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May 24, 2015

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Is democracy in trouble?

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We know American politics are dysfunctional. But it’s worth asking if there is something especially flawed about our democracy.

Our circumstances certainly have their own particular disabilities: a radicalization of conservative politics, over-the-top mistrust of President Barack Obama on the right, high-tech gerrymandering in the House, and a Senate snarled by non-constitutional super-majority requirements.

Still, while it may not be much of a comfort, the democratic distemper is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Across most of the democratic world, there is an impatience bordering on exhaustion with electoral systems and political classes.

Citizen dissatisfaction is hardly surprising in the wake of a deeply damaging economic downturn. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting. We should consider whether democracy itself is in danger of being discredited. Politicians might usefully disentangle themselves from their day-to-day power struggles long enough to take seriously their responsibility to a noble idea and the systems that undergird it.

It’s not hard to discover that this conundrum is global and not just our own. “Has democracy had its day?” is the headline on Columbia University historian Mark Mazower’s cover story in the May issue of Prospect, a British magazine. The subhead: “Electoral politics has had a bad decade.”

This month, the Transatlantic Academy, a global partnership of think tanks led by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, issued “The Democratic Disconnect,” a sober report by a group of distinguished academics.

“Democracy is in trouble,” the report begins. “The collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding. Democratic governments often seem crippled in their capacity to deliver what their people want and need. They are neither as responsive nor as accountable as they need to be in an era of hard choices and rising nondemocratic powers. There is widespread concern about apparent declining rates of voter participation and about the alienation or disaffection of citizens from the political process.”

In Europe, the authors noted, “there is fear that the distance between ordinary citizens and the politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels compromises democratic legitimacy.” In the United States, “lamentations about gridlock and polarization are the order of the day.” Even our peaceable neighbor Canada is not immune. “Canadians,” they write, “worry about the tendency of their political system to place largely unaccountable power in the hands of the prime minister.”

The report does include some useful suggestions for reviving the democratic spirit and improving democratic practice. But it is not alarmist to be uneasy about democracy’s prospects. Ernst Hillebrand, the head of international policy analysis for the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the German Social Democratic Party’s think tank, describes a chilling finding in a 2009 survey by the German polling firm Forsa: “that 0 percent — yes, zero percent — of workers in Germany believe they can have a significant impact on how policy in Germany is shaped via the ballot box.”

And bear in mind that a poll released last week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that Germans are far more satisfied with their country’s situation than are their European neighbors.

In a conversation last week during a visit to Washington, Hillebrand pointed to two streams of discontent the world’s democracies face. One is material. The other might be called spiritual.

On the one side, large numbers of lower-middle-class and working-class voters have seen their economic standing deteriorate over two or three decades. There has been a substantial transfer of wealth and income from labor — which is how most people pay their way — to capital. Productivity gains no longer lead to wage gains. This builds justified frustration.

At the same time, he says, many citizens, especially the young, have enhanced expectations for “participation, self-realization and control over their lives.” They do not see current electoral arrangements in the democracies giving them much chance to achieve any of these goals.

Since World War II, bouts of economic growth have allowed the democracies to buy their way out of trouble. One can hope this will happen again — and soon. In the meantime, politicians might contemplate their obligations to stewardship of the democratic ideal. They could begin by pondering what an unemployed 28-year-old makes of a ruling elite that expends so much energy feuding over how bureaucrats rewrote a set of talking points.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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