Walk into a bookstore today and there is a strong likelihood that the publications on prominent display will be about the dangers to liberalism and democracy. Pick up a magazine like The Economist or the Atlantic and the lead article will most likely be about the same subject. Richard Haas’s (President, Council on Foreign Relations) most recent article for Project Syndicate is captioned
“Liberal World Order R.I.P”. It captures the essence of this genre. Were Francis Fukuyama writing his essay, “The end of History” today, rather than in 1989 following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he may have stayed with his title not to make the apotheotic declamation on the abiding superiority of Western liberal democracy but to suggest that the post World War II rules-based, free and globalising pillars upon which this system has rested may soon collapse into the dustbin of history. In doing so, he would adduce as reason the rising tide of populist authoritarianism sweeping the world. The question I ask is whether this write down of the liberal world order has not discounted too sharply the countervailing strengths of bureaucratic guard rails and institutions.
Senator Patrick Moynihan (also former US ambassador to India ) once wrote, “when unwritten rules are violated over and over, societies have a tendency to define deviancy downward… to shift the standard… ( to be ) overwhelmed and then desensitised… (people) grow accustomed to what was previously thought to be scandalous”. The chorus of commentary about the risks to the liberal order reflects an underlying concern that society has indeed deviated downward; that the withdrawal of America into a protectionist “America First” shell has created a vacuum that advocates of a different system — the essentially, one-party Singapore model, if not the centralised China model — that assure economic growth in return for the constriction of civic liberties, are looking to fill. They fear the lowered standards of accountability in governance and the possibility that the public may no longer regard democracy, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, as “the worst form of government except for all the others”.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Zibkatt in their book How Democracies Die explain how this “deviation” is being leveraged by demagogues to overcome the shackles of constitutional government. In earlier years, the assault on democratic institutions was dramatic and “illegal”. Democracy was overturned by the force of arms through a military coup. Today, the process is subtle, nuanced, often imperceptible and implemented under the “veneer of legality”. The authors have done extensive research and distilled the process down to three conjointly implemented actions. The first is directed towards the capture of the “referees”, which are the institutions that circumscribe and limit individual powers. The judiciary is, for instance, stuffed with loyalists. The second is focused on “hobbling” the opposition. The levers of incumbent power are deployed to delegitimise their standing with the electorate. Thus, a criminal plaint or the charge of being a foreign agent or the selective disclosure of personal data. And the third is to alter the “rules of the game” — a change in the election laws or the gerrymandering of electoral constituencies. There is now a fourth which this book does not mention but which the current Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica controversy has brought into sharp relief. The failure of the IT titans to discharge their “information fiduciary” (a term coined by Harvard academic, Jonathan Zittran because of the enormous data these companies have under their control) enabling thereby, political parties to influence the electoral choice of the voting public. The book is replete with case studies that support this conclusion. In Latin America, for instance, there were 15 elections for President in Chile, Bolivia , Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012. Five were won by individuals with questionable commitment to “limited government”. Alberto Fujimori of Chile, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador and Rafael Correa, also of Ecuador. Each of them sought, during their tenure in office, to alter the rules of the democratic game by either packing the judiciary, vilifying the opposition or altering the constitution. They did eventually step down but the damage done to the fabric of democracy was and has been enduring.
The contemporary concern is how will the demagogues elected to power react to the constraints of limited government. The behaviour of Trump makes everyone focus their attention on him. Here is a man who exercised near absolute authority for most of his working life. Now, however, despite being elected to the most powerful position in the world, he finds his powers circumscribed. So far he has expressed his frustrations through Twitter and the summary dismissals of appointees who did not tack to his course. But there is uncertainty as to how he might react when finally he realises that he cannot “hire, fire and hire” his way to unfettered authority. He is, of course, not the only impatient, elected demagogue. There is Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia, Orban in Hungary. And Heinz Strache, vice-chancellor of Austria (who leads a party set up by a former member of the Nazi party), Geert Wilders, the stridently anti-Muslim leader of the opposition in Netherlands and others in Germany, Poland, France and Italy who, whilst less influential, have sniffed electoral success and are inside the portals of power. How might they all respond to the reality of limited authority?
I, of course, do not know the answer. But I will admit I draw comfort from the lament of liberal newspapers every time Trump sacks someone “there goes another moderating voice”. For it suggests that the steel frame of bureaucratic governance has not been so corroded as to allow demagogues to have their way. Bureaucrats have been criticised for being too cautious, sticklers for procedure, precedent bound and out of sync with the demands of an aspirational society for dynamism, technocracy and flexibility. But these are perhaps the qualities most required today. For, they buffer us against populist adventurism. We should be thankful for small mercies.