Should we fear democracy?

Battle of Ideas festival 2014, Sunday 19 October, Barbican, London


After surging forward through the latter part of the twentieth century after the defeat of fascism, decolonisation and the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy appears to be in something of a retreat. According to the Economist, even though 45 per cent of the world’s population live in countries that ‘hold free and fair elections’, there is now widespread recognition that ‘democracy’s global advance has come to a halt, and may even have gone into reverse’. After many years of trying to spread democracy abroad, the US and other Western powers seem to have lowered their sights following the tragic, contemporary debacle in Iraq. Elsewhere, the ‘Arab Spring’ has fared little better. Even in the established democracies of the West, democracy appears to have lost its enduring appeal, with declining voter turnout and a hollowing-out of once mass-membership political parties. It was once claimed that only democracies could develop economically; now, democracy is blamed for gridlock. The contrast between the failure of the US Congress to agree a budget and the ability of China to get things done is much remarked upon.

Very few in the developed world openly discount democracy as an ideal, but nearly everyone agrees the reality is flawed. Some would reform it in various ways: lowering the voting age, using more new technology, etc. Occupy activists oppose ‘representative democracy’ altogether, preferring ‘direct democracy’. Some argue for limits on democracy in favour of the considered opinion of experts. Elected governments in Greece and Italy have even been replaced by interim technocratic administrations during the European economic crisis, and democratic mandates can be annulled when people vote the ‘wrong way’, as when the Irish voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 or when the Muslim Brotherhood was voted into power in Egypt. And far from being cheered as a historic democratic exercise that ousted an entrenched Gandhi dynasty, this year’s election in India provoked fears that 815million voters were expressing atavistic religious prejudice.

If anything sums up the contemporary concern with democracy, it is the word ‘populism’. In Europe, it is the fear of people voting for the wrong sort of political party: the Front National in France, the PVV in the Netherlands, UKIP in the UK. In America, it is the fear of what used to be called the ‘moral majority’: conservative voters out of step with the liberal consensus on social issues.

Are populist political movements simply throwbacks, appealing to the bigotry of greying voters? Or do they give voice to the frustrations of citizens who feel increasingly cut off from an aloof and deracinated political class? Will the twenty-first century see the demise of democracy in favour of technocratic governance? What has so tarnished our view of what used to be the foundational principle of Western civilisation?

Ivan Krastev

chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia; permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna

Professor Chantal Mouffe
Professor of political theory, University of Westminster; author, Agonistics: thinking the world politically

Brendan O’Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Dr David Runciman
professor of politics, Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), Cambridge University; author, The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War 1 to the Present

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive