Populism – The Orphan Child of Democracy

Modern democracy is the crucible in which conflicts, grievances, rights, privileges, and power have been melded to produce a period of unprecedented peace following World War II, a period that […]
Published on September 29, 2020

Modern democracy is the crucible in which conflicts, grievances, rights, privileges, and power have been melded to produce a period of unprecedented peace following World War II, a period that gave rise to capitalism, to globalization, and to the vision of a global village. Yet democracy is under attack, being molested and undermined around the world, oftentimes by the very benefactors of its dividends.

It is incumbent on all of us who have benefited from democracy to understand this challenge, to defend democracy when it deserves defending, but seek change where reform is necessary. 

It is incumbent on policymakers to ensure that citizens, who might otherwise be complacent or unaware, or lack awareness of history, are provided with the tools to respond in an informed and effective manner.

It is also incumbent on policymakers, educators, and journalists to ensure that we contribute in ways that enhance and expand discussion, to facilitate informed reforms of systems, institutions, and policies, always working to preserve and strengthen the processes of positive change.  

Public protests and demonstrations are a product of democratic privilege. Protests and demonstrations are a healthy byproduct of democratic systems. Democracy is after all messy, its processes can be adversarial, large segments of the electorate can be left feeling unrepresented, and once elected governments can institute policies that may prove to be unpopular.  

There are today widespread protests across the globe on a host of issues that test democratic integrity. For instance, the protests for race reform in the United States and across the globe; protesters over new anti-terror legislation in the Philippines; protests over civil rights protections in Hong Kong; protests demanding a new social contract between citizens and state in Chile; protests in Brazil over cutback in funding for school textbooks; protests over a tax on WhatsApp usage in Lebanon, and protests over tax on gas in Iran. Contrary to skeptics and those who would seek leave from public accountability, these protests do not cannibalize democracy, they strengthen it.  

None-the-less there are movements based on grievances that challenge democracy. The following is a window into the types of grievances that give rise to attacks on democracy, on the “system”. It is a window into the emergence of what is termed neo-nationalism or populism, and while intended to incite thoughtful reflection it is by no means meant to be a definitive paper.

Groupthink and tribalism are natural and requisite for group survival. It is an instinctive response to the social nature of human beings. Tattooing and body piercing, masks and headgear, tartans, or the use of coats of arms, all represent identification with a specific group. Statues, monuments, plaques, and epitaphs all render a sense of belonging, of common cause and purpose. There is an almost instinctive propensity for humans to cling to the symbols, practices, and lore separating one group from another, and with that a persistent tendency for the reassertion of the bonds and lore of times past.1

Humans have always sought to form tribes for the protection of their cultural and geographic integrity. While essential for creating loyalty and security, tribalism has largely become secondary as communities coalesced under the influences of larger unifying forces of religion, empires, colonialism, and in the last hundred years the pursuit of global commerce.  

Tribalism has not disappeared, it is accepted and expressed in many ways in our everyday lives through loyalty to any number of organizations such as sports teams, clubs, fraternities and sororities, political parties, or alliances.  It is, therefore, not unnatural that citizens extend this natural tendency to macro relationships and systems, those that are political and national. 

The reason tribes exist is due to the transactional benefits of the relationships within a tribe; and a tribe’s sustainability is, therefore, dependent on the value of the mutually beneficial exchange. Once the exchange ceases to be mutually beneficial, either the individual is exiled, or the individual secedes, and if a sufficient number of individuals secede the tribe itself ceases to exist.   

Tribes compete on two principles.  First, to maximize gains for its members, this serves to ensure loyalty and affiliation. Second, to expand membership while maximizing individual gains, so as to be able to establish an advantage over other competing tribes.  These are also the fundamental dynamics of politics.   

Making sense of populism and the current disillusionment with institutions of democracy, and governance, in general, requires at least some understanding of historical events that influence our present world order. The reemergence of populism and old enmities may not seem as surprising when appraised within the context of the effectiveness and efficiency of the institutions for peace, social advancement, justice, and economic development that followed the end of WWII. These being the democratic institutions with which the tribalism of democracy contacted beneficial exchanges.

