02 July 2013

Democratic turmoil: people in search of responsive government

The crisis in Egypt might be seen as the growing pains of a new democracy exacerbated by partisanship at the creation, but as some writers have reminded us, angry people are hitting the streets all over the world, including democracies thought more stable than Egypt's. I've noted the recent demonstrations against the Erdogan administration in Turkey, which resemble the Egyptian protests in their hostility toward Islamism, but less well covered in the U.S., perhaps because we have no stake in the situation, were last month's mass protests in Brazil against the alleged waste of resources on hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. As Paul R. Pillar points out in The National Interest, the U.S. is not immune to these outbursts, though the Occupations of 2011 were very modest exercises compared to what we see elsewhere. Pillar asks why democratic populations should hit the streets when they have recourse to elections. He suggests that 21st century electoral democracies are susceptible to crises in responsiveness. "[A]lthough representative democracy is still the least bad form of government and the one best able to align the actions of the rulers to the interests of the ruled, it still has deficiencies," he writes. Once in office, elected officials tend to lose touch with their constituents' immediate needs. This tendency gets worse once one party entrenches itself in power, as may be the case in Turkey, or when leaders grow preoccupied with international prestige, as could be so in Brazil.

Calling attention to Pillar's article, Thomas Friedman adds speculations of his own. He sees mass protests as a backlash, in many cases, to "majoritarian" or "authoritarian" democracy, in which winners assume a mandate to ignore the interests or objections of losers, no matter how evenly divided the body public may be. While Pillar notes in passing that "a lot of sociology" can be applied to mass protests, Friedman jumps on his own sociological hobby horse.

A second factor is the way middle-class workers are being squeezed between a shrinking welfare state and a much more demanding job market. For so many years, workers were told that if you just work hard and play by the rules you’ll be in the middle class. That is just not true anymore. In this age of rapid globalization and automation, you have to work harder, work smarter, bring more innovation to whatever job you do, retool yourself more often — and then you can be in the middle class. There is just so much more stress on people in, or aspiring to be in, the middle class, and many more young people wondering how they’ll ever do better than their parents.
Too few leaders are leveling with their people about this shift, let alone helping them navigate it. And too many big political parties today are just vehicles for different coalitions to defend themselves against change rather than to lead their societies in adapting to it. Normally, this would create opportunities for the opposition parties, but in places like Turkey, Brazil, Russia and Egypt the formal opposition is feckless. So people take to the streets, forming their own opposition. 

What makes Friedman a neoliberal rather than a neoconservative is his belief that government has an important role to play in helping people navigate the big shift, primarily by promoting education oriented toward adaptability and innovation. As for his analysis of this year's protests, he implies a false distinction between "feckless" political parties and movements out to "defend themselves [and their constituents] against change and the people in the streets, who have some different agenda. I suspect that the people in the streets are just as interested, if not more so, in defending themselves against change rather than adapting to it, whether the change is economic or political. Either way, if you see mobs in the streets it's a pretty good clue that those people don't think that anyone in the political establishment represents them. The solution is not as simple as leaders helping people adapt to change. Friedman notes that social media give ordinary people "more independent means to tell their stories," but what if the story isn't "Help us adapt!" but "Why should we have to adapt?" Friedman takes global competition for granted as something no one can say no to and predicts volatility so long as people and parties refuse to adapt. But he also describes a new economic order that stresses out more people than it seems to benefit. If that new order is an underlying cause of all the mass protests around the world, isn't that a sign that the new economic order is more trouble than it's worth and that we should not take it for granted -- that what the people in the streets want, when they're not trying to overthrow their leaders, is leadership that will help them resist the new order. Whether resistance can be effective at anything less than the global level is a question for another time. What seems obvious now is that simply learning to be more adaptable and competitive, as Friedman suggests, is not going to solve everyone's problems -- it can't by definition. Democratic governments certainly should be more responsive everywhere, but they should respond to people, not markets.

Update: Here's an article that places the Egyptian trouble in an economic context, though it makes it sound like many Egyptians have good reason to continue supporting Morsi, at least in the short term.

No comments: