Rethinking Liberalism: Globalisation and Democratic Regression
Has globalisation led to the triumph of democracy? Only temporarily, says Michael Zürn, Director at the Berlin Social Science Center. It has also brought forth new opponents of liberal democracy, both at home and through authoritarian powers. 
Globalisation has led to the temporary triumph of democracy. It foiled the socialist world’s strategy of isolation from the dynamics of capitalist and democratic societies. It increased the pressure for renewal in these societies and ultimately brought them crashing. Without globalisation there would have been no 1989.
At the same time, globalisation has brought forth and strengthened the new opponents of liberal democracy. On the one hand, through the export of capital and knowledge, it has introduced economic dynamism to regions that for a long time failed in the face of the challenges of catch-up development. East Asia in particular has benefited from globalisation and found its own path to prosperous modernity. Initially, this process could be observed in societies that also democratised in the course of their economic dynamism. After 1989, on the other hand, China in particular proved that there need not be a close connection between successful capitalist development and democracy. Globalisation thus also enabled the success story of an autocratic political system like China. Since the financial crisis at the latest, liberal democracy of Western provenance has been facing regulatory competition that, in contrast to real existing socialism, is both different and successful.
Globalisation has also brought forth the new opponents of liberal democracy
It is different because it explicitly does not link the flourishing of economic market dynamics to the institutions of liberal democracy and thus questions the seemingly inseparable connection between market and democracy. It is successful because the authoritarian ruling elites in countries like China and Singapore cannot be easily dismissed as selfish despots. Their policies have a recognisable common good component and can point to a track record of considerable progress, especially in the fight against poverty. They have also proven to be more successful in fighting the pandemic than Western European and North American countries. These states show that social progress is possible ─ and this without the democratic control of those in power and the guarantee of individual rights, combined with far-reaching surveillance and reward systems. This undermines the notion advocated, especially after 1989, that liberal democracy has no alternatives. If China is seen as a regulatory alternative in parts of the Global South today, then the question of the right political order is back on the global agenda.
Rapid change has strengthened the opponents of liberal democracy
Globalisation has also strengthened the internal enemies of liberal democracy. Within the Western world, it has led to a dramatic increase in cultural diversity, to growing economic inequality and to the alienation of parts of the population from a political class perceived as aloof. These are the developments that have made the rise of populists possible. This refers to the parties and political movements that claim to give the ordinary people a voice again in the name of democracy, but at the same time represent a fundamental danger to liberal democracy. Indeed, contemporary populism is primarily an authoritarian populism. It is a political ideology that builds on a de-proceduralised form of majority representation and turns nationalistically against “liberal cosmopolitan elites”. The topos our nation first expresses the nationalism. De-proceduralisation refers to the rejection of democratic argument about what is right. There is no need to negotiate what is right. It is set. “He knows what we want” was to be found on an election poster of the Austrian Freedom Party referring to H.C. Strache.
Authoritarian populist parties have a potential of about 20 percent of the vote in almost all liberal democracies in Western Europe. More importantly, a significant proportion of the world’s population is governed by authoritarian populists. The best-known names are: Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Lech Kaczyński, Nicolás Maduro, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin and, until recently most notably, Donald J. Trump. These are almost all large countries, which is what makes authoritarian populism so powerful for the international order. Authoritarian populism has spread globally in a relatively short period of time.
Authoritarian populism is widespread globally
Wherever authoritarian populists have come to power, we are experiencing a democratic backsliding. In all eight countries mentioned (Brazil, Turkey, Poland, Venezuela, India, Hungary, Russia and the USA), the Gothenburg Democracy Barometer V‑Dem shows a clear deterioration in the quality of democracy. At the same time, the quality of democratic governance has worsened even in supposedly consolidated democracies. If the decline of democracy was for a long time regarded as something that only took place in distant countries, from the perspective of Western Europeans, the strikes are now coming closer. Not only in Venezuela or Brazil, but also in the USA and Poland, democracy has deteriorated significantly over the past decade. In some of these countries, there is hope that a change of government will reverse the trend; but where liberal democracy has already been replaced by an electoral autocracy, voting out the government is also becoming increasingly less likely.