Populism in its most basic form is just that, a resurgence of older tribal values, affiliations, and practices. The term ‘neo’ implies that nationalism is new, when in fact it is not new.  Nationalism is a natural extension of tribalism and has been an exorable part of social systems.  What is new is the revivalism of earlier national sentiments. Today’s populism has its origin in an older world order based on ethnicity, religion, and geography, and has, at least in theory, been influenced by the institutions and systems that emerged following the Great Wars (WW I and WW II). 

There is a popular movement today that draws on a growing sentiment that the social contract advanced by the post-WWII global order has been illusory. The populism movement has effectively convinced many that the very institutions and policies intended for advancing democracy, peace, social justice, and prosperity have themselves become antithetical to the aspirations of just and equitable social systems. 

This disillusionment has lead to a revisionism and dissent against what many perceive as either failure of the post-WWII social contract; and others who seek reparations of what they perceive as old-world injustices. There are also those who have grown frustrated with, and resentful of, the democratic institutions that promised to make lives better, to listen to their voices, and give life to their vote.

The systems that gave voice to the millions of underrepresented and suppressed have themselves become targets for those who now voice dissatisfaction against those same systems. Ece Temelkuran, who examined the after-effects of the coup d’état against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, puts it in the following terms in her book How to Lose a Country-The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship:

“One of the stumbling blocks is that the critics of the phenomenon have realized that ‘rising populism’ is the strange fruit of the current practice of democracy.  As they looked deeper into the question they soon discovered that it wasn’t a wound that all of a sudden, appeared on the body politic, but was in fact a mutant child of crippled representative democracy.”2

Democracy and its co-joined twin, capitalism, face increasing skepticism, and both must confront critical challenges to their legitimacy across the world

The Washington-based think tank Freedom House, notes that the momentum towards democratization has worn off. Many countries struggle to accommodate the political swings and contentious debates intrinsic to democracy. Rapidly erected democratic institutions have come under sustained attack in nations that remain economically fragile or are still riven by deep-seated class or ethnic conflicts.3  

Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations notes:

 “In 2017, The Economist’s Democracy Index showed a decline in democratic health in seventy countries, using such criteria as respect for due process, religious liberty, and space given to civil society.  Among the nations scoring less well was the United States, which for the first time was rated as a “flawed democracy”, not a “full” one.”4 

It is a paradox; democracy provides the voice for dissention, which then threatens that very democracy, resulting in the anti-democratic suppression of the voice of dissent.  Democracy has itself informed and empowered sufficient numbers of citizens across the world so as to achieve the critical mass for creating a counter-movement against the very democratic institutions that provided the basis for the empowerment.  

A visit to the local bookstore reveals no shortage of warnings about the decline and end of democracy. Recent publications on the impending demise of democracy abound. How Democracy Dies, How Democracy Ends, The Life and Death of Democracy, Against Democracy, The People VS. Democracy, Democracy in Retreat, Democracy in Decline, World on Fire, and Democracy in Chains are just a few of the books that are sounding an alarm. 

But what is the common person’s understanding of democracy? Is it perceived as the holy grail of peace and prosperity? Is democracy sustainable? How does democracy survive an increasingly hyper-partisan electorate? Why are so many, even seemingly rational, citizens willing to risk the erosion of their hard-fought privileges? These are important questions, which policymakers, educators, and journalists, and every citizen should ask and grapple with if enfranchisement is to remain meaningful.  

One statement, perhaps above all others, that resonates as a definition of democracy is enshrined in the American Constitution; the words “ …government of the people, by the people, for the people…”. But democracy is much more than that. Democracy is not limited to the rights and processes of choosing a government; it is about citizen’s obligations and responsibility within that social contract. The other half of a democratic contract is perhaps best represented by the words of President Kennedy in his inaugural address, “…ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

This is the transactional nature of the relationship between government and citizens.

