Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Digested Read

On the Retreat and Self-Erosion of Democracy

Adrian Pabst


Mike Smith

| 8 mins read

Since Francis Fukuyama prophesised in 1989 the ‘end of history’ and a global convergence towards liberal market democracy as the final form of human government, democratic rule has been in retreat. With some notable exceptions, the transition from communism to capitalism has led to authoritarian democracies. The example of China shows that the capitalist market is compatible with a collectivist state ruled by a one-party leadership that shows little interest in democratically self-governing institutions or the rule of law. Across the Middle East and beyond, the attempt to combine democracy with Islam lies in ruins – at least for now. Turkey and Indonesia, the greatest hopes for such a reconciliation, are fast sliding into autocracy. Elsewhere too, rival systems of government are spreading and with them corruption, the denial of fundamental freedoms, war and famine.

Mass migration, terrorism and globalisation have brought these external threats closer to countries where democratic rule is established. While democracy has so far not collapsed (unlike in the interwar period), it is often weak, ineffective and increasingly post-democratic – as Colin Crouch argues. Together with other theorists of democracy such as Peter Mair and Sheldon Wolin, Crouch is right to suggest post-1945 democratisation has given way to a concentration of power in the hands of small groups that are unrepresentative and unaccountable. This is perhaps best illustrated by the nexus between ‘big governments’ and ‘big business’.

However, in my contribution to the latest issue of The Political Quarterly, I contend that the thesis of post-democracy and cognate concepts are ultimately unable to theorise the self-erosion of democratic government. This self-erosion refers to the tendency of democracy to undermine the very principles which it purports to uphold – the separation of powers, the rule of law, freedom, equality and core constitutional provisions such as fair detention, fair trial or the presumption of innocence. This tendency has its roots in the functioning of democratic rule itself, starting with the mutation of representatives into self-serving elites.

Indeed, in democracies that privilege common rules and formal procedures over shared ends or substantive values, many elected representatives end up representing their own interests at the expense of the public good – the MPs expenses’ scandal in the UK is merely the tip of an iceberg that includes numerous politicians, bankers, regulators, business tycoons, journalists and policemen who collude in flouting the very rules that apply to everybody else.

My article goes further to suggest that democracy can engender oligarchy, demagogy, and even new forms of tyranny. We are seeing the rise of a new oligarchy that strengthens executive power at the expense of parliament and people – and not just in individual cases such as Berlusconi. Democracy is characterised by the exponential growth of executive legislation (often rubber-stamped by a parliamentary majority beholden to executive writ) and the growing power of technocracy relative to the legislature.

The lack of accountability and popular participation is compounded by a process of ‘self-corruption’ whereby an elected executive claims legitimate authority to exceed its own mandate in the face of circumstances that the electorate cannot vote on. Recent examples include post-9/11 counter-terrorist legislation that suspend core constitutional provisions, or responses to other emergencies such as the 2008 financial crash that led to taxpayer-funded bailouts without popular consent. In each case, democratic rule ends up providing an oligarchic defence of the bases of oligarchic control – whether an emergency response to a threat or an opportunity to extend power (or both at once). Either way, democracy is compatible with an oligarchy that goes well beyond the power of global firms – the focus of Crouch and Wolin.

In relation to demagogy, it is true that democracies face the permanent threat of populist forces that seek to destroy individual liberties paradoxically in the name of free speech – as in the case of far-right racist groups, religious fundamentalists or ‘insurgent’ candidates like Donald Trump. However, democracy itself can be a catalyst for populism and demagogy in three ways. First, the tendency to exploit fear and manipulate opinion becomes an endemic feature of democratic government. Contemporary democracy often revolves around supposedly guarding against alien elements: the terrorist, the refugee, the foreigner, the welfare-scrounger and those deemed deficient in ‘entrepreneurship’.

Second, democracies manipulate opinion, and populism seems to be an inevitable consequence of the democratic primacy of procedure over substance. Ever-greater use of techniques derived from PR and the advertising industry reinforces democracy’s tendency towards demagogy. The ‘culture’ of spin, media stunts, focus groups and seemingly endless electoral campaigns has turned politics into a spectacle of general mass opinion that can be described as a form of manipulative populism – promising ever-greater freedom of choice but ‘the conditions under which choices are made are not themselves a matter of choice’ (as Zygmunt Bauman argues). In turn, the manipulative populism of the ruling elites fuels the anti-establishment populism of insurgent movements such as the Tea Party in the US, Front National in France, or the UK Independence Party in Britain.

Third, contemporary democracy deploys spectacle and new forms of propaganda. Of course this is not the same as in dictatorial regimes. Compared with twentieth-century totalitarian rule, democratic politics wields more indirect power, working through influence on people’s minds and more effectively securing control via compliant behaviour and the demobilisation of the citizenry than does an extrinsic imposition of force.

In consequence, democracy risks sliding into a form of ‘democratic despotism’ that maintains the illusion of free choice while generating ‘voluntary servitude’ (Tocqueville) – a form of subtle manipulation by ostensible consent whereby people subject themselves freely to the will of the ruling oligarchy. As Tocqueville anticipated, democratic oligarchy and demagogy produces tutelary power:

[…] the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannise, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd. […] servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind […] might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

Read the full article on Wiley

Need help using Wiley? Click here for help using Wiley

  • Adrian Pabst

    Adrian Pabst

    Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics at the University of Kent and co-author of The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future.

    Articles by Adrian Pabst
Volume 95, Issue 1

Latest Journal Issue

Volume 95, Issue 1

Includes a collection on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting, edited by Suzanne Franks and Jean Seaton. This features articles such as 'The Governance of the BBC' by Diane Coyle; 'A Public Service Internet - Reclaiming the Public Service Mission' by Helen Jay; and 'BBC Funding: Much Ado about the Cost of a Coffee a Week' by Patrick Barwise. There are a wide range of other articles including 'Back to the Stone Age: Europe's Mainstream Right and Climate Change’ by Mitya Pearson and 'Labour, the Unions and Proportional Representation' by Cameron Rhys Herbert. Finally, there is a selection of book reviews such as Lyndsey Jenkins's review of Fighting For Life: The Twelve Battles that Made Our NHS and the Struggle for Its Future by Isabel Hardman, and Victoria Brittain's review of Three Worlds, Memoirs of an Arab-Jew by Avi Shlaim.

Find out more about the latest issue of the journal