Changes in the functioning of democracy are crucial for the widespread alienation from democracy. The discussion so far has focused strongly on the economic and cultural causes of authoritarian populism. While growing inequality in rich countries certainly plays a role and a cultural backlash may be observed to some extent, the political question is the actual key. Economic and also cultural explanations assume that people are dissatisfied with specific policies and therefore turn to authoritarian populist parties. Surveys show, however, that the dissatisfaction is mostly based on a systemic criticism of the political class and the established mainstream parties. Economic satisfaction, on the other hand, is relatively high and gender equality policies enjoy broad support.
People no longer feel noticed in a democracy
The political explanation says that it is dissatisfaction with the political system that is instrumentalised by the authoritarian populists for their purposes. On the one hand, many people do not feel adequately represented by their parliaments. MPs are perceived as a professionalised political class that operates in a bubble, detached from the interests of voters. On the other hand, over the past three decades, decision-making powers have been shifted to a considerable extent from majority institutions (MIs), such as parties and parliaments, to non-majority institutions (NMIs), such as central banks, constitutional courts and international institutions. Decisions are made increasingly by institutions that are not subject to the majority principle, nor to the accountability obligations of representative bodies. The purpose of many NMIs is to enforce the triple liberalism of individual rights, international rules and open markets.
Against the backdrop of these two mechanisms, many people obviously have the impression that they have been left out of politics – and this perception has a real basis. Not all groups have the same chance of having their concerns heard and implemented politically. This has allowed the idea to spread that there is a homogeneous political class that does its thing aloof from the population, serving the interests of a pampered and potentially corrupt cosmopolitan class. Accordingly, most authoritarian-populist campaigns do not seem to criticise concrete economic or cultural policies, but the system that produces them, i.e. the “parties of the system”, the “left-red-green infested system” and the entire political class, and above all, the declared enemy, Angela Merkel.
The current retreat of democracy seems to be more than a passing phenomenon. The optimistic narrative according to which democracy spreads in waves with only short periods of partial regression between them hardly coincides with the actual development. Rather, in retrospect, the period from 1945 to the end of the 20th century in particular proved to be a phase of worldwide democratisation. However, that half century was characterised by positive framework conditions that do not exist in the same manner today. The democratic progression was not so much the result of an inevitable logic of progress, but rather owed to a specific historical constellation. The change in these specific circumstances now makes democratic regression possible. Societies do not slide towards liberal democracy on a predefined trajectory, but rather evolve through political conflicts and struggles for the expansion of social and democratic rights – and these conflicts can not only slow down the journey, but also lead to a change in the station of destination.
A new brand of liberalism must first and foremost reconcile
A new brand of liberalism must reconcile cosmopolitanism and democracy institutionally in order to get back on the right track. Real changes in our democracy are required to counter the success of the authoritarian populists. Looking exclusively at the characteristics and strategies of the opponents only leads to the reproduction of friend-foe thinking. It deprives us of the insight into the central questions we have to ask ourselves in order to deprive authoritarian populism of its basis: How can we solve the problem of representation? How can we reform non-majoritarian institutions so that they become more responsive and continue to deliver good outcomes in a complex, globalised and pluralised world? Simplistic solutions that aim to re-nationalise and homogenise the institutional foundations of democracy, as demanded by authoritarian populists, fall short in a globalised world. So, what to do? The answer of a new brand of liberalism must be: Venture more democracy and promote tolerance of complexity in our society.
 This short essay is based on a wide-ranging study published under the title “Die demokratische Regression. Die politischen Ursachen des autoritären Populismus” (The Democratic Regression. The Political Causes of Authoritarian Populism”, Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2021).
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