Winston Churchill famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others." And 20 years ago, democracy was thought to be on the march around the globe. But a recent article in the Economist magazine asks "What's gone wrong with Democracy? And they consider several answers.
The financial crisis of 2008 and 9 - and resulting recession - caused many to lose faith in political systems that bailed out bankers with taxpayer money and ignored growing wealth inequality.
Secondly, the Chinese demonstrated that it’s possible to combine authoritarian control with phenomenal economic growth. A 2013 Pew Global Attitudes Survey found 85% of Chinese are "very satisfied" with their country's direction compared to 31% for Americans.
To much of the world, our model of democracy is now seen as damaged goods, at best. Outsiders see Washington as diminished by gridlock, trivialized decision-making, the inability even to pass a budget, and a major party willing to shut down government to make a point.
Add Iraq to that - where in the name of bringing democracy to the Middle East, we caused widespread suffering, and spawned precious little democracy.
This worldwide disillusionment affects both developing and developed countries. Look at Thailand and Egypt, but also Europe - and the rise of populist right-wing parties in France, Greece, and the Netherlands. In fact, more than half of the voters in 7 European Union countries told pollsters they have no trust in government at all.
Globalization is another factor. Since the 18th Century, nation states have been the engines of political action. But their power is being challenged from above by the growth in supranational bodies, like the International Monetary Fund, globalized corporations and banking, and from below by a profusion of non-governmental organizations.
Governments are hard pressed to square long-term problems with short-term constituent demands. And there doesn’t seem to be a simple remedy for any of this, or a solution equally applicable to all. In mature political systems, cutting the power of special interests means limiting the number of goodies the state can hand out - so the Economist article is calling for a "narrower" state.
Nascent democracies might learn from the celebrated French observer of 19th C. America, Alexis de Tocqueville, who warned against the tyranny of the majority. As did the Founding Fathers, he called for robust checks and balances on government power – understanding that we may need to throw a judicious amount of sand in the gears from time to time to slow things down - but not to the point of gridlock.
Overall, a democracy needs what any car owner wants - smooth operation with good brakes. And one way to get that is to push more decisions toward the people. For this we turn again to DeTocqueville, who wrote that the New England town meetings “are to liberty what primary schools are to science, they bring it within the peoples' reach, they teach men how to use it and enjoy it."