Our Democracy

Luis Rubio

Mexican democracy is in problems: for some, it is the cause of the rise in criminality; for others, it has permitted the decentralization of power that, in turn, gave free rein to the governors to waste resources, incur in all types of acts of corruption and thrive in impunity; for the majority, democracy has not brought with it a better system of government, a more successful economy or a more egalitarian society. According to these diagnoses, the solution -implicit, because (nearly) nobody dares to be so politically incorrect as to propose it openly- rests in the reconstruction of the old political system or something similar.  That is precisely what Morena wants and what many members of PRI will seek at their coming convention.

The debate on the validity and viability of democracy is universal. The electoral “surprises” of recent times speak for themselves: the decision of British voters to withdraw from the European Union (the so-called “Brexit”); the election of Donald Trump; the electoral strength of Marine Le Pen in France; the referendum to grant virtually unlimited powers to the President of Turkey; and the envy that the capacity of the Chinese government to impose decisions and reforms generates in vast political and intellectual circles. All these are nothing other than examples of the pummeling that democracy is the object of throughout the world.

The wrangling between the critics of democracy and its defenders and proponents is burgeoning and sharp, not to say violent. Many attribute the resurgence of populism to the defects of democracy, others to its excesses. In the political revolts that lie behind Brexit and Trump the perception, and the anger, is noteworthy that democracy has become dismembered because voters no longer have the capacity to influence -or decide about- things that affect them: this is the same whether it concerns a distant regulatory body that oversees what can be imported or exported or a supranational entity that exacts standards that are different from those favored by the local community. In a word, some criticize democracy because of the problems that it (supposedly) engenders, while others bemoan the erosion of it. There is no unique pattern.

The complexity of the moment through which we are living -elections, insecurity, corruption, the absence of leadership and a lengthy etcetera- accentuates the perception that this is an exceptional and exclusive phenomenon of our era. However, more than two thousand years ago, Plato argued that tyranny can emerge from a mature democracy on employing the mechanisms of democracy itself, while Thucydides stated that Athens was “in theory a democracy, but in fact ruled by the foremost individual.” Then, as now, some deplored the limits of democracy while others viewed it as the grounds for extant quandaries. Little has changed over these millennia.

Whatever the reason for the unease and disfunctionality discerned from all quarters, the result is a revolution in expectations, perceptions and electoral behavior. The gap between the polls and the outcomes of diverse ballot boxes worldwide -on occasion dramatic- suggest that the population in innumerable nations happens upon no answer in the existing democratic forms, whether these are relatively new as in Mexico or ancestral as in the Athens of old.

Nor is there consensus concerning the nature of the problem: for some, those who attempt to justify the ascent of populism, the issue is the fault of the politicians, who do not know how to lead, who decide according to their own interests and who have alienated the populace. For those for whom the subject of dispute stems from democracy itself, the blame is placed on the technocrats, who ordain their own predilections above the electors’ prerogatives: something especially disparaged about the European bureaucracy in Brussels, but also by NAFTA dispute-settlement panels. There are also those who assert that the issue at heart is the product of the self-same representative democracy in that, on the voters’ transferring their jurisdiction to the popular representatives (congressional members and senators), politicians have become insulated and do not feel obligated to the voters. This comprises a triangle in which each vertex entertains greater or lesser incidence in each country, in accord with the local circumstances. What is universal is the notion that democracy does not satisfy, which frequently generates strange and surprising outcomes.

Is democracy to blame? Above all, the question entails at least two assumptions: first, that there exists a sole democratic form and structure; and, second that democracy is thoroughlyfunctional. All we Mexicans know that our democracy embodies enormous flaws, but the main fault, to my way of thinking, is a very simple one: we have adopted some democratic configurations (such as electoral competition), but we have not embraced democracy as a system of government. Our problem is not democracy but rather the persistence of the authoritarian system of yesteryear, but now without its time-honored muscle or capacity of action. The point at issue is very straightforward: as the current government has proven, returning to the past is not possible. The alternative is to be resolute in aimlessness or build a new political structure.