Ungovernable democracies?

Several years ago, I was at a meeting where the senior minister of a Western Hemisphere country was complaining that the Finance Minister had attempted to resign. “ He realized that the public was utterly out of touch with reality — they demanded so much, but they were unwilling to pay for it in the form of taxes. It was as if they had unilaterally declared the sky was purple and were astonished that their leaders could not make it so,” he observed, “ so the minister resigned.” Another participant in the conversation was a senior minister from a European country, and he promptly chimed in, “Oh, our head of state was in exactly the same situation and attempted to resign, but our assembly forced him to stay in office, even though they refused to give him the powers to do what the people elected him to accomplish.

If only these examples were aberrations, but unfortunately they are becoming the norm, as publics the world over are electing officials but also refusing to give them the tools and authority they need to govern. From the smallest republic to the largest nations, democracies are becoming ungovernable. We ask our politicians to perform miracles with no resources, and often we elect them with hair-thin margins that prevent them from enjoying any real legitimacy. Behind this is a breakdown in civics — voter turnout is low, and ever fewer citizens care enough to learn something about how their government actually works. Add in the usual round of dirty tricks and perpetual campaigning, and the net effect is the steady leaching out of legitimacy from democratic institutions around the globe.

The open question is whether democracies can sustain their legitimacy in an age of such tight margins — or whether there is a new political order on the horizon that will respond more effectively. State democracies? Authoritarian capitalism? It is too soon to call, but it is certainly premature to declare democratic triumphalism, for despite all its benefits, democracy may not be the governance structure that ultimately prevails in the Global Village.