Democracy today seems to be in constant crisis. Democratic backsliding has occurred in countries from Venezuela to Poland, and autocratic leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, proudly proclaim that the era of liberal democracy is over. Perhaps most worrying, even in the West where it has long been taken for granted, liberal democracy is under attack from populists, and, according to some scholars, it is no longer highly valued by many citizens.
In seeking to explain these troubling trends, most observers focus on the challenges currently facing democracy. They argue that globalization and rising automation have made life more insecure for the working and middle classes, privileged highly educated city dwellers over the less educated who live in rural areas, and made capitalism more of a zero-sum game. Alongside economic challenges, changing social norms and rising immigration — the percentage of foreign-born citizens is at an all-time high in many European countries and at levels last seen during the early 20th century in the United States — have left many citizens feeling uncomfortable and out of touch in their own neighborhoods.
But analyses that focus on only these challenges cannot explain the woes of an entire political system. Just as a healthy body fights off myriad viruses, so too do healthy political systems identify and respond to the challenges they face.
Liberal democracies’ problems over the past years haven’t come merely or even primarily from the challenges they have faced but rather from a diminished capacity to recognize and respond to them. It is not just rapid economic and social changes that matter but the inability or unwillingness of national political actors and institutions to respond to those changes that has caused rising support for populists.
The real cause of Western democracies’ current travails is that many core political institutions have decayed dramatically over the past years — or ceded responsibility to unelected supranational bodies — hindering their ability to translate the demands of a broad range of their citizens into concrete action at home. Western democracies have, in short, become dramatically less democratic.
In 1968, the political scientist (and Foreign Policy co-founder) Samuel Huntington — who is today better known for coining the term “clash of civilizations” — wrote an influential book titled Political Order in Changing Societies. Huntington was motivated by a puzzle: Why were so many third-world countries (as they were then known) mired in political disorder? Huntington argued that their political problems stemmed from a disjuncture between the challenges these countries faced and the strength of their political institutions. As he put it, “The primary problem of politics is the lag in the development of political institutions behind social and economic change.” He went on to argue that as societies grew larger, more complex, and more diverse, political stability would increasingly “become dependent upon the workings of political institutions” capable of responding to the new demands emanating from society.
The same challenges that were easily handled in countries with strong and responsive political institutions — such as ensuring employment opportunities for increasingly educated citizens and providing avenues of political participation for newly mobilized social groups — caused political disorder and violence in countries lacking them. The absence of such institutions, Huntington argued, was at the root of the problems facing many Asian, African, and Latin American countries in the 1950s and 1960s: They were experiencing rapid social and economic change — urbanization, increases in literacy and education, industrialization, mass media expansion — increasing their citizens’ expectations and demands, but they lacked the political institutions capable of satisfying them.
Although Huntington wrote Political Order as a diagnosis of the problems facing the third world, he recognized that just as political institutions could develop, they could also decay, causing a political system to become less responsive and effective over time. This is precisely what has happened in Western democracies over the past decades. Many of their democratic institutions have atrophied, rendering them less able to respond to the needs and demands of average citizens rather than a small subset of them.