Is the era of liberal democracy coming to an end?

In August 2012, some 200 right-wing extremists gathered on the Rütli meadow, considered the birthplace of Switzerland. The far right remains limited to small groups in Switzerland keystone

As the rise of protest populist parties in Western democracies – including Switzerland – continues unabated, the events of 2016 only pushed liberal democracies further into crisis.

This content was published on September 14, 2016 – 11:00

Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

After the waves of democracy that swept through the world following the fall of Latin American dictators in the 1980s and the implosion of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, commentators and rankings now show a stagnation in the number of countries. the adoption of democracy as a political system and the rise of authoritarian regimes.

This year, as Britain voted to leave the European Union, Donald Trump won the Republican Party’s nomination for President of the United States and France has been rocked by repeated terrorist attacks , anti-establishment parties from all walks of life strike at the heart of established democracies in the West. Are we witnessing a protest vote in the face of the difficulties governments have had in managing the multiple crises that marked the first two decades of this century?

International Day of Democracy

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolutionExternal link appellation September 15th International Day of Democracy, with the aim of promoting and defending the principles of democracy.

The resolution called on all member states, United Nations organizations, regional and intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and individuals “to commemorate the International Day of Democracy in an appropriate manner that contributes to raising public awareness”.

He also urged member states “to continue to ensure that parliamentarians and civil society organizations have the opportunity to get involved and contribute to the celebration of the International Day of Democracy”.

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Some argue that the unease goes beyond a simple protest vote. a article in most recent editionExternal link of the Journal of Democracy, published by the National Endowment for Democracy, funded by the US Congress to promote liberal democracy around the world, questions whether American and European citizens remain committed to the concept of democracy.

Entitled “The danger of deconsolidation, democratic disconnection”, the article is based on data from the World Values ​​Surveys carried out between 1995 and 2014. Authors Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk write:

“Not so long ago, young people were much more enthusiastic than older people for democratic values: during the first waves of the World Values ​​Survey, in 1981-1984 and 1990-1993, the young people surveyed were much more concerned than their elders with protecting free speech and much less likely to embrace political radicalism. Today, the tables have turned: overall, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among young people, and support for free speech weaker.

Seduced by the military regime

Over the past three decades, the proportion of American citizens who think it would be a “good” or “very good” thing for the “military to rule” – a blatantly undemocratic stance – has steadily increased. In 1995, only one in 16 respondents agreed with this position; today, one in six people agree.

If those who share this point of view remain in the minority, they can no longer be dismissed as a small fringe, especially since there has been a similar increase in the number of those who are in favor of a “strong leader who does not have to worry about parliament and elections ”and those who want experts rather than the government to make the decisions for the country.

In Europe, the generation gap is a little less marked but just as clear, with 53% of older Europeans and only 36% of millennials strongly rejecting the idea that government incompetence can justify taking charge of the army.

“The growing support for illiberal politics is not only driven by the powerless, middle aged and underemployed. Its vocal supporters are also found among the young, the rich and the privileged, ”write Foa and Mounk.

By declaring themselves open to a military government, aren’t these young Americans in fact expressing their dissatisfaction with the current system? Marc Plattner, editor of the Journal of Democracy replies:

“This is a question I first asked myself when I saw the data. I found it hard to believe the number of people in the United States who have indicated that they might want a military government because in the United States, in particular, there is no tradition of military government, ” he said.

“I’m still a little skeptical, but after the events of the last six months in American politics, I’m not as skeptical as I used to be. It seems that there is a large segment of voters, but far from a majority, who are extremely unhappy with how democracy works, and might even be willing to consider non-democratic, or at least illiberal, alternatives.

Questionable research method

But Karima Bousbah, doctoral student on Democracy BarometerExternal link research project of the Swiss National Science Foundation, is doubtful.

“There has been a shift from the attachment to the values ​​on which Western democracies were founded,” she says. “Having said that, I think the article follows an overly alarmist line. In addition, it compares the United States to Europe, but this general comparison does not apply to all the countries that make up Europe, given their diversity.

Bousbah also points out that there is no Swiss data available which examines the attachment or not of young people to liberal democratic values.

David Sylvan, professor at the University of Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development StudiesExternal link, also covers the fundamentals of the article.

“It’s an academically respectable article, but it poses several problems,” he says. “For example, the choice of data, the time periods considered, the comparisons they make, etc. The thesis of the article may be true, but the data presented does not allow us to draw such conclusions in any way.

Neo-conservative debate

Sylvan, an expert in international relations and political science, argues that the Foa / Mounk analysis belongs more to the political and intellectual context of the United States.

“This article is a contribution to a current debate between different neo-conservative factions,” Sylvan says.

Sylvan argues that the debate was personified by Francis Fukuyama with the publication in 1992 of “The End of History and the Last Man”, and by Samuel Huntington who published “Clash of Civilizations” in 1993. These works presented a optimistic view of the inevitable victory. Western democracies as opposed to the thesis that the values ​​of Western liberal democracies are attacked by other systems of thought present in the world. It is a debate that continues to stir emotions, not only in the United States, but among other policymakers as well.

The results of this neo-conservative vision, which formed the basis of American foreign policy as adopted by George W Bush following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, cannot be ignored; the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a precursor to the current conflicts sweeping the Middle East.

But do these realities eradicate the credibility of the analysis put forward by the Journal of Democracy article, which, according to Plattner, is not the product of neoconservatives? The rise of populist parties in Europe is not a mirage. Donald Trump’s polarizing and protest campaign in the United States either.

Resilient democracies?

René Schwok, director of Geneva Institute for Global StudiesExternal link, points out that despite their current problems, Western democracies are unlikely to succumb to military or popular overthrow.

“What we do not say enough is that the extremist parties of the left and the right seem to me to be really rallying to democracy and the rule of law. Marine Le Pen could possibly win the French elections. But if she lost next time, she would join the opposition and not do a coup. Like in Poland, there could be attacks on democracy and the rule of law, but this country is still a democratic country, ”Schwok said.

“So yes, the technological revolution underway is destabilizing and arousing resentment among foreigners, immigrants and the European Union. We must remain vigilant. But democracy does not mean the absence of conflict, social or economic hardship, frustration, corruption or other things.

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