The challenge today arises from the inevitable processes of integrating those segments of the global community who have not been part of the equitable transactional relationships in the tribe of democracy while mitigating the threat to those who perceive their relative transactional benefits will be compromised.  

Today, in what is a global community, democracy requires, what Mike Mason in Turbulent Empires terms, a robust cultivation of society as a place where we experience a linked fate across our differences and separateness.  Situated conceptually and practically between state and personal life, the social is where citizens of vastly unequal backgrounds and resources are potentially brought together.5 

A linking of fate across differences and separateness echoes of a much more altruistic relationship, a very different concept than the primarily transactional foundations of tribalism. It also obliges a reconciliation of differences, of unequal backgrounds and resources. This is asking a lot for those whose positions are challenged by democracy in the global community; and is therefore not surprising that it also incites a movement to earlier, safer, times.

The injustices of slavery, apartheid, colonialism, imperialism, and the genocide of first nations peoples have all been renewed as catalysts for reform. The very history of the newly informed is being reexamined, not within the context of the victor, through whose lens history books, museums, and art is usually interpreted; but for the first time through the newly informed and empowered lens of the previously marginalized.6

Whether one agrees with this revisionism is a matter for another discussion, what is relevant here is the motivation. A motivation based on what as Mason terms a rebalancing between vastly unequal backgrounds and resources of the state and personal lives of citizens.  

There is a re-envisioning of heroes and symbols: Winston Churchill from the perspective of colonialism, King Leopold from the perspective of his victims in the Congo, or the Confederate flag from the perspective of black Americans. As protests and demonstrations are the children of democracy, the rebalancing and re-interpretation of history is a child of the democratic policies of diversity and inclusiveness.

Grievances have been complicated by an increasing suspicion of the so-called elite, the academics, journalists, scientists, and the educated, by both, those seeking revision and traditionalists; from the perspective of revisionists because they were complicit in the creation, perpetuation, and preservation of the history so far; and traditionalists because the same elite are now only too readily complicit in becoming party to the revision. 

To make matters worse, this phenomenon we now call populism has had the effect of drawing even centrists and moderates into the tribes that are either for or against reform, either conservative or liberal; even when it is democratically counterproductive, and not even necessarily based on reasoned analysis but for the expediency of political survival.  This is the hyper-partisanship that now threatens democratic rhetoric. Both, suspicion of the so-called elite and hyperpolarization add to the loss of confidence in existing systems, if not democracy itself.

Democracy has not been perfect, its institutions have often been flawed, and the democratic contract has failed in many instances, nor has democracy always been fair. Acknowledgement of shortcomings is an important step in the preservation of what may well be one of humanity’s greatest achievements. 

In his “Four Freedoms” speech of January 1941, President Roosevelt talked of a new and more just world, with freedom of speech and expression and of religion, and freedom from want and fear.7 Later that year in August of 1941 Churchill sketched out a world order in the Atlantic Charter, based on such liberal principles as collective security, national self-determination, and free trade among nations.8 The world was to be managed through the establishment of global organizations for the maintenance of peace, and the advancement of economic development.  

It can be contended that the last seventy-six years (1945 to 2021) have neither been as peaceful nor as cohesive as we would like to believe. The relative peace and stability of the post-war period has, in great part, been a dividend for the superpowers who drafted and executed the post-WWII world order: the signatories of the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, and the Potsdam Agreement in August of 1945.

The world was to be managed through the establishment of global organizations for the maintenance of peace, and the advancement of economic development. The United Nations, intended to be stronger than the League of Nations, would ensure peace and cooperation while the economic scheme known collectively as the Bretton Woods system including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs would ensure economic development and sustainability.9

These institutions and systems were to be a reflection of the aspirations of a new world but were in fact limited to a world envisioned by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin: the arbitrary redrawing of borders, creation of new countries, and the imposition of governance, authority, and systems that are perceived by many to have been arbitrary and self-serving.   

The Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Trade Organization (ITO), were the result of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference that took place in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July of 1944. The aim was to pursue a new world order that would prevent the violent conflicts of the early part of the 20th century. The Bretton Woods Agreements were the result of a compromise between two powers, the USA and Great Britain, towards addressing concerns for the post-war reconstruction of Europe and Asia, the post-war downturn in international trade, and an unstable monetary system.10

There was always certain arbitrariness to Bretton Woods and its institutions. In fact, Bretton Woods collapsed in 1971, a mere 27 years after its inception, when President Richard Nixon unilaterally announced the suspension of the dollar’s convertibility into gold; prompted largely by the United States uncontrolled military spending on the war in Vietnam.

And today there is growing criticisms with levels of democracy at the World Bank, its governance structure based on a weighted voting system, a powerful presidency, an asymmetry of power favouring donor countries over both recipient countries and civil society, a historical reluctance to release documents and data publicly, violations of human rights resulting from select Bank projects, possession of a relatively high level of supranationalism and autonomy in the world system, and a failure to achieve its mandates.11   

Criticism has even come from the highest levels of the IMF.  These are the words of World Bank’s former chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, published in the New Republic in April 2000, days before anti-globalization protesters descended on Washington:

“Next week’s meeting of the International Monetary Fund will bring to Washington, DC many of the same demonstrators who trashed the World Trade Organization in Seattle last fall. They’ll say the IMF is arrogant. They’ll say the IMF is secretive and insulated from democratic accountability. They’ll say the IMF’s economic ‘remedies’ often make things worse—turning slowdowns into recessions and recessions into depressions. And they’ll have a point. I was chief economist at the World Bank from 1996 until last November, during the gravest global economic crisis in a half-century. I saw how the IMF, in tandem with the US Treasury Department, responded. And I was appalled.”12

As a result of mounting concerns, many nations have sought alternative institutions, thereby further diminishing the legitimacy of Bretton Woods. Several European countries have now joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established by China as an alternative to the World Bank.13 These are consequential failures resulting in skepticism, not only of the IMF and World Bank, but a host of other global institutions at the heart of the democratic contact with the electorate around the globe. 

Like the World Bank and IMF, the United Nations has also been afflicted by similar challenges.  

It was at Yalta that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin crafted the United Nations and its Security Council, arbitrarily limited to five permanent members – United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China and France. Creating a structure that on the one hand extolled global cooperation, and on the other consolidated supremacy of the Security Council, while relegating the General Assembly to a non-consequential audience. 

The United Nations was to be the new improved institution for the preservation of peace, global cooperation, and dispute resolution; but with critical decisions being managed within the biases of the five permanent members of the Security Council. Roosevelt and Churchill had not, of course, anticipated that the wartime cooperation of the Federation of Russia would waver after the War, the iron curtain, or the resulting binary world – a democratic Western Bloc and a communist Eastern Bloc nor that the Security Council itself would become handicapped by the intractable ideological divide between its members.  

It has been said the United Nations perfectly embodies in institutional form the tragic paradox of our age; it had become indispensable before it had become effective and on the verge of collapse.14 The United Nations has had many existential moments; Cuba, the Balkans, Rwanda, and Iraq were just a few, perhaps the most serious injury to its legitimacy as a consequence of the Iraq War. There is no shortage of papers suggesting its imminent demise, if not its permanent marginalization in the field of international peace and security. 

During the deliberations of the war, there were profound divisions among the permanent five veto-wielding members of the Security Council on how best to respond to Iraq’s failure to conform to a long line of mandatory resolutions concerning weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Failure to overcome divisions resulted in the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 without explicit Security Council authorization for the use of force. The subsequent realization that the intelligence presented at the UN was fabricated, compounded by the absence of WMD, added to a lasting sense that the United Nations no longer had legitimacy to meet its charter-prescribed role in the field of peace and security.15 This erosion of legitimacy has damaged yet another critical global institution of democracy.

