In the Summer 1989, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama authored a widely celebrated essay in The National Interest, subsequently expanded into a book, titled The End of History and the Last Man, in which he prophesized: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such…. That is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
For the better of the past three decades, political and economic liberalism has been on the march. Democracy movements swept through Eastern Europe, in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, as well as states of the former Soviet Union, such as Georgia, Ukraine and Lithuania. As recently as 2010, democracy movements, celebrated as the Arab Spring, lit up North Africa and the Middle East. In 2007, Freedom House rated nearly 123 of 194 countries it evaluates as “electoral democracies.” It has been downhill ever since. A decade later, its 2017 report noted: “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.”
Dictatorial regimes have always been threatened by democratic uprisings, so it comes as no surprise that they resisted and crushed these upstart movements in societies lacking historical democratic roots. The Arab Spring dissipated into an Arab chill, as democracy movements throughout the Middle East were pulverized. Strongmen and dictators now reign over most of Eastern Europe. Just six of the 15 former Soviet republics currently have democratic governments and most of them are fledgling. Vladmir Putin reigns as a virtual dictator in Russia and is increasingly flexing his muscle to prop up strongmen on the international stage.
More surprising and disturbing, however, are the populist uprisings during the past two years in the United States and Europe, the cradles of liberal democracy. Here, the internal fault lines of democratic governance stand glaringly exposed.
The flawed democratic experiment has endured for more than two centuries now because dominant political parties were sufficiently restrained to not test its contradictions. It has long been recognized that the democratic system is rigged and susceptible to manipulation by money, power, demagoguery, and the like. For all its limitations and messiness, however, its inbuilt tensions between individual rights and popular will, as well as the checks and balances by different branches of government, have ensured that the democratic scaffolding remained intact. Indeed, compared to the ruthlessness and failures of the alternatives, democracy is undoubtedly endearing.
However, with the increasing amplification of differences, the rise of social media, the growing coarseness of debate and a general decline in political civility, liberal democracy is increasingly vulnerable even in the established democracies of North America, Europe and India. Today, the democratic experiment is in growing danger of unravelling. Even Fukuyama is beginning to harbor doubts: “Twenty five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.”
It is unlikely that liberal democracy can reclaim its glory by lofty appeals to civility and the public good. If anything, we are likely to see even greater polarization and acrimony in public discourse. Policy makers need to reform the system of government to reflect modern circumstances. Representative democracy, the U.S. electoral college and the British parliamentary system harken to an era of horse driven buggies and pamphleteers. Today, new technology and intelligent communication systems can be applied to advance direct individual participation.
Automation, networks and easy mobility can enable people to be more directly involved in their self-governance. They offer opportunities to model laws speedily in response to a rapidly changing world, as well as to maximize individual liberties and create new forums for expression and self-actualization.
Political scientists and policy makers should begin crafting a new political order that engages citizens more actively and directly for collective decision-making and that enhances individual political and cultural freedoms. From the ruins of the current political order, we could fashion a system that delivers on the centuries-old first principles of the Enlightenment of liberty, tolerance, and fraternity, notwithstanding the forces of division in our midst.