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Society & Culture

The Demise of Liberal Democracy?

Jan 16, 2017
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs

Liberal democracy both as an ideology and political institutions has been under attack for some time. Many lament its possible demise with fast-spinning events taking place in the last few years. Only this time the attack and lament come from within the US rather than from outside, just when President-elect Trump is getting ready to lead the American superpower to “make America great again”.

The lament is often heard from American academic circles, where some argue that the recent failure of the US election system to produce the best leaders and the radicalization of American politics as well as the rising tide of populism have exposed an ever deepening societal division between the governing elite and man-on-the-street. That indicates the possible demise of liberal democracy that has dominated Western nations and influenced global governance for decades.

The popular notion of liberal democracy being rotten from inside is what worries governing elite and many liberal academics. The capitalist edifice underpinned by liberal democracy and its political institutions has been shaken loose at the foundation. With that in mind, many wonder what will happen to the US-led global liberal order.

Observing from afar, one can almost see liberal democracy twisting and struggling in great pain in an effort to survive the current attack and prevailing intellectual self-doubt. It has failed miserably for many years in major Western countries where capital and labor bifurcated from each other with the former gaining absolute control of government and wealth distribution as Karl Marx predicted long time ago.

Western countries in general and the US in particular have seen financial capitalism reaching its peak and spreading its tentacles tightly over every fabric of society. The welfare system that effectively cushioned the pain caused by the widening gap between the rich and poor has been undercut by frustratingly long years of anemic economic growth and higher debt burdens since the 2008 financial crisis. It becomes “too heavy to carry on”.

People on the lower end of the social ladder began to question the high moral ground claimed by the advocates of liberal democracy as governing elites failed to provide social justice and equal opportunity. They doubt that the 1% at the top really care about the rest of the society.

Whatever “sheep’s clothing” the wolf of capital puts on, it devours labor and accumulates wealth and power only for those who hold capital and technology and for those who fall under its flag, including big media and influential think tanks.

To be fair, the concept of liberal democracy did help fostered a global liberal order after WWII led by the US acting as a catalyst for globalization, from which many countries including China and other emerging economies benefitted a great deal in their endeavors to modernize their economies.

So there are two faces of liberal democracy. One is the Western ideology and political arrangements, and the other is the liberal ideas that foster the building-up of a global governance system with the UN at its core that overall served the interests of countries around the world.

In that sense, it is said that China is a defender of and contributor to the global governance system.

Against that backdrop, many in the West label China’s development path and political system as “illiberal” in so far as China does not strictly follow “free election, multiparty system” and other “special features of liberal democracy”. The irony of history is that China’s huge success both economically and politically testifies to the validity and credibility of her development path, growth model as well as her political system that provides the social coherence and stability necessary for continuous economic growth and social progress. That is the democracy and freedom as defined in China’s discourse and narrative that contributes to the fullness and richness of democratic ideals of mankind.

Meanwhile, surely the liberal democracy as defined in American and Western discourse and its “universal” narrative is in serious crisis. The American presidential election of 2016, Brexit in mid-2016 and political radicalization of European countries from Hungary and Poland to Austria, France and Italy, all point to the discredit and decline of the liberal democracy so often touted as the only viable political narrative of today’s world and even claimed as the ultimate political model after the end of Cold War.

The reality is a different story, wherein the world is more colorful as China, India and other emerging economies not only thrive economically within the current “liberal” global order, but also contribute a great deal through civilization and cultural exchanges to a much richer and diversified governance system.

In addition to a defender of the global governance system we inherited since from the end of World War ll, China has been a contributor or reformer to the system as developing nations gain a greater share of world GDP and shifts in the global balance of power usher in a period of “great convergence”. That necessitates changes in the governance architecture. Without improvement and progress that gives developing nations a greater voice, the governance system would be unable to function properly.

For that matter, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and many others are in the same category. Yes, they are defenders of and contributors to the system, but not spoilers and free-riders as often accused by Western nations. This is actually the difference between two schools of thought in international relations, namely between zero-sum game and globalist thinkers.

So a simple interpretation of the global order as based on “liberal democracy” in purely American and European discourse and narrative is no longer valid. That is part and parcel of the globalization 2.0 or globalization in its new phase, wherein globalization has not only made free trade and investment truly global, but pushed democratization of international relations to a new level and made fairer and more just global governance a reality.

It is of course too early to conclude that liberal democracy is dead, but certainly it is in an unprecedented crisis and under attack even from insideWestern nations.

With President Trump in power, the US has turned itself into a vacillator in the liberal global order it created rather than a stabilizer, as America worries more than ever before that its hegemonic position in the world might lose luster and ground. It would be unfortunate if the leading power of globalization views the changing landscape as undermining its long-held domination of the world and therefore begins to force changes in the course of globalization.

The likely happen is a chaotic situation in which there are not only more trade frictions and less concerted action to tackle global challenges like climate change, but more geo-political entanglements and even confrontations. That is something all nations need to avoid for the common interest of mankind, even if the demise of liberal democracy is inevitable.

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