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Response to Foreign Affairs “The Democratic Malaise”

Globalization is both the cause and the solution to all the world’s problems. So goes the argument in Charles Kupchan’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “The Democratic Malaise,” in which he argues that processes of global economic integration are making it harder for liberal democracies to govern themselves and to solve collective problems. The solution, he says, is to embrace global integration further.

I have three complaints with Kupchan’s perspective, the sum effect of which is to falsely place the blame on “globalization” for problems that lie instead in the politics and institutions of the countries leading democracies.

First, Kupchan argues that globalization is “causing” the crises of governability currently being experienced by the US, Europe, and Japan. This conveniently overlooks the last several decades that policymakers have spent kicking their respective cans down the road; in the US where government has grown steadily more polarized and sclerotic, in the EU where the project of economic integration has not been accompanied by the creation of a more profound fiscal union, and in Japan, which has tried unsuccessfully to buck its economy from recession by tightening its belt. These processes may have been facilitated by globalization but were not its necessary consequence. Kupchan thus fails to hold the leaders of the leading democracies suitably accountable for the political decisions they have made that have brought us to this crisis.

Second, Kupchan conflates problems of global governance—the need for collective action to isolate Iran, avert climate change, and “solve” immigration—with the factors obstructing domestic institutions. Collective action is plainly more difficult in a multipolar world, but citizens are losing faith in their governments for their failure to act decisively even in the domestic sphere where they are sovereign. The “underlying cause” of political polarization in the US is not, as Kupchan states, the poor state of the economy. It’s the result of a lengthy process shaped by the country’s institutions: by the gerrymandering of  congressional districts, the liberalization of campaign finance laws, and a press that holds politicians accountable for the minutia of their gestures but not the consequences of their votes. In the leading democracies, demographic crises are coming to a head as aging populations finally face the realization that they can no longer sustain the social contract they have made with themselves, and yet their politicians show an incapacity to look the problem in the eye.

Finally, whereas Kupchan says these leading democracies are being undermined by globalization, he argues that fast-growing middle-income countries—and particularly China—are disproportionately benefiting from it, and that “state capitalism” poses a threatening alternative to the West’s “version of modernity.” Certainly today’s conditions seem to favor the BRIC countries when progress is charted against the measuring stick of economic growth, but nothing has been more destabilizing to China than the immense increase in wealth and power of its citizens over the last twenty years, and the “version of modernity” it represents is a very precarious one indeed. Tilting at windmills, Kupchan thus fails to see that the crisis of democracy will not come from outside of a nation’s borders, but from within. Liberal democracy is torn today between those who fear surrendering to it sufficient power to tame unfettered capitalism, and those unwilling to let the desolate values of the market chart humanity’s future course. This is a debate that China will contribute to, but only after it first guarantees its people some inalienable rights.

For all these reasons, Kupchan fails to offer a compelling diagnosis for today’s democratic malaise, which is why his prescription of “bitter medicine” (public investment, populist politicization, and further globalization) is so simplistic and unhelpful. It is obvious to everyone that popular, improved government, economic growth, and integration are what the US and the world need; the question is how to reform our political institutions to produce those results, which is the same question the essay began with, and leaves unanswered.

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