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Panel discusses how external forces distort democracy


Democracy around the world is being distorted by external forces and corroded from within by officials who fail to conform to its processes and values, according to politics professor and University Center for Human Values director Melissa Lane, who presented the argument at a panel on Friday, Jan. 20.

“The challenges we face, from nativism, to the role of money, and ethics and public policy, and the fate of democratic rhetorics and the state of our public sphere, are now being played out literally as we speak,” moderator and history professor Jeremy Adelman explained.


He emphasized some downsides of globalization in the form of civic discord, rising inequality, the rise of populism, and slow and exclusive economic growth, as manifested in events like Brexit, the United States presidential election, and the destruction of Aleppo.

Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology and international affairs in the Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values, noted that the number of electoral liberal democracies in good standing peaked about ten years ago, and has been declining since then. In this case, liberalism is a political doctrine that requires the government to protect the liberty of the individual.

She cited political sociologist Larry Diamond's finding that, from 2000 through 2015, liberal democracies collapsed in 27 countries. Liberal values have declined in far more countries than they have improved in during the past decade, according to Freedom House, Scheppele added.

Opponents of liberalism decry it using three main tropes, Lane said. “Undecidability” refers to the charge that scientific evidence never decides the fundamental questions, so that ordinary people can reject expert opinions. “Indecision” depicts liberals as too cowardly to act. “Impotence” accuses liberals of lacking the ability to fix today's problems.

Liberalism is threatening to devour its own parents while potentially being devoured by its own children, Lane added.

She explained that bureaucracy, which served as the scaffolding with which liberals extended rights and liberties to more and more groups, is buckling under disrespect for expertise, conventions, and institutions. Meanwhile, liberalism has helped produce the environmental crisis, largely by failing to regulate businesses enough. She called for remedying both these issues as steps toward preserving liberalism.


Focusing on the American case, history professor emeritus Dan Rodgers noted that recent months marked the most unpredictable start to the beginning of a presidency since at least the 18th century, when some wondered whether George Washington might try to revive a democratic monarchy. Nobody knows whether Trump will usher in an era of effective negotiations, quasi-organized chaos, or scandal, he said.

Rather than optimistically believing the United States Constitution will withstand contemporary pressures, Americans should consider all the constitutions across the globe that have fallen victim to leaders she calls “constitutional autocrats,” Scheppele warned.

Constitutional autocrats win elections, Scheppele said. But upon taking office, they undercut liberalism. First, they attack the constitution to remove checks on executive power, under the guise of increasing efficiency. They then try to control key institutions. These include the judiciary, because it can label their actions unconstitutional or illegal, and the media, because it can publish alternatives to the narratives created by the autocrats. They also discredit the non-governmental organization sector, which covers human rights and transparency groups, as partisan or elitist and therefore untrustworthy.

Next, constitutional autocrats insert loyalists into the prosecutor's office, tax authority, police and security services. They delegitimize the political opposition as outdated, corrupt, or otherwise unworthy of attention. Rewriting the election laws skews the following election in their favor. They bypass middlemen by moving to direct democracy; hence the proliferation of referenda as well as social media rather than traditional news outlets to communicate with the public. Conventions that have bound all their predecessors, like the rules of fair play and civility, stop applying to them.

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Finally, constitutional autocrats attack the constitution by arguing that it should be replaced, or that it must be rescued from enemy hands, Scheppele said. The goal of the game becomes to change the game's rules, a development that makes the system unsustainable.

Lane suggested the trend was starting to affect the United States.

“Not releasing taxes, not appointing to the Supreme Court, not even holding a hearing to appoint to the Supreme Court, not requiring the nominees for the Cabinet positions to all complete the ethics checks before being confirmed – these are actually really fundamental norms that have already just fallen by the wayside, and once they're gone, it's very difficult to get them back,” she said.

Scheppele noted that checks and balances in the Constitution depend on every institution defending its institutional prerogatives against those of other institutions. For that reason, she worried about the unprecedented alignment of all American institutions in a single direction at a critical moment. The Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress, and will probably dominate the Supreme Court. Most crucially, they direct 33 out of 50 state governments. Wielding more power than any party has had since the 1930s, the Republicans are introducing one-party rule, she said.

However, Rodgers countered that the divisions within the party may well produce effective checks and balances, as the party represents small government whereas Trump embodies autocracy. Characterizing liberalism as a movement of the national and international, Rodgers called for it to survive by returning to the local, the arena occupied by dissatisfied Americans. Local and state politics will continue to hold the most importance for people's daily lives, he added, giving examples like property taxation, school policies, police procedures, criminal justice, and gun control.

“It's also where democratic deliberation is more possible, where one can find oneself to some extent insulated from the highly polarized media system in which we live, in which the powers of organized money don't intrude quite so heavily. It's where people might actually listen to each other, pay attention to each other, do what we think of in democracy as the act of participation in politics, deliberative reasoning. It's where some of the anger that's turned this election upside down might be redirected in more constructive ways,” Rodgers said.

Titled “Global Liberalism in Crisis?” the roundtable discussion was sponsored by the Department of History, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, the Department of Politics, and the University Center for Human Values. It took place at 12:00 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 20, in Robertson Bowl 16.