The problem, however, is not new.  As the ink was drying on post-WWII agreements, the world had suddenly become binary, with the polarization of the wartime Allied Powers into a Western Bloc constituted by Britain, the United States, and France on one side, and an Eastern Bloc constituted by Russia and its allies, and China.

By 1949 Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); a strategic partnership to defend against aggression by the Eastern Bloc.  An alliance that later expanded to include several other countries.16

In response, the Soviet Union and seven of its satellites (Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria) established the Warsaw Pact or Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO) in 1955 to defend against aggression by the Western Bloc.17

Within ten years of Potsdam, the superpowers were engaged in a ‘Cold War’, that would hold the rest of the world hostage to the possibility of a global conflict with the potential of destroying humanity, the two sides separated by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). This too was the start of new tribalism- just very large tribes.

While the West advanced capitalism and democracy as its ideology for the “free world”, the Eastern-bloc sought converts to communist ideology. Both sides creating new fronts for the advancement of their ideologies and/or resistance to influence by a countering ideology– Cuba and Vietnam as prime examples. Incidents such the invasion of the Bay of Pigs, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the falsified intelligence on WMD in Iraq are markers that have impacted the loss of legitimacy of the form of democracy championed by American foreign interest. The reality, for many, has been far removed from the one envisioned by Roosevelt in his “Four Freedoms” or that described by Churchill in the Atlantic Charter. 

The post-war order had given rise to a global arms race, deep suspicions, antagonism, and proxy wars that further eroded the long-term legitimacy of the structure and systems for international cooperation. For many, the cost and sacrifice extracted by intractable foreign conflicts are no longer justifiable –Afghanistan and Iraq as examples. There are also those who believe their governments have given away billions of dollars in foreign aid, security, health, and social development, and accepted far too many refugees, while their own advantage has eroded, and fellow citizens continue to be bound in unemployment, poverty and stagnation have become increasingly pessimistic.

At the same time, a number of countries reeling from the effects of imperialism and reluctant to be drawn into the Cold War coalesced to form the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).18 Established in Belgrade in September 1961, the NAM asserted self-determination by dismissing obligations to either superpower or being drawn into the new East-West dynamics. The NAM was in effect a repudiation of MAD and the scope and capacity of the United Nations. The transactional benefits with the old order were failing and NAM represented the formation of another new tribe.

Many countries, having exhausted the euphoria of independence and grappling with the consequences of intractable tribal, ethnic, and religious conflicts have over time become increasingly resistant to compliance with the United Nations – Middle East, India-Pakistan, and Palestine-Israel as prime examples. A reticence enhanced by a history of deadlocks at the Security Council that failed to prevent or resolve crises or deliver on the promise of peace and collaboration.

This contributed to the regionalization of alliances outside of the United Nations. The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), an organization for collective defence in Southeast Asia created by the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty,19 The Arab League, the re-emergence of a Sino-Russian block, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to name a few.  

There was also a sense that any moratorium on the proliferation of nuclear weapons capability by the original club, United States, Britain, Russia, and France was hypocritical. Policies on the control of nuclear proliferation, while vital to global security, were perceived by many as a threat to their own position within an evolving power balance. The acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by China, India and Pakistan signalled both, a failure by the institutions for global peace to mitigate the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the signalling of an ensuing realignment of future power balance.  

The post-war period also renewed recognition of the stark divergences between the poorer developing nations of the Southern Hemisphere compared to their richer counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere; what came to be termed the North/South Divide.  A divide that demarcated the existence of inequalities between the affluent nations whose populations represented a fraction of the world’s population but possessed a larger portion of the world income and their post-colonial counterparts to the south.  

