What’s behind the crisis of democracy?

Recent elections in Spain and Israel, for example, have been inconclusive and frustrating.

In Summary

• In democracies around the world, voters increasingly feel as though most of the major choices affecting their lives have already been decided through existing legal and international frameworks.

• But while rules-based technocracy – and corporatism before it – may have been well-suited to monolithic forms of identity, it no longer suffices.


Separatist demonstrators protest after a verