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Society & Culture

Political Decay Leads to Institutional Crisis

Aug 15, 2016
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

With the American election nearing the finishing line and Brexit becoming a reality, the debate in Western nations about the decay and dysfunction of their political systems and institutions are becoming more heated and divisive. The consensus is that political decay has become the hallmark and reached the level that could touch off institutional crisis any time in those countries if it is not happening already.

The economic neo-liberalism with Washington Consensus as its model recipe for economic reform has been shattered to pieces by the financial crisis of 2008. Now we are witnessing the other pillar of capitalism, the liberal democracy, being buffeted by endless dysfunction of political institutions in the US and other western nations.

As nations reflect on the way out of global economic slowdown and developmental strategies to restart engines of growth, China’s success in economic growth while maintaining political and social stability has offered an example for many developing countries. Moreover, China’s political system and institutions that provided guarantees for its successful reform and steady economic growth have obtained greater attention all over the world.

The social basis of the rising populism in the US and other Western nations has been reinforced by widening gap between the rich elites and the rest of the public. That gap has been growing for two generations in America, where about 40% of national wealth is taken by the top 1% or even the top 0.1%. The unequal and uneven wealth distribution in Western societies becomes more glaring day by day, which is driving the anti-globalization and populist forces to center stage on the political landscape.

The political parties representing those forces have been gaining traction and more votes in national and European Parliament elections, thus beginning to change the political eco-systems in those countries and eventually will also affect the course of globalization.

As Stanford Professor Francis Fukuyama pointedly said in his recent contribution to Foreign Affairs, “what really needs to be explained is not why populists have been able to make such gains this cycle but why it took so long to do so”.

What Fukuyama failed to mention is that the political decay he so famously revealed a few years ago is now leading to political and institutional crises both in the US and Europe. Capitalism and its prevailing ideology, liberal democracy, have been seriously questioned regarding their validity and “universality”. Unlike economic crises, the political decay and the resulting institutional crisis touches upon the core value of western nations, creating chaos and uncertainty in western politics and even intense “class struggle” between elites and the blue-collar working class, a phenomenon long ago described by Karl Marx to be the grave digger of capitalism.

In the US and other Western countries, liberal democracy has always been the foundation whereupon a whole set of political and economic institutions and arrangements have been designed for governance with elites at its helm. This idea of liberal democracy and its institutional arrangements have been touted as the model of governance both domestic and global and promoted throughout the world by the US and other advanced nations backed up by their superior military strength and force-fed ideology. Military intervention and “color revolution” are the often-used tools in their endeavor to spread liberal democracy and economic neo-liberalism worldwide.

But what with global financial and economic crises and geopolitical turmoils in the Middle East, liberal democracy and economic neo-liberalism both have lost their “ring of glory” and “universality” theoretically and in practice.

To illustrate the point with specific examples, in the US the decision-making on major policy issues has long been blocked by “cross-vetoing” through party politics and the heavy influence of interest groups lining “the K Street”. Take Obamacare for example. As he entered the White House, President Obama was ambitious and confident enough with a full-fledged program of medical care for the underprivileged ready to roll. However, the program was ripped by Washington Beltway politics and came out eventually with holes everywhere, hardly the plan envisioned by President Obama.

The political decay that leads to dysfunction of political institutions has indeed morphed into crises of governance in America and some European countries, including the UK. American democracy boasts of universal representation of social segments, but in reality it is money that talks. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democrats can claim that they have served the declining group of working class well. “Occupying Wall Street” that took place a few years ago revealed the deep rift between “1% and 99%”. I believe that the process and end result of the US election this year will tell us a lot about the future of American political institutions. One thing is already pretty clear. Without major “surgical transformation”, the American political system will be crisis-ridden and continue to be deadlocked and dysfunctional.

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