American foreign policy played an important role in the design and expansion of post-war capitalism. Milton Friedman had become the influencing economist whose economic model tied democracy to political freedom to individual freedom.20  A model that suggests that true political freedom was born only through capitalism and that the two kinds of freedoms were almost always conjoined.  The result of his thesis – a society that is socialist cannot also be democratic; as consequence, developing nations that advance social programs, such as land reform, universal health care and education, or social support were deemed to be a threat to democracy and subject to being undermined by American foreign intervention.21

The term ‘banana republic’ was coined as a description of the policies that allowed American companies to control vast territories and production networks in South America to maintain their monopoly over agricultural production and mineral extraction. The United Fruit Company, as an example, had a near-monopoly over vast territories and production networks in Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, and the West Indies for dominance over the international banana trade. This policy of economic dominance of American corporations over local governments, supported by the United States government, led to many countries in South America being referred to as ‘banana republics’. In many instances, attempts by so-called banana republics to advance their economies and citizens through social welfare policies were deliberately thwarted by American interests in order to maintain economic policies beneficial to American investments.

For many, the very institutions whose democratic contract it was to promote advancement had, instead, aggravated disparity. A sentiment that aptly reflected in the following excerpt from an article in Open Democracy: 

The consequences of IMF and World Bank policies have been traumatic for the people of the South. They have increased poverty and inequality, deprived poor nations of their crucial resources, and directed their wealth towards the North. They have long played the central role in carrying out neoliberal offensive aimed at integrating the economies of the South by bringing about institutional changes in trade, export-oriented growth model, finance and technologies.

There is a growing realization that conditionalities attached to multilateral loans are a threat to the democratic rights of the people in debtor countries, and erode their control over their own resources. The structural reforms promoted by the IMF and the World Bank have dismantled the state’s regulation capacities while reinforcing the neoliberal plunderers through a complex set of debt politics.

Empirical evidence confirms that the policies of the IMF and World Bank have aggravated the debt issues of poor countries. External debt payments by developing country governments grew by 85% as a proportion of government revenue between 2010 and 2018. It is not wrong to believe that both institutions have lost their credibility. After seven decades, they have failed to deliver the mandate to stabilize the global economy and promote long-term economic development and poverty reduction by helping countries in distress. Contrary to their mandate, they have been responsible for multiple global debt crises in different periods.22

Justice requires that fairness must apply to the basic structures of society so that decisions arising out of those structures conform to conceptions of social values and aspirations. The cumulative effect of those decisions on the social and economic wellbeing of a society determines the long-term legitimacy of the structure and systems. The perception that engagement with institutions like the IMF was incumbent on commitments perceived as a threat to democratic rights has done little to engender trust and legitimacy; another reason for resentment and skepticism of post-war institutions and policies viewed as unfair and exploitative.

There is today a growing sense, particularly amongst the young, that global institutions intended to inform our sense of fairness and justices have failed. Young people have become increasingly disillusioned with government, withdrawn from democratic participation, and become suspicious of politics and institutions.

Many today are no longer satisfied with a world order that prioritizes economic and consumerism over those of social justice. They seek fair labour practices, policies against child labour, safe working conditions, environmental protection, social justice, gender equality, and anti-racism. This too is a signal that governance and politics are increasingly seen as a barrier rather than a means for achieving these goals.  

For many, the pursuit of the capitalist dream has proven to be increasingly elusive, including many in more advanced societies, who too no longer see the system working on their behalf. The capitalist dream and pursuit of the egalitarian society have been marred by too many proxy wars, unprecedented displacements of civilian non-combatants, and genocidal persecutions in the face of apoplectic objections but a paralytic United Nations.

There is a popular disillusionment with systems that promised advancement of the human condition but seem, despite continued assurances by governments and leaders, to have failed to eradicate poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, equality, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, or achieve consensus for ensuring environmental sustainability.23

According to the World Bank, 85% (629 million) of the world’s extreme poor today live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa- India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh.24 Nearly 521 million people live in the 25 poorest countries.  And, in a world where proof of identity is increasingly essential, the births of 166 million children under age 5 (25%) have never been recorded, and 237 million children under 5 do not have a birth certificate.25 

Unemployment amongst youth (ages 16-24) in the United States was 22.5 percent at its best in 1989, and 38.2 in 2019.26  According to the European Commission, more than 3.3 million young people (aged 15-24 years) were unemployed in 2019 in the EU. In 2018, more than 5.5 million young people (aged 15-24 years) were neither in employment nor in education or training in the EU, with peaks of more than 30% in several countries.27

These are some of the conditions that give impetus for manipulation and resentment. Dynamics that contribute to increasingly polarized opinions on the role of governments and the institution for governance – one liberal and the other conservative. Positions so entrenched that neither side is willing to concede any ground to the other, even when doing so might render a better outcome.  

