Don Robinson: Why democracy is under siege around the globe

Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ASHFIELD — Towns here in western Massachusetts will soon be gathering for annual Town Meetings. Citizens themselves (not representatives) will adopt budgets for schools, roads, libraries and local government, and levy taxes on themselves to pay for them.

Town meeting day is not always a happy time. Quarrels break out and feelings get hurt. Yet for all its faults, this experience of joining in deliberations and votes that shape a community is, according to Aristotle, an activity that best defines what it means to be a human being.

Town-meeting democracy is a far cry from democracy as practiced elsewhere in the United States and in over 100 countries around the world. Yet it is what we as a nation are most deeply committed to.

Still, constitutional democracy as an ideal is under assault now as it has not been since the 1930s. At that time, the Great Depression paralyzed the western democracies as they stumbled toward war. After a harrowing start, they survived that crisis, and military supremacy restored their confidence. When the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 led to the emergence of new democracies in Europe, it seemed to some like the “end of history,” as the political philosopher Francis Fukuyama put it.

History’s verdict, he wrote, had gone to the Enlightenment. Government by the consent of the governed had triumphed.

But “history” spun on. Hubris and human confusion were not so easily vanquished. Two spectacular mistakes at the turn of the millennium, for both of which the U.S. was substantially responsible, brought high-flying optimism back to earth. One was a series of economic earthquakes, culminating in the crisis of 2007-2008. The other was a series of wars of choice, in which the U.S., bent on eliminating phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was forced to switch its rationale to the promotion of its own version of democracy.

The results of these errors were catastrophic for western democracy. Americans were suddenly despised in much of the world. Would a brilliant new president with a Muslim name and a legal education from America’s leading university be able to reverse the tide?

He made a heartening start (a Nobel Peace Prize, some promising moves to prod the economy, decisions to end two wars), but soon the government he led fell back into stalemate. The effort to close Guantanamo was frustrated, as was the drive to reform laws on immigration. The bill of rights became a cover for the corruption of the electoral process.

Checks and balances degenerated into gridlock. Incredibly, partisan differences over deficits and debt led to shutting down the federal government and brought the nation close to defaulting on its loans. Then the president, fuming with frustration, announced that he would, if necessary, accomplish reforms by sheer executive action. Worse was going to worst.

It is, to say the least, a disheartening moment. Believers in the American system, left and right, are beginning to wonder if something fundamental is amiss.

Is it time to revise the Constitution? Or can the situation be saved by steps short of that? As usual, politicians aspiring to the presidency think the answer is to elect them. But many citizens are not so sure.

The Economist magazine recently published an extended essay analyzing democracy’s crisis. It called attention to two aspects of modern life that defy control by nation-states. First, many of the most vexing challenges are global; they cannot be met by any nation acting alone. Think of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, or the flight of capital to tax havens, beyond the reach of efforts to stem the gross inequalities of wealth that capitalism inevitably entails.

The second modern development is the spread of electronic media. James Madison in The Federalist wrote that the great trick in framing a constitution was to “first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” As autocrats — and not just autocrats — all over the world are discovering, electronic media have made practically impossible for any government to realize either of Madison’s goals.

We are only beginning to understand what this means. Electronic messaging enables dissidents in Cairo, Ankara, Kiev and Tehran to organize. It also encourages asymmetrical warfare, leveling the playing field for resistance movements. At the same time, it tempts state organs (intelligence services) to copy the tactics of their enemies.

Meanwhile, those who are determined to respect ancient liberties run the risk of exposing their citizens to terrible dangers. A populace facing grave danger will not long tolerate leaders who put civil liberty ahead of homeland security.

It is all happening so fast. Existential challenges (climate change, global capitalism, doomsday weaponry, data-collecting behemoths) come piling in on us, mocking our 18th-century modes of governance. What would James Madison think? Might he not want to start all over, perhaps discarding the notion of the nation-state altogether?

Even if that comes to pass, one hopes that a niche might be carved out for New England townships to manage their local affairs.

Don Robinson, a retired professor of government at Smith College and the author of “Town Meeting: Practicing Democracy in Rural New England” (UMass Press), writes a regular column for the Gazette which appears on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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