Democracy in an age of radical uncertainty

This year the world will see an explosion of electoral activity. Whether this will be a global celebration of democracy is less certain. Even leaving aside sham votes in autocracies like Russia and Rwanda, in many cases elections will simply consolidate what the late Argentinian political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell called democracies with “low-intensity citizenship”, defined by poor protection of rights and weak attachment to the rule of law. If, as the Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez reputedly quipped, broken English is the most widely spoken language in the world, broken democracy has become the world’s most prevalent political arrangement.

The trend towards the deterioration in the quality of democracy is unmistakable. According to International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy report, 2022 was the sixth consecutive year in which the quality of democracy deteriorated in more countries than it improved, the longest such sequence since 1975. Moreover, half of the 173 countries covered by the report experienced a significant decline in at least one key element of democracy compared with five years earlier, be it credible elections, civic space or press freedom, among others. The comparable figure in 2011 was 23%.

The causes of this are unclear. While factors such as rampant inequality, corruption and democracies’ perceived inability to respond to social demands have been routinely blamed, one important factor has received less attention than it deserves: rising uncertainty.

We live in a time of radical uncertainty. The climate crisis is an obvious contributor, as are the immense transformations unleashed by AI, the rapid growth of migration flows and the rise in the number of conflicts around the world. The result is a feeling of loss of control and anxiety. As reported by UNDP, even before the covid-19 pandemic six out of seven people in the world felt insecure. Another UNDP study finds that since the early 2000s mentions of anxiety and worry in newly published books in English, Spanish and German have risen to levels not seen in the past century.

It is young people who feel this uncertainty most intensely. In a global youth survey in 2021, almost 60% said they were very concerned about the climate crisis; 75% said they were afraid of the future; and more than half believed that humanity is doomed to disaster. It is not coincidental that younger generations are losing faith in democracy’s ability to respond to their concerns. A study in 2020 of almost 5m people by Cambridge University detected that satisfaction with democracy is in freefall among young people almost everywhere, as is the notion that it is essential to live in a democracy. According to the World Values Survey, 48% of people aged 16-24 believe that it is good to have a strong leader who does not bother with parliaments and elections, the highest figure for any age group.

In times of great uncertainty, the longing for the embrace of authoritarian leaders can be powerful. Historical precedents abound, from the collapse of democracy in inter-war Europe to the rise of Vladimir Putin in the wake of Boris Yeltsin’s chaotic rule in Russia. Safety, stability and the promise of control in a runaway world are the commodities autocrats peddle and citizens increasingly crave. The recent overwhelming (and unconstitutional) re-election of Nayib Bukele as president of El Salvador—on the back of a brutal crackdown on youth gangs—offers a stark example. The odds for democracy’s survival are much better when it proves able to reduce social uncertainty to manageable levels.

Preparing democracy for an age of radical uncertainty will not be easy. It requires defending some of its basic tenets, now under assault. Free and fair elections are the foundational rock of democracy, not least because, by enabling the peaceful transfer of power, they alleviate a major source of volatility in society. In the face of the concerted threats of disinformation, election denialism and the co-opting of electoral authorities, protecting electoral integrity is a priority to shore up democracy globally.

Just as crucial is upholding the rule of law, the best tool ever devised to limit power and increase the predictability of social life. Pervasive violence and impunity destroy that predictability. As Mr Bukele’s example suggests, public demand for personal safety must be taken very seriously by democratic forces. Violence must be prevented or controlled in ways that are both compatible with human rights and effective if democracy is to survive.

Yet preserving democracy requires more than playing defence. Societies need to rethink social contracts to reduce uncertainty. In an age of interconnectedness and volatility, access to digital technologies, permanent retraining opportunities, adequate attention to mental as well as physical health and, probably, some form of universal basic income should be seen as entitlements. Democratic societies should strive to provide these to everyone, according to their capacity. Finally, democratic systems need to show that they can take effective action to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They will drag their feet at their peril, particularly in the eyes of young people.

Doing all of this is a tall order. But failing to respond to radical uncertainty will doom democracy to live dangerously, always vulnerable to the soothing allure of the next strongman.

Kevin Casas-Zamora is secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and a former vice-president of Costa Rica.

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