Those voting for populist leaders don’t want to overthrow the system, they want it to become more responsive to them’
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Those voting for populist leaders don’t want to overthrow the system, they want it to become more responsive to them’

With the rise of populist political forces across the globe, democratic values appear to be under pressure. Patrick Basham, director of Democracy Institute, Washington, spoke with Rudroneel Ghosh about why global democracy is actually healthy and the focus ought to be on processes:

How would you describe the health of democracy today?

I may be in a minority but I think the health of democracy globally today is pretty good. I know that many sophisticated intellectuals today see democracy as glass half empty. I understand where they are coming from. People they thought were outside shouting are now sitting in the room with them, and they are not comfortable with this. But the reason I am optimistic is that in many countries a situation has developed where many people have concluded that the political system no longer works for them. And rather than a system of democracy that allows them a representative voice, they see a system that tells them how things should be. So they have seen elections since at least the 1990s as a way for the elites to ratify their position. This is a sentiment that is among ordinary people both on the right and the left. And this is why populism is on the rise and successful populist leaders are appealing to them.

For example, in the US many Obama voters ended up voting for Trump in the 2016 election. So those who are voting for populist leaders are essentially shaking up the political snow globe. They don’t want to overthrow the system, but they want the system to become more responsive to them. And unless we want democracy to become its ancient Athenian version, it has to work for the largest number of people.

So are there anything called fundamental democratic values? If yes, why have we failed to universalise them?

I think there are. Participation, equal vote, freedom of speech and press, and transparency are all core democratic values. You also need to develop a culture where the losers accept losing. But sadly in many parts of the world that is not the case. Culturally in those places if you lose you find another way to win – financially, militarily, etc. But if you are going to have a democracy, accepting loss in elections is fundamental. But there are two reasons why we have failed to universalise these values.

First, these values often don’t suit the interests of powerful actors, like in the case in many post-colonial African nations. Second, democratisation is evolutionary. And the predominant notion in the US since the Iraq war has been that if we export elections, poll counts and freedom of speech, we will have a fully functional democracy. This ignores the fact that for democracy to sustain it has to be cultural. I don’t think there is any place that can’t be democratic, but it depends on where they are on the democracy continuum. In most cases, you need to have a certain level of economic development where people care enough. Because if your focus is on food on the table and a roof over your head, you don’t care about who you get to vote for.

With the rise of China there is a growing sense that development is more important than democracy and the latter is overrated. How do you counter this?

In the Chinese case there was a realisation a generation ago that they needed to do better. They made a lot of fundamental economic changes that have proven to be beneficial. So the country became much richer. So what happens next? The problem is that the system that allowed that change is not keen on allowing other changes. Their notion is if you are richer and happier you are not going to cause any trouble. But I think in the long-term their political system is unsustainable. Given the Chinese people’s growing exposure to the wider world, there is stimulus for change. And that’s why the Chinese government is worried and doubling down on control as an overreaction. They know in the larger scheme of things they are losing control. In this context, the Hong Kong protests are interesting. I think Hong Kong is where China will be in the future, because Hong Kong society is way ahead in the democracy continuum than rest of China. In Hong Kong you have an early 20th century political system stuck on top of a 21st century economy. So we need to be patient with democratic evolution.

How do you ensure interest groups do not capture policy making in evolving democracies?

Interest groups exist to represent diverse interests. Fundamentally they are positive. But the trap is when the bureaucracy or politicians become captive to a particular interest group. In America this is often the defence industry. In the West historically the tobacco lobby came to be very powerful.

So how do you make it work? Governments have to make sure that processes are transparent where everyone’s views are welcome but obviously not everyone’s views will translate into policy. This goes back to the issue of representation and ‘Did I have a say’ or ‘Was the process fair even if I don’t accept the outcome’. It shouldn’t be about ‘We don’t like you so we will ignore everything you say’.

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