Anxieties of Democracy

Debate at the Boston Review opened by Ira Katznelson: “…..Across the range of established democracies, we see skepticism bordering on cynicism about whether parliamentary governments can successfully address pressing domestic and global challenges. These doubts about representative democracy speak to both its fairness and its ability to make good policy.

Since the late eighteenth century, liberal constitutional regimes have recurrently collided with forms of autocratic rule—including fascism and communism—that claim moral superiority and greater efficacy. Today, there is no formal autocratic alternative competing with democracy for public allegiance. Instead, two other concerns characterize current debates. First, there is a sense that constitutional democratic forms, procedures, and practices are softening in the face of allegedly more authentic and more efficacious types of political participation—those that take place outside representative institutions and seem closer to the people. There is also widespread anxiety that national borders no longer define a zone of security, a place more or less safe from violent threats and insulated from rules and conditions established by transnational institutions and seemingly inexorable global processes.

These are recent anxieties. One rarely heard them voiced in liberal democracies when, in 1989, Francis Fukuyama designated the triumph of free regimes and free markets “the end of history.” Fukuyama described “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,“ a “victory of liberalism” in “the realm of ideas and consciousness,” even if “as yet incomplete in the real or material world.” Tellingly, the disruption of this seemingly irresistible trend has recently prompted him to ruminate on the brittleness of democratic institutions across the globe.

Perhaps today’s representative democracies—the ones that do not appear to be candidates for collapse or supersession—are merely confronting ephemeral worries. But the challenge seems starker: a profound crisis of moral legitimacy, practical capacity, and institutional sustainability….(More)

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