Are Liberal-Democracies In Crisis?


For many, liberal democracies have become analogous with political and economic dysfunction, all whilst overextending their commitments overseas amidst an inability to rescue its own citizens from cycles of economic bust and booms. Even in established liberal democracies like Australia and the United States, flaws in our political institutions have become worryingly visible and public disillusionment with politics has become rife. The institution of democracy is going through a challenging time. While more than half of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, the cause of democracy has experienced some setbacks across the world.[1]

Electorates with a diverse demography in many liberal democracies feel increasingly alienated from the electoral regime. Many critics of liberal democracies cite an increase in public apathy, and in turn alienation from the political institutions. States have also witnessed an intensification of political competition between both sides of politics that has polarised the electorates. An increasing fragmentation between parties creates an “anomic democracy, in which democratic politics becomes more an arena for the assertion of conflicting interests than a process for the building of common purposes”.[2] As a result, “fewer people are voting, the membership of major political parties is collapsing, we trust politicians less, and our interest in mainstream and electoral politics is waning”.[3] Such patterns of declining participation and confidence in the political process are early signs of ailments that require attention across many liberal democracies. A growth in the appeal and popularity of right-wing  parties across the world are signs of growing electoral alienation that requires immediate attention to rectify such challenges to liberal democracies before they turn into a crisis.

In many democracies, the governments have also failed to find a balance between its foundational principals of freedom and liberty, and the contemporary need to protect its population from the growing threat of terrorism. Thomas Carothers notes that “democracy’s travails in both the United States and Europe have greatly damaged the standing of democracy in the eyes of many people around the world.”[4]  While many have criticised overreaching security legislation that infringe upon the rights of citizens, revelations of public surveillance by the National Security Administration in the United States has attracted worldwide attention. “The result is that America’s image—and by extension that of democracy itself—has taken a terrible battering.”[5] “Not surprisingly, a recent Transparency International survey found that 58 per cent of Australians believed political parties to be corrupt or extremely corrupt.”[6] Such political failures by democratic governments have afflicted great damage to the institution and have weakened its appeal globally. As a result, institutions meant to promote liberty seem outdated and often hypocritical to many across the world.

While there is no doubt that the institution of democracy is undergoing a challenging time, it only faces some obstacles to its viability rather than a full-blown crisis. Winston Churchill described democracy as “the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” As such, liberal democracies like the United States and Australia require legitimate reform based on electoral consensus and effective policies rather than a fundamental reappraisal of the structure of our political institutions. While there is no denying in the growing public alienation, at its core, the problem seems more to do with the nature of politics currently practised by parties on both sides than the fundamental beliefs of liberal democracies. Responsive and constructive political discourse should replace both the government’s and the opposition’s refusal to collaborate in democracies including Australia and the United States. This can then restore public confidence in the workings of liberal democracies. Thus, while liberal democracies face a multidimensional challenge to the health of the institution, its strong democratic foundations provide it with the flexibility to reform and retain itself as a legitimate, even preferred, form of governance in the modern world.

While democracy seems to be travelling on a jagged path, it is not unreasonable to expect a paved road ahead. The viability of democracy as a long-lasting political institution has been contested for decades, but has attracted much public attention in the 21st century. 19th century French diplomat and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville notes that “democracies always look weaker than they really are: they are all confusion on the surface but have lots of hidden strengths.” Unlike many autocracies, liberal democracies have several capabilities, including the ability to self-rectify and allow robust reforms in the face of a looming crisis. In addition to the public’s critical ability, the system of checks and balances allow for innovation to tackle existential challenges in the face of adversity and introduce alternative policies.  While the architecture of liberal democracies has been built of firm foundations that facilitate discussions necessary for the health of democracies themselves, the first step in preventing a crisis is to acknowledge its possibility and work towards resolving it before the crisis occurs. The well-being of 20th century’s cherished political institution requires leaders to address the problems facing contemporary societies and improve democracy’s standing at home and abroad. Thus, to maintain its ideological hegemony in the future, democracies must be both diligently reformed to replace outdated institutions and carefully maintained once established.

 

Nishtha Sharma

Nishtha Sharma is an undergraduate student of International and Global Studies at the University of Sydney majoring in Government and International Relations and American Studies. Her research interests include North America and Asia. As an International and Global Studies student, the OWP has provided her with a platform to research and produce articles and reports about issues of global importance. She is currently working as a correspondent in the Australian Division of the OWP.
Nishtha Sharma

About Nishtha Sharma

Nishtha Sharma is an undergraduate student of International and Global Studies at the University of Sydney majoring in Government and International Relations and American Studies. Her research interests include North America and Asia. As an International and Global Studies student, the OWP has provided her with a platform to research and produce articles and reports about issues of global importance. She is currently working as a correspondent in the Australian Division of the OWP.