This deadlock has handcuffed and compromised the legitimacy of institutions central to democracy. The legitimacy of an independent judiciary, institutions of education, news media, social media, and even legitimacy of the electoral process have been brought into question; the erosion of which continues to diminish confidence in government and post-war institutions.28  

Democracy is neither conservative nor liberal, there are no identifiers that indicate political affiliation on the epitaphs of the fallen heroes we recall every November 11.  As policymakers, educators, journalists, and as citizens we need to ensure that we contribute in ways that enhance public knowledge, dialogue, and facilitate in reconciling conflicting perspectives while working to preserve and strengthen those aspects that are positive. 

Unfortunately, the functioning of institutions for global governance and accountability have become so far removed from the daily lives of most citizens that few understand their limitations or scope. Most citizens in advanced societies, let alone those that lag in public education, simply no longer understand, or trust global institutions. Such systems and structures are today too far removed, for most, from their shared conception of justice – and in-fact seen as ineffective and unjust.  

John Rawls, the renowned moral and political philosopher notes: “Institutions exist at a certain time and place when the actions specified by it are regularly carried out in accordance with a public understanding that the system of rules defining the institution is to be followed.”29

There has been an erosion of a common basis for determining mutual expectations, of a shared conception of justice and a common public understanding of what is just and unjust; something Rawls stipulates is requisite in a well-ordered and effectively regulated society.

From a policy perspective, consensus cannot emerge from a system prone to suspicion, suspected to preferring the few to the many, or the unbridled pursuit of wealth when that wealth is amassed at a rate greater than at which the millennial goals are achieved.  

Leaders like Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, and Rodrigo Duterte have been able to tap into this reality of disillusionment, the tendency for the reassertion of the ties and lore of times past, and the instinctive propensity for recalling the symbols, practices, and lore separating one group from another. This populism in its most basic form is just that, a resurgence of older tribal values, affiliations, and practices.

It is not enough to dismiss grievances as populism. Democracies give rise to tyrants when democratic systems become too introspective, too presumptive of their universality, and above all marginalize popular accountability. Tyrants become popular because of their ability to weave conspiracies, and fashion resentment out of disparity and ignorance. 

The world is changing; it has always been changing and will continue to evolve.  And change is always contentious, some will agree and some will disagree, some will win and some will lose; that’s the reality of social systems whether tribal or global.  Democracy, despite its failings, has proven to be the best of imperfect systems for providing as close to win-win outcomes as possible.  

Democracy today depends on our connectedness; cooperation requires inclusiveness and well being of every society and every citizen.  If democracy and capitalism are to continue to be the systems that provide social, economic, cultural, and moral advancement, institutions for political and economic advancement must renew and re-assert their values, and reinstate the centrality of education to build the social capital necessary to counter global pessimism. 


Anil Anand is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Anil served as a police officer for 29 years; during his career, some of his assignments included divisional officer, undercover narcotics officer, and intelligence officer. He has worked in Professional Standards, Business Intelligence, Corporate Communications, the Ipperwash Inquiry (judicial public inquiry), and Interpol.

