Strategic observation

Xinhua Headlines: Western democracies turned into vetocracy as public dismayed by polarization, money politics

2018-03-09 21:16:52 (Beijing Time)         English.news.cn

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Banners are seen in front of the Capitol during a rally against Money Politics in Washington D.C., the United States, in the file photo taken on April 17, 2016. A New York Times bestseller has kept public attention high for weeks in the United States by exploring what are killing the U.S. democracy, indicating a popular reflection on the flaws of Western-style democracies. Political analysts across the Atlantic have all been alerted by the lower efficiency and ballooning chaos in governance as highlighted by government shutdowns in the United States, near paralyzed consensus-building for policy making in Europe, as well as voters' mounting dissatisfaction toward political elites, among others. (Xinhua/Yin Bogu)

by Xinhua writer Qu Junya

BEIJING, March 9 (Xinhua) -- A New York Times bestseller has kept public attention high for weeks in the United States by exploring what are killing the U.S. democracy, indicating a popular reflection on the flaws of Western-style democracies.

Political analysts across the Atlantic have all been alerted by the lower efficiency and ballooning chaos in governance as highlighted by government shutdowns in the United States, near paralyzed consensus-building for policy making in Europe, as well as voters' mounting dissatisfaction toward political elites, among others.

EXTREME POLITICAL POLARIZATION

The bestseller "How Democracies Die" published in January attributes the waning U.S. democracy in large part to an "extreme polarization" in the country's bipartisan politics.

"The problem is that extreme polarization can kill democracies," as were the cases in Europe in the 1930s and in South America in the 1960s and 1970s, Steven Levitsky, the book's co-author and a political scientist at Harvard University, told a symposium recently held at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

He said polarization has turned U.S. Republicans and Democrats against each other, who have gone so far as to break two basic norms that work as "soft guardrails of democracy," which help prevent healthy partisan competition from "spiraling into the kind of partisan fight to the death."

The first norm "mutual toleration" means "we do not treat our rivals as enemies, as existential threats," said Levitsky. "The second norm is what we call 'institutional forbearance' ... Forbearance means refraining from exercising one's legal right."

"When politics is so intensely polarized that each side views victory by the other side as intolerable, as beyond the pale, democracy is in trouble," he noted.

The U.S. scholar said the two norms have been unraveling in the United States with early signs seen in the 1990s, with government shutdowns, the routinization of filibuster, and the U.S. Senate's outright refusal to allow then President Barack Obama to fill the Supreme Court vacancy in 2016 in a move unprecedented since 1866, among others.

Sourabh Gupta, resident senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, told Xinhua in an interview that he believes the divisions and paralysis within U.S. politics could become more profound.

"The government shutdown is emblematic of both the fractured state of American politics and the paranoid style of American politics," he said. "Consensus on the role and direction of government is nowhere in sight. And the paranoid style of politicking will make consensus-building even harder."

Gupta added that the unbalanced U.S. economic growth would worsen the existing inequalities in Americans' financial conditions, and "polarize and fracture American politics even more."

MONEY POLITICS

William Jones, Washington Bureau chief for the news magazine Executive Intelligence Review, thinks money politics has eroded the U.S. democracy and disappointed voters in terms of seeking common welfare.

"The American people were not happy with politics as usual. They felt that the political elites in Washington ... are not representing their interests," he told Xinhua in an interview, blaming this mainly on the political donation mechanism in the election system, which enables interest groups to hijack government policies.

Jones said the campaigns of the elected U.S. officials are paid for by large corporations, banks and interest groups, who then have a hold over them when they get into office, adding that "it's really a subversion of the notion of democracy."

"It (the system) has failed the American people," and this is why that in the U.S. 2016 presidential elections many voted for Donald Trump, an outsider to America's political establishment, he said.

"People are rejecting the system itself," the U.S. expert said while urging changes. "The system itself has become so corrupt ... there's gotta be a realization that there is a crisis and that things have to change."

Jones also noticed a similar "tremendous demoralization" over the democratic system in Europe. "You see this in the growth of Europe, in all these, the right wing parties that are coming in."

STRUCTURAL FAILURE

Voters' dissatisfaction with the political establishment has contributed to derailing Britain out of the European Union in June 2016 and blocking constitutional amendments in an Italian referendum in December 2016.

Italian geopolitics expert Fabrizio Franciosi called the referendum result a testimony to a loss of public confidence as well as another case to exemplify the historical lesson that excessive democracy is to kill democracy.

Pialuisa Bianco, editor in chief of the Italian magazine on world affairs Longitute, said the Western-style democratic system has come to a crucial turning point where people's disappointments have amounted to calls for big changes.

She said she believes Western democracies are suffering a structural failure, which is highlighted by repeated failures to deliver on campaign pledges as well as a detachment of political elites from grassroots.

Unrealistic campaign promises and money politics have helped make the existing Western election system almost an empty shell but to increase election cost and public distrust, Julio Rios, an expert with the Spanish think tank the Galician Institute of Analysis and International Documentation, told Xinhua in a recent interview.

He also noted that the difficulty in building consensus for policy making between the executive and legislative bodies is among the many challenges facing Western democracies.

That means a lack of competency to translate public demands into effective policies, a basic to sustaining the democratic system, not to mention making long-term national development plans, said Rios.

Regarding the "dysfunctional" political process in the United States, political scientist Francis Fukuyama has blamed it partly on ideological polarization in the federal governance structure, which makes the U.S. democratic system of checks and balances a vetocracy.

"The decision system has become too porous -- too democratic -- for its own good, giving too many actors the means to stifle adjustments in public policy," he said.

(Xinhua reporters Sun Ding in Washington, Yang Shilong, Li Feihu, Hu Yousong in Washington, Feng Junwei in Madrid, Wang Xingqiao in Rome also contributed to the story.)

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