The effects of the crisis in 2008 and Donald Trump's victory demonstrate that the democratic system could face 'deconsolidation.'
Donald Trump’s electoral victory has reinforced and reoriented our thinking about the health of democracy. In the final two decades of the 20th century, there seemed to be a transition from authoritarian regimes. At the time, Larry Diamond wrote that perhaps all countries had the ability to achieve democracy. And yet, just a few years later at the turn of the century, he was already highlighting a roll-back in the number of democracies, although most of the examples were drawn from the fringes of the Western world. The earthquake that occurred in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, alongside the movements of the indignant and the proliferation of populism, led to new observations about the impact of globalization – and the new inequalities and consequences of the technological revolution – in both the labor market and the media. Now, however, not only is the health of the most consolidated democracies under scrutiny, but it has become an object of concern. So much so, that there is now talk of "deconsolidation."
There has been no shortage of looking back to the 1920s and 1930s to try to find an explanation for what is happening now. However, there are those who insist it is impossible to understand the current reality by simply looking into the past; nor should we apply the same criteria we use when talking of failed states to today’s democracies, because doing so could prevent us from appreciating the current risks. As David Runciman points out in “How Democracy Ends?,” we are dealing with a unique crisis taking place in mature democracies. This is a crisis that does not consist of coups or violence, but of verbal wars and conspiracy theories, and a slow but systematic violation of our institutions and unwritten rules. According to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die,” this includes respect for our adversaries and the abandonment of contention.
Trump has been the wake-up call. But he is no accident. Instead, he is the end result of a journey dating back to at least the 1990s and the harsh tactics of the Republican Party during the presidency of Bill Clinton, as well as the deployment of parliamentary filibusterism which continued under George Bush, although he never rejected the patriotism of his Democratic opponents. The arrival of Barack Obama led to a questioning of the legitimacy of the new president, exploited by a media that had contributed decisively to such questioning in the first place. That Trump managed to gain the presidential nomination showed that the Republican Party had abandoned its role of screening candidates, and that he won the elections after daring to question that he might not be able to accept the end result was a clear sign of a serious deterioration in political life.
Spanish democracy has a much shorter history, but it is a consolidated democracy, and it faces similar challenges to other democracies in the current climate. We are also witnessing momentous changes to a system that was never designed for two-party predominance – like that of the Transition* – as some who yearn for it, or criticize it, would argue. It has now become at the very least a quadripartite, with a renewal in leadership, a struggle between the old and new parties to fill the vacuum, and new political methods – accompanied by the noise generated by the press and social media networks.
The issue now is not about the lack of a single party majority or the need to learn how to work with coalitions, but a question of how we are going to get there. The use of all constitutional, legal and regulatory instruments is an essential part of the democratic game, but it should not be embarrassed by personal disqualifications; nor should attacks – either real or figurative – be encouraged on institutions such as Parliament, without which democracy ceases to exist.
The abuse of the mechanisms of parliamentary and political obstruction – cheered on in an unscrupulous way by television, certain newspaper outlets, and on Twitter – can become a pathology. The immediacy of some pyrrhic victory at ground level – always with its mouth full of the highest purposes in the defense of democracy and the true interests of the people or the nation – would end up replacing political action, the objective of which is to resolve the long-term problems of society. As Runciman points out, a refined political intelligence is needed to bring popular anger toward those parts of the State that need reforming, and leave intact those which make such reforms possible. It may sound apocalyptic, but the problem of this apparent crisis of mature democracies is that we do not fully understand the risks we are facing. And the absence of violence and cascading political bankruptcy which occurred in previous times prevents us from understanding the true extent of the challenge.
*Editor’s note: The Transition refers to Spain’s transition to democracy, which started in 1975 after the death of Francisco Franco, the military dictator of the country.