciary and the free media, not to mention the special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department to look into whether the Trump team colluded with Russia during the campaign. Fortunately, the weakness and incompetence of inexperienced leadership combined with factional polarization within the ruling Republican majority has only yielded paralysis. Democracy in the U.S. today may be wasting and exhausting itself, but so far it has not succeeded in taking its own life.

That is not the case elsewhere. As Nilüfer Göle wrote recently in The WorldPost, a pluralist Turkey that once aspired to join Europe has now given way to an authoritarian, Islamic populist regime ratified by a majority through the ballot box.

In Venezuela, the ruling regime has used the populist canard of a popular referendum to elect a stacked list for a constituent assembly to write new rules that nullify the power of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. “The 545 largely pro-regime constituents elected over the weekend are now directed by Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government not merely to rewrite the constitution,” writes Moises Rendon, “but also to establish a new communal political system with absolute power, not unlike those in Cuba or North Korea. The prospect of such a system risks total economic collapse, a worsened humanitarian crisis and permanent civil conflict in Venezuela.” Since last weekend’s vote, Maduro’s government has moved speedily to arrest opposition leaders. With domestic avenues of resistance now blocked, hope turns to international pressure. “The world needs to move now before the situation spirals into a failed state,” says Rendon.

Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters
Opposition supporters pay tribute to victims of violence in protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government.

Poland, once the poster child of post-Cold War democratization, is sliding back to authoritarian rule. Taking heart from the solidarity with its illiberal sentiments expressed by Trump during his recent visit to Warsaw, the parliamentary majority of the ruling Law and Justice party and its allies passed legislation in July that would politicize the rule of law and end the independence of the judiciary. The aim, as Jacek Kucharczyk writes from Warsaw, is “to completely overhaul the judiciary system, including the forced retirement of Supreme Court justices, [as] an essential part of the ruling party’s long-term strategy of dismantling democratic checks and balances and introducing de facto one-party rule.” 

To everyone’s surprise, Polish President Andrzej Duda vetoed the law that would have ousted the Supreme Court justices after massive demonstrations against it across all of Poland’s major cities. “These young people sent a strong signal to Duda, who largely owes his unexpected victory in 2015 to anti-establishment young voters,” Kucharczyk reports. The ruling party has nonetheless pledged to press on with its proposed reforms. Stay tuned as uncertainty and turmoil grips yet another nation.

In Italy, representative democracy is being challenged from another angle by the populist Five Star Movement, which polls show is a leading contender for power in upcoming elections in 2018. The Eurosceptic movement believes that delegation of power to a corrupt political class ought to be replaced in the internet age by direct citizen participation in governance. In a video, a Five Star leader, Davide Casaleggio, explains a set of innovative online tools the movement has created not only to raise funds and recruit candidates for office from outside the mainstream parties, but to engage citizens directly in the proposition and drafting of legislation as well.

Writing in The WorldPost last year about Brazil’s own democratic meltdown, one of the country’s former presidents, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, identified the core of the crisis of representative democracy as “the widening gap between people’s aspirations and the capacity of political institutions to respond to the demands of society.” He continued: “It is one of the ironies of our age that this deficit of trust in political institutions coexists with the rise of citizens capable of making the choices that shape their lives and influence the future of their societies.” 

Despite what one thinks of the Five Star Movement’s simplistic populism, the tools it is inventing are a significant remedy to closing the trust gap Cardoso identifies. If citizen empowerment can be combined with the ballast of deliberative bodies that check popular passions and formulate responsible policies, as John Adams and the other American Founding Fathers rightly thought so necessary, the renovation of democracy instead of its suicide may well be possible.

A breakthrough in genetic modification

OHSU/OHSY
The development of embryos after injection of a gene-correcting enzyme and sperm.

This week, scientists reported that, for the first time, they succeeded in editing the genes of a human embryo to eliminate a genetic mutation. Responding to the breakthrough, Craig Calhoun, the president of the Berggruen Institute, argues in a short essay that “science and technological capacity are racing ahead of ethics, safety regulations and our understanding of risks and societal implications.” Some, he writes, even worry that such gene editing practices are a “backdoor to eugenics” that will reinforce racial divisions. At a fundamental level, Calhoun posits, “Genetic modification challenges our very idea of human nature. It suggests that we can make human beings into what we want them to be.” Though conceding that “gene editing is one of the most promising medical technologies in years,” Calhoun concludes that “unless there is much more attention to the ethical and social choices before us, we risk seeing that promise mired in controversy — or turned into a disaster.”

Arbitrary detentions in Mexico

Though Mexico entered the democratic pantheon in 2000 when elections ended more than 70 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, it has not yet been able to establish an effective rule of law. In an article and video that profile personal cases, Amnesty International’s Josefina Salomón reports on what appears to be widespread arbitrary detentions by corrupt police chalking it all up to the war on drugs. View the WorldPost video based on Amnesty’s reporting below:

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