Robin Jourdan, a member of our Emerging Fellows program believes that democratic systems have not solved many problems, but they evolve into the future. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
To be called democracy, a governing system is made up of basic rules: open and free-will elections, political participation, civil rights, and separation of powers. In a free country, people may speak their minds and shape their own and their children's futures. Threats and weaknesses in democracies are plenty. Some leaders have destroyed the substance of democracy in their country, muzzling the press and imprisoning opponents, while preserving the show of freedom. Deciding to introduce the euro in 1999 was undertaken chiefly by technocrats rather than by popular vote. Distrust in governments and weak leadership push prevalent anxieties.
Trust is a tangential challenge for experts and technology. Often citizens reject experts as an objection to power abuse. Experts must remain servants not masters to the system. Similarly, expertise-christened artificial intelligence may make most people better off toward the end of this century. Wearable and implantable technologies enable people to interact in new ways. Famously, "I think; therefore, I am," was expressed by Descartes. We're not sure if machines think, but as that distinction becomes fainter, our relationship with them will likewise shift.
As an economic system capitalism is a relative newcomer. Sharing periods of global maturation further confuses the system by conflating democracy and capitalism. Indeed, the US Constitution isn't an economic document. It provides for intervention in financial situations when the economy requires regulation. Deeply ingrained in the material, economic liberty is the means to protect occupational freedom. This specificity leaves open the door to alternative financial solutions. Democratic socialism is when the means of production are socially and collectively owned or controlled, alongside a democratic political system. Even the ten most innovative countries are a mix of capitalist, socialist, democratic, and autocratic.
As an alternative model's success, China can't help but represent a challenge to democracy and capitalism. Achievements of the Beijing Consensus include China itself. China has become the land that failed to fail and is on a trajectory to become a viable global, science superpower. Also, these successes create compelling arguments to modify capitalism.
From an ability to marshal vast resources against wicked problems like climate change to nurture long-term thinking associated with complex problem-solving, Brussels and Beijing are tallying up successes. Democracies haven’t yet solved these problems for many reasons including unrelenting political cycles. Such evidence creates a compelling argument and threat to democracy’s hold.
Economics, health, and safety have, at times, held contentious positions. Globally today, nine out of 10 people breathe polluted air. Ignoring climate change and other wicked problems could come at a cost in the trillions of dollars, antithetical to capitalist goals. Threats to corporate profits win little public interest, but businesses can wield power to change the conservation conversation in ways that don't rely on politics.
Has democracy had its day? Changes to democratic systems are likely to continue, as it is bred to mirror the culture it supervises. Whether direct, representative or constitutional, all forms are a dominantly Western construction. That so many people are prepared to risk themselves for this idea testifies to its enduring appeal. Democracy may not exist in any pure form, but we'll miss it if it's gone.
© Robin Jourdan 2019