Are Days Of Liberal Democracy Over?

Democratic processes and the institutions that make liberal democracy sustainable have alienated people they are supposed to serve. They face, as this series of articles has pointed out, a crisis of credibility, which has allowed illeberalism to take root and grow exponentially.

Politics as a problem-resolving tool is not trusted and conventional politicians, in general, receive negative appraisal. Bureaucracy survives as a necessary evil and the judiciary falls way short of people’s expectations. The mainstream media too is seen in cahoots with political and financial power. Popular culture is swamped with the feeling of no-trust for the ‘system’ – the existing architecture that holds democracy together. The reach of the internet and the social media and the free flow of communication have exacerbated the feeling of disempowerment.

Illeberalism feeds on the sense of alienation and popular grievances – imagined or real. As it grows, it belittles everything that liberal democracy stands for. In the sphere of politics it takes the shape of an ideology that rejects the presence of independent institutions as checks on the government. It also dismisses the idea of disagreement in the public sphere, besides favouring authoritarian rule.

In his book ‘The People Vs Democracy’, Yascha Mounk observes: Citizens are less committed to democracy and more open to authoritarian alternatives than they once were. Respect for democratic norms and rules has precipitously declined. No longer the only game in town, democracy is now deconsolidating.” This is, he says, a trend in most parts of the world. India is no exception.

He writes:”Observers who are most worried by the illeberal attitudes of the populists are unwilling to acknowledge that there’s something democratic to the energy that drives it.” Autocrats win power through elections, a perfectly legitimate way to gain power. They can justify their actions as popular will. Liberals , discredited as they are, find it difficult to stand against this, however convoluted such a position might appear. The situation does not bode well for democracy. It has lost both people and ground, neither retrievable through quick, easy remedial action. Illeberals may offer no real solution to people’s grievances, and, in fact, may aggravate these further by a dictatorial approach that has little scope for compromise and reconciliation, but liberals simply are left with no counter.

Is there a way they can regain the confidence of people and respectability? It’s going to be a long, arduous trudge back. True intent and action must work in tandem in any such effort. They must make democracy democratic again by removing elite control over levers of power and privilege and reconnecting with people. They must make the institutions of democracy serve the purpose they are supposed to. How do they go about reconsolidating democracy would be something interesting to watch out for.

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