The outcome of the 2016 American election came as a shock for those of us who believe in, preach and teach the benefits of liberal democracies. A basic notion of liberal democracy sought to preserve one fundamental principle: that all individuals are treated equally, so that no one is vulnerable to any form of discrimination from the tyranny of the majority, but also that no one is above the (rule of) law. The xenophobic, misogynistic and divisive campaign of President-elect Donald Trump showed that millions of people were willing to give in to those emotions in exchange for “Making America Great Again”.
The outcome of the US election had a strange resonance with political developments in Latin America.
For decades, Latin Americans have become quite familiar with the non-liberal nature of democracies. Whether it was under the image of Peron, Fujimori, Chavez or Correa, we have seen time and time again the emergence of strong caudillos, who challenged established political parties, capitalised on popular discontent and sought to reform “bourgeois” institutions to better serve the will of the people.
Observers of the “Latin American populism” lamented the existing gap between these incomplete or inchoate democracies and the more programmatic and reliable nature of liberal democracies. Development practitioners followed suit with ambitious programs to promote (the liberal type of) democratic consolidation across the global South.
“Delegative Democracy”: where leaders rely on a strong electoral mandate to ultimately undermine democracy
It was Guillermo O’Donnell, a political scientist, who actively resisted the illusion of democratic consolidation. Having escaped himself from an authoritarian regime in his native Argentina, O’Donnell moved to the US to write about a deviant form of democracies that were emerging in Latin America in the 80’s and 90’s.
Far from acquiring liberal attributes, he observed the rise of popular politicians who claimed to be “outsiders”, and focused almost entirely in cultivating a direct or “vertical” connection with voters. O’Donnell called this a Delegative Democracy (PDF), a system where leaders relied on their strong electoral mandate to minimise the demands of opposition parties, undermine the work of other government branches, and disregard the rights of minorities.
His work became influential to explain how elected leaders in new democracies in Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia, would adopt the forms and practices of delegative democracy. Not only did these types of democracies multiply around the world, but they became increasingly sophisticated in the way leaders dismantled checks and balances and gained control over the judiciary, bodies of control and oversight, independent media and even platforms of citizen participation.
Around the world, democratically elected leaders are becoming adept at dismantling democracy
From Cairo to Manila, from Johannesburg to Caracas, presidents have launched popular crusades against liberal or bourgeois democratic principles and put themselves above government institutions in order to “fulfil” the will of the people.
Trump’s recent election suggests that delegative democracies are no longer an exclusive product of the global South. He ran his electoral campaign as an outsider, to challenge the integrity of other candidates and his own party, criticizing the mainstream media, boasting his own tax evasion and discrediting the electoral process itself.
Once elected, Trump will have the appropriate conditions to expand his presidential style. President-elect Trump will have partisan majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, he will have direct power to appoint Cabinet Ministers, the Chair of the Federal Reserve, directors of National Security Agencies, District Attorney, and soon he will be able to nominate at least one conservative Supreme Court Judge that will give him a majority of votes in the Judiciary for years to come.
With all bases loaded, the public will be able to exert little scrutiny over major policy decisions, including financing and fiscal management, monetary policies, security, immigration, control of the media and so on. The experience elsewhere shows that delegative presidents develop formal and informal way to strengthen their political power, by changing the rules of the game, weakening the opposition and expanding their incumbency advantages.
Trump’s election is a sober reminder that popular participation is not enough to sustain democracy
Guillermo O’Donnell used to say that academics should write about things that make them angry or cause them despair. His own teaching and prolific research, full of protest, eloquence and poignant reflections on citizenship and the quality of democracy, was made possible precisely because he lived in a democracy that protected his right to dissent.
Guillermo died almost exactly five years ago, in November; he would have been shocked at the bleak prospects for liberal democracies in the US and beyond.
For those of us teaching and discussing the benefits of democracy with students of the world, the recent election is a sober reminder that popular participation is insufficient if it goes unchecked by effective checks and balances, control and oversight, political parties, organised opposition and free media.
Strengthening democratic institutions in times of uncertainty is not just a “liberal” excuse of donor governments and public intellectuals, but a fundamental condition for creating sustainable and inclusive development options for countries in the long run.