Photo by twenty20photos

[show_more more=”SeeEndnotes” less=”Close Endnotes”]

  1. Campbell, Joseph, and Bill Moyers. The power of myth. Anchor, 2011.
  2. Temelkuran, Ece. How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship. HarperCollins UK, 2019. (P. 31)
  3. House, Freedom. “Freedom in the world 2019: Democracy in Retreat.” Freedom House: Washington DC and New York (2019). https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/democracy-retreat Accessed: June 30, 2020
  4. Albright, Madeleine. “Fascism: A warning.” (2018).
  5. Mason, Mike. Turbulent Empires: A History of Global Capitalism Since 1945. McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP, 2018. 
  6. Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s ghost: A story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
  7.   FDR Presidential Library & Museum
  8. Roosevelt, Franklin D., and Winston S. Churchill. “The Atlantic Charter, 1941.” Annals of America 16 (1968): 89-90
  9. The World Bank. Bretton Woods Monetary Conference, July 1-22, 1944, https://www.worldbank.org/en/about/archives/history/exhibits/bretton-woods-monetary-conference Accessed: April 10, 2020
  10. The World Bank. Bretton Woods Monetary Conference, July 1-22, 1944, https://www.worldbank.org/en/about/archives/history/exhibits/bretton-woods-monetary-conference Accessed: April 10, 2020
  11. Zappile, Tina M. (2013), “Governence and Democracy in the World bank” in Watch Report edited by Giovanni Finizio, Lucio Levi, and Nicolas Vallinoto.  London: Routledge Press.  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tina_Zappile/publication/280925542_Governance_and_Democracy_in_the_World_Bank/links/55cba65c08aeca747d6c1fee.pdf Accessed: June 11, 2020
  12. Joseph Stiglitz quoted byWade, Robert. “Showdown at the World bank.” New Left Review 7 (2001): 124.
  13.   Higgins, Andrew and Sanger David E. “3 European Powers Say They Will Join China-Led Bank”, New York Times March 17, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/18/business/france-germany-and-italy-join-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank.html Accessed: June 11, 2020
  14. Berdal, Mats. “The UN Security Council: ineffective but indispensable.” Survival 45, no. 2 (2003): 7-30.
  15. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) https://www.nato.int Accessed: April 10, 2020
  16. The WTO was dissolved on March 31,1991 when Soviet military commanders announced they were relinquished control of Warsaw Pact forces but replaced by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on 15 June 2001 creating a strategic alliance between the Republic of Kazakhstan, the People’s Republic of China, the Kyrgyz Republic, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Tajikistan, and the Republic of Uzbekistan. 
  17. History and Evolution of Non-Aligned Movement, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, August 22, 2012 https://mea.gov.in/in-focus-article.htm?20349/History+and+Evolution+of+NonAligned+Movement Accessed: July 1, 2020
  18. SEATO was disbanded in 1977, ASEAN: See https://asean.org Accessed: July 1, 2020
  19. Klein, Naomi, and Neil Smith. “The shock doctrine: a discussion.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 4 (2008): 72-74
  20. Brown, Wendy. In the ruins of neoliberalism: the rise of antidemocratic politics in the west. Columbia University Press, 2019.
  21. Khaliq, Syed Abdul. “The IMF and World Bank have lost all legitimacy. We need new alternatives”, Open Democracy, April 10, 2019.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/imf-and-world-bank-have-lost-all-legitimacy-we-need-new-alternatives/ Accessed: June 11, 2020
  22. World Health Organization, Millennium Development Goals (MDG), https://www.who.int/topics/millennium_development_goals/about/en/
  23. The World Bank. “Year in Review: 2019 in 14 Charts” December 20, 2019. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2019/12/20/year-in-review-2019-in-charts  Accessed: April 8, 2020
  24. Stebbins, Samuel. “These are the 25 poorest countries in the world”, USA Today   July 8, 2019 https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2019/07/07/afghanistan-madagascar-malawi-poorest-countries-in-the-world/39636131/  Accessed: April 8, 2020
  25. U.S, Bureau of Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/youth-labor-force-participation-rate-at-61-point-8-percent-in-july-2019-a-9-year-high.htm Accessed: July 3, 2020
  26. European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1036 Accessed: July, 3, 2020
  27. Kennedy, Randall. “What, Exactly, Do We Mean by ‘Democracy’ Anyway?” New York Times, May 7, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/books/review/astra-taylor-democracy-may-not-exist-but-well-miss-it-when-its-gone.html  Accessed: April 13, 2020
  28. Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, 2009.


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