Monday, August 7, 2017

Why Democratic Legitimacy is a Double-Edged Sword for Political Stability

Whether democracy is universally applicable is perhaps the political, ethical, and philosophical question of the past decades.  From the confidence of democracy as the logical "end of human history" in the immediate aftermath of Soviet collapse, to the failure of newly installed democratic structures to bring prosperity and peace to post-dictatorship Iraq and Afghanistan, democracy has only divided opinions in its implementation despite the fact that no credible alternative has emerged in the recent years to challenge its moral authority in the eyes of liberal internationalists.

Amidst the continued failures of newly established democracies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the very foundations of democracy, supposedly a pinnacle of Western civilization to be spread globally in the eyes of the morally righteous, are facing just as much existential threat in the Western heartlands as democratic institutions are losing credibility elsewhere.  The rise of anti-democratic tendencies in supposed democracies like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, not to mention Russia and the US, can no longer be dismissed as isolated actions of a few political opportunists seeking to consolidate personal power at the expense of democracy.

But how can more and more of these political opportunists gain power in some of the world's most stable democracies?  Are people simply too stupid to see their antidemocratic tendencies, or are institutions powerless to halt those who seek to trigger democratic meltdowns?  If the electoral victory of Donald Trump can be illustrative, the answer may actually lie in one of democracy's core strengths: its ability to ensure stable successions of the political leadership by granting legitimacy to new leaders in a comparatively uncomplicated, direct, and indisputable way.

In a democracy, why a leader is a leader is crystal clear: the most popular as deemed by a fair counting of the ballot box.  He who wins the most popular support wins the top office.  The straightforward way democracy christians the top leader is in stark contrast to authoritarian states.  States without fair and free elections must rely on constantly changing, opaque ways to ensure the people consider the current leaders to be legitimate, ranging from appreciation of provision of security, national greatness, economic growth, to fear of retribution against opposition, or even simple brainwashing.

The simplicity of legitimacy provision under a democracy ensures political stability in a way that authoritarian state cannot.  In authoritarian states, those opposing the incumbent must use force to wrest political control, using force to convince the people that a regime change, despite instability caused by collapse of the existing state and subsequent brief anarchy, has greater benefits than the misrule of the incumbent.  In a stable democracy, the same persuasion has little cost for the people.  The people can try out the opposition, and return to the incumbent later, all without needing to fear instability during the transition.

But it is precisely that lack of political costs associated with change in government that provide many fringe characters from undertaking legitimate careers in democracies completely unhindered.  Think of it this way.  In an authoritarian state, to oppose the incumbent will require a difficult battle against an entrenched political force fused with state institutions.  Without enough resources at hand, whether it be popular support, capital, or arms, accumulated, the opposition would not dare openly challenging the power of the state.  Yet, such resources are unnecessary in a democracy.  the opposition just needs to know how to talk persuasively and market them on mass media for public consumption.

The extremely low barrier to entry for high politics in a democracy, compared to an autocracy, means that a diverse set of characters, both with wisdom for the state's development and fringe interests representing tiny minorities, can be heard almost equally by the general populace.  The democratic opposition, unlike authoritarian ones, need not have resources at hand before openly becoming the opposition; instead, the democratic opposition can simply talk themselves into more and more political resources in the form of popular support (and with it, funds) through sheer power of persuasion.

And that is precisely how people with zero political experience like Trump can become major contenders for the top office.  Democracies allow pure talkers to become leaders, without fearing the weakness of legitimacy.  But as leaders, these "pure talkers" may not content themselves with the political status quo.  They may use the power legitimately granted to them to reshape institutions to their own favor, ensuring political mandates granted by popular support are executed in ways that they see as most appropriate.  Hitler is the extreme example in this case.

Often, despite institutional constraints (such as checks and balances), some of the attempts to change the institutional status quo becomes unstoppable, as people have already elected the people making the changes as legitimate political representatives.  Moreover, elected leaders can often persuade the general public to grant them further powers to legitimately change the political status quo, manipulating people into thinking the changes as indispensable in the face of changing reality.  Hungary's and Turkey's political changes, supposedly in response to continued refugee flows from the Middle East, are good examples.

All in all, the ballot box, while providing a polity with the freedom to expose itself to the diversity of political views and interests in the interest of inclusiveness, simultaneously introduced enormous risks to the state as the low barrier for entering the political arena introduce many unscrupulous characters keen to legitimately bend the public's will for personal benefits at the expense of the state's long-term health.  The people's opinions are directly linked to the institutional integrity of the nation.  How democracies will manage this legitimacy paradox will determine its long-term political stability.  

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