Democracy’s Decline and Erosion of the Social Contract
This article is part of our Future of Democracy Blog Series which offers reflections from discussions on issues around democracy that alumni of the German Marshall Fund’s leadership programs have had as members of our Future of Democracy Working Group. If you are our alumna/us and are interested in joining this group or supporting its work, please sign up for our Alumni Leadership Council at any level.
There is something wrong with democracy and the social contract between people and their government. Or at least, that is how it feels to those of us in the German Marshall Fund’s Future of Democracy Working Group. Yet there is plenty of evidence that suggests this is no mere shot in the dark. This year, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index is at its lowest point since the index began in 2006. Out of 167 countries only 22, home to 430 million people, were deemed “full democracies.” The United States, together with countries like Brazil, Hungary, India, and Poland, is now classified as a “flawed democracy.” Trust in the U.S. government, according to the Democracy market Analysis 1.0, is at an all-time low—current under 20 percent, from over 70 percent in the 1960s. And dissatisfaction with democracy in developed countries as a whole is at its highest level in a quarter of a century, according to a University of Cambridge study.
French economist Thomas Pikkety in his 2013 book, Capital in the 21st Century, states that inequalities have surged in recent decades. He has been much criticized for his methods, but a recent study of the global consultancy McKinsey found something similar examining the first two decades of the 21st century. The social gap has been widening, and the middle class has been wearing out—jobs have mostly been created in the top and bottom segments of the economy while disappearing from the middle. People’s savings are not enough to see them through difficult times and old age. Incomes have risen, but the price of basics like education and housing has been going up to such an extent that the gains have been largely eaten up.
All these changes have been worsened by the impact of the coronavirus. The world economy came to a screeching halt, suffering the steepest decline in business activity since the World War II.
Here is the big question: Are there fundamental problems with democracy and its social contract, or are we only experiencing minor, temporary setbacks? The GMF Future of Democracy Working Group not only discussed this at an online meeting June 25, but also e-voted on it.
The overwhelming majority of the twenty odd members of the group agreed with these statements: We have fundamental problems with our democracies. We have fundamental problems with our social contract. As a group member put it: “The social contract in the Western World is already broken. The next round of elections will be critical for the survival of democracy.”
However, most members seemed to hold the view that although these are fundamental problems, solving them does not require radical steps. Problems, this seemed to be the consensus, can be fixed by maintenance work and incremental changes—and decidedly not by revolutions. Here are some opinions from the group: “Revolutions generally are extremely disruptive and very rarely bring the expected positive changes”; “disrupting events tend to divide rather than unite”; “we should refrain from big words and radical steps.”
While the working group could easily agree on not working towards a revolution, it was a bit harder to pinpoint the main dangers that are threatening democracy and the sustainability of the social contract. It is even harder to suggest what to do about them.
The concept of representation in our representative democracies have eroded. The fact that U.S. congresspersons are much more likely to see industry lobbyists than people in their constituencies, or the that members of parliament in Eastern European countries like Hungary hardly ever talk to voters in their constituencies, is alarming.
Quite often, voters simply do not know what exactly they are voting for, and this is not entirely their own fault. Traditional press is dying, and social media does not quite substitute for it. While the budgets of editorial offices are shrinking, politicians are spending more than ever for propaganda and even fake news.
“Currently, even the complicated mechanics of the voting process is limiting access to voting,” opined a member of our group. Another member mentioned the dangers of widespread gerrymandering.
“Short election cycles (an extreme 2 years for the US Congress) puts enormous financial pressures on candidates and prioritizes fundraising in detriment to democracy. We could address this from the local level by making campaign finances more transparent and putting a cap to campaign funding,” sounded another suggestion.
Many would invest their hopes in that double-edged sword, technology. “The Internet educates people on democracy, helping citizens stay up to date with what is happening in their governments and communities. We need to think how we can expand citizens’ internet access, especially in emerging democracies,” one of us said. Information technology, like the surfacing of the many data misappropriation scandals, and especially of the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data breach in 2018 showed us, can also be abused, for manipulating the voters in the most disgusting ways.
We “need stronger and safer IT infrastructures,” that can help us to solve fundamental issues like access to information, public services, and education. “E-democracy may bring benefits, but ‘netizens’ are less engaged, and they might be ready to defend democracy only online,” said another group member, adding that “there is no real alternative to ‘in-person’ democracy.”
By the time we convene to discuss all these thrilling questions in flesh at the (postponed) GMF Triennial Retreat in 2021, we hopefully will have COVID-19 behind us. The pandemic, bringing along death and economic suffering, showed “how fragmented and tribalized our societies and the transatlantic space are,” and prompted some “governments and companies are abusing their powers and using this pandemic to harvest vast amounts of data and to amass powers that restrict human rights and enhance state surveillance,” group members said.
Could we also make a good use the pandemic? “COVID-19 is allowing people to focus on real problems within their communities and countries,” said a group member, adding that it is also forcing elected officials to find ways to directly communicate with their voters. “There is,” said another member of the group, “a lot of hope and resolve in our ability to solve our problems.”
Democracy is both eroding and finding itself under attack from so many forces. Unfortunately, no single good recipe for strengthening democracy seems to be emerging. We, again, must realize that democracy is not a given, we must work for it on all possible fronts, against so many enemies, before it is too late. If we do not invest in this fight now, we have to pay a much bigger price later. And if democracy suffers, the integrity of our social contract will suffer, too.
Andras Loke (MMF’94) is founder and editor-in-chief, Ittlakunk.hu, Hungary. Andras is a member of the Future of Democracy GMF Alumni Working Group.