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Disgruntled Democracies

Why the problem is far greater than nationalist resurgence.

June 8, 2019

Credit: Ganesh Kumar -

Advanced countries in Europe and North America are facing an existentialist crisis of their democracies.

Once dominant large parties are disintegrating, and governance becomes more and more difficult as there are many smaller parties or – in case of the United States – a growing network of seemingly incompatible constituencies, which seem to paralyze the decision-making process.

The question is: Why? The easy answer is that a rising number of people in advanced countries feel disenfranchised and as a default solution they feel drawn to nationalist ideologues, which has led to a resurgence of extremist and – in many cases anti-democratic – parties or has made existing parties more anti-democratic.

While an increase in nationalist propaganda, isolationist tendencies and a decline in valuing our democratic principles cannot be denied, we would sell ourselves short if we accepted that as root of our problems.

The disenchantment with the status quo of our existing democratic institutions affect vast majorities of people in advanced countries, most of whom would never consider it palatable to vote for those who preach hatred. And yet, they are without a doubt frustrated with the way things are.

A strong track record

There are several reasons for this unhappiness with the quality of our democratic governments. First, democracy in most European countries and in North America now has a strong track record.

And democracy has been strongly associated by the people with consistent economic and social progress. Each generation in our democracies has done better than their parents, unless disrupted by war.

This continuous generational progress has been accepted as an unmovable fact. Yet, for the first time, this progress is at risk for the current generation.

It is far from certain that young people today will be better off than their parents. This is extremely unsettling, not just for them, but even for their predecessor generations.

A potential paradigm shift

Of course, there are many causes for this potential paradigm shift whereby the economies of Western democracies will no longer progress as they have for decades.

One, often overlooked, factor is that one might argue that there is a natural developmental plateau — once an economy has reached a certain size that size becomes its constraint.

In case of the United States, it is much harder to grow an economy with a GDP of $20 trillion at a sustainable growth rate of 3% than an economy that once stood at just $10 trillion of GDP.

The lack of this progression and the risk that future generations may not do better than past generations is then squarely blamed on the established political parties.

Clearly, so many people feel, they have not done their job in governing or we would not be in this predicament. Political mistakes notwithstanding, this is neither fair nor accurate.

More complex challenges

Second, and equally if not more important, the challenges that our societies face are more complex and more enormous than any we might have faced in human history.

Finding workable solutions to these challenges, the job of our elected officials, may very well be beyond anybody’s capacity. Yet, that does not put into question the value of democracy, but rather shows our limitations as human beings.

Let us start with climate change. You can take plastic bags and bottles away from people, you can introduce the most intricate recycling programs, you can even ask people to eat less meat. Maybe all of that is important, but in the end, it is going to help the planet only at the margin.

Changing the composition of our energy sources critical to our lives, is the biggest challenge we face. The complexity of going green or zero-emission is a technological one and it is far from solved.

Abandoning coal is easy, abandoning nuclear is easy, abandoning even natural gas is easy. But replace it how? Wind and solar energy cannot do it. And take wind turbines for example. They kill millions of birds and bees every year!

For us to have plants and eat only plant food, because we “should not” eat meat from methane emitting cows, requires bees — without bees, no plants. So, politicians like all humans, including scientists, are really stumped and overwhelmed.

Ageing societies

Then, there is the ageing of many societies in advanced countries. Never before have we faced such a problem in human history.

Populations were always growing and our social systems in most democracies were designed for future generations to take care of the elderly. With an upside-down population pyramid, that model is at risk.

But how do we really deal with that? By creating massive poverty among the elderly? By raising retirement ages? As for the latter, let me just point at two major problems in that regard.

First — age discrimination. In many sectors in many societies, there is blatant age discrimination. In most societies our democratic governments have also made this an illegal practice.

And yet, those laws are – in practice – unenforceable. So, raising the retirement age does not work for those actively discriminated against. It will impoverish them.

The other problem with raising the retirement age in most societies is that life expectancy of the working classes has risen far less and sometimes not at all when compared to white collar workers over the last 20-30 years.

So, raising working age for all means that the working classes will have even less time to enjoy their post-work lives. Is it fair?

Governments in all advanced democratic countries are simply confounded by how to solve this puzzle in a manner that is just. That does not render them incompetent. Helpless, maybe, but not incompetent.

The challenge of technology

Then, there is the challenge of technology. People in many countries demand digitalization of government.

But elected officials have to consider the risks to our privacy and the potentially irreparable harm if our data were hacked into by the Russians or other bad actors. They have to worry that digitalization could bring down our entire system.

The private sector does not know what to do about it. How can we expect this from government?

A well-targeted breach of a digitized government can literally kill people. What we once needed nuclear weapons for, can be achieved from a computer terminal today.

Should politicians just go full throttle ignoring these serious threats? What if the horrific happens, who gets blamed?

I am sure those who were most vociferous about our lack of progress on digitalization will be the first to blame our governments for lack of controls (to be sure controls of the uncontrollable). So, many politicians are paralyzed by this and choose inaction over taking incalculable risks.

Blaming governments is too easy

In other words, it is easy to blame government for inaction, for incompetence, for bureaucracy, for lack of new ideas, for lack of solutions to complex problems. Too easy.

Yes, maybe a country’s federal structure impedes quicker action, but are others doing better? Is France with highly concentrated central government power doing better? Is Russia with an autocrat doing better? Is China with a strong central government and – often enlightened policies – doing better?

I am not even making reference to the failed state of the United States in this list of comparison. I venture to say that all democratic governments are simply humanly unable to address our most challenging problems.

What I do believe is that freedom, self-determination and an open society are the key values that the people and our governments must protect.

Given the enormity of our challenges, government first and foremost should serve as a protector of these values.

Secondly, all we can hope for in terms of our enormous problems is that these governments are good administrators. The solutions to these problems may still be out of reach, but in fully open societies we may stand a better chance to find solutions over time.

I think we all have to take a step back and ask ourselves, what would we do if we were omnipotent with no checks or balances and could implement policies at will? Would we know the answers to these complex questions? As for myself, the answer is a resounding “No”.


Advanced countries in Europe and North America are facing an existentialist crisis of their democracies.

A rising number of people in advanced countries feel disenfranchised and feel drawn to nationalist ideologues.

It is far from certain that young people today will be better off than their parents. This is extremely unsettling.

Given the enormity of our challenges, government first and foremost should serve as a protector of our values.