The future of democracy

It has become fashionable to pronounce the return of Philippine democracy through the 1986 people power uprising a failure—on two counts. One, because it has made no dent on the economic condition of the poor. And two, because it has not been able to dismantle the rule of political dynasties.

Both points are persuasive. The elimination of mass poverty indeed remains the government’s biggest challenge despite the recent big strides in the country’s economic performance. And, while there are new players on the  post-Edsa political stage who are not from the traditional political class, elective positions particularly at the local level continue to be in the grip of political families who have held power through successive generations.

But let us look at the argument more closely, because I think it glosses over certain factors that need to be highlighted. First, why expect democracy to end poverty? Rapid economic development and the distribution of assets have been more associated with authoritarian regimes than with democracies. Land redistribution programs, for example, have had a greater success when they are imposed from above than when they are crafted by elected bodies dominated by the landowning class. The same is true for housing, health, and educational programs that address the long-term needs of the poor. To the extent that they entail massive allocations of scarce state resources, they seldom survive changes in administrations.

As to ending the reign of political dynasties—surely, a society requires more than just the restoration of fundamental political freedoms and democratic elections to make this happen. This is why the provision in the 1987 Philippine Constitution explicitly banning them has not been enforced. Political clans are moored in social orders marked by sharp inequalities in the various spheres of society.  They persist not only because they offer protection to the powerless, but also because they serve as essential mechanisms by which the poor can access the services and resources of the state. This is the meaning of patronage. We cannot expect citizens to fully exercise their political rights and check their leaders if they are hampered by economic dependence.

The truth is that democracy is an evolutionary achievement of societies. In the West, where it began, democracy meant an assembly of free and equal human beings who can argue with one another. Where people are born into families that are assigned fixed places in a hierarchy, there is no room for democracy. In older democracies, the right to vote became universal only after citizens had broken free from their economic shackles. One may transplant democratic institutions from one society to another, but these may not function properly if the conditions from which they can draw sustenance do not exist.

Autocrats everywhere, like our own Ferdinand Marcos, have seized upon this truism to justify authoritarian rule. They rationalize deviation from democratic practice by stressing the need to concentrate political power as a precondition for achieving rapid economic growth and inclusive development. In Asia, in addition, a view that still commands support is the belief that Western political institutions based on separation of powers and debate clash with so-called Asian values centered on social harmony. It has not been easy to refute this belief precisely because of the tremendous success shown by authoritarian systems like Singapore and China in promoting economic growth and managing internal conflicts.

In contrast, as the recent lead essay “What’s gone wrong with democracy” in The Economist (March 1-7, 2014) succinctly points out, in the centers of Western democracy, “the very institutions that are meant to provide models for new democracies have come to seem outdated and dysfunctional…. The United States has become a byword for gridlock, so obsessed with partisan point-scoring that it has come to the verge of defaulting on its debts twice in the past two years.”

The words “outdated” and “dysfunctional” are appropriate. For, the problem is not with democracy itself, but with the failure of traditional democratic forms to adjust to the growing complexity of a globalized world. Existing democratic institutions, as we know them today, were formed in the era of the nation-state. The rise of a modern world society, which has quickened with digital communication and the Internet, has diminished the capacity of governments to steer events within their national economies.

Notes The Economist: “[G]lobalization has changed national politics profoundly. National politicians have surrendered ever more power, for example over trade and financial flows, to global markets and supranational bodies, and may thus find that they are unable to keep promises they have made to voters…. Democratic governments got into the habit of running big structural deficits as a matter of course, borrowing to give voters what they wanted in the short term, while neglecting long-term investment.”

The solution does not lie in reversing the evolutionary gains of democracy by going back to the expediency offered by closed political systems like China’s. In China, the Economist article correctly notes, “The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique.” This is so because no one from outside its ranks can check its powers, or dare let it know when its view of the world is all wrong. Only democracy allows a society to do that because, for all its imperfections, it is the only political system with a built-in capacity for self-observation.

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