Contextualizing the Revolt Against Democracy

Oscar Berry, Opinion Editor

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From the election of far-right nationalist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to the retrenchment of the Chinese state to the institutional abuses here in the United States, 2018 was a bad year for democracy. So too were 2017, 2016, and, arguably, 2015. In fact, most historians agree that since the economic recession in 2008, democracy itself has been going through a recession of its own. With liberal democracies seemingly falling all around us, it is worth asking ourselves why this is happening, what we can do to stop it, and what the future holds for us.

So, first things first: why is this happening? In some ways, this so-called “democratic recession” was inevitable. Throughout history, periods of great progress always end up facing a popular revolt down the road. Prosperity, change, and modernization are all results of creative destruction, a process by which old institutions and systems are broken down to create newer, better ones. The negative side to this equation is that the dismantling of massive socio-economic systems usually causes large segments of a population to be left behind—physically, financially, and psychologically. The demographic migrations that come with urbanization and the shifting of political power from rural areas to cities understandably leaves many fearful of changes in society, and more likely to lash out against them.

Ok, so there’s a revolt taking place. What can we do to stop it?”

The period of democratization and relative calm since the end of World War II, coined the “Long Peace” by Yale Professor John Gaddis, is certainly the longest one in modern times. As such, the natural effects of creative destruction explained above have been magnified, and the backlash against globalism, liberal values, and international affairs has been building up strength for decades.

The 2008 economic recession and its controversial aftermath (where most of the perpetrators were let off) was the final nail in the coffin for millions of people convinced that elites and the establishment had completely abandoned them. Ever since, a tidal wave of populism, from both the Left and the Right, has come crashing down upon the liberal world order and caught it completely unprepared.

OK, so there’s a revolt taking place. What can we do to stop it? To start, it is essential that we place a priority on solutions rather than ideology; the back-and-forth ideological conflicts of national politics have probably done more than anything else to depress confidence in democracy. This means that we must do the hard research and figure out what works and what doesn’t, even if that may come into conflict with our pre-held political beliefs.

One thing people can productively advocate for is more ballot initiatives and participatory budgeting, programs that allow people to have a direct influence on the public decisions that affect them. These initiatives also help ensure that finding solutions remain at the forefront, as ideology tends to take over as decisions are punted over to the national level.

Overall, if we want to restore democracy, we need to be active in civic affairs, and that means voting, showing up to town halls, lobbying lawmakers, and then holding them accountable for the decisions they make.

Finally, what does the future hold for us? To answer, I’d like to end this dark and gloomy commentary on a somewhat positive note. While the recent trends of democratic regression around the world are disturbing, they are, I believe, temporary.

Populism has consistently proven that it does not provide what it promised and leads to diminished returns on human health and prosperity while leaving a path of destruction in its wake.

Eventually, as massive demographic due to urbanization slows and international trade becomes better regulated, the winds of reactionary revolt will calm down. In socialist Mexico and Latin America in the 1880s, nationalist Europe in the 1940s, and countless other regions across time, liberal values triumphed with the passage of time. Democracy has faced hurdles and bumps before but has emerged victorious in every instance. I am confident that it shall do so again.


This piece also appears in our December 2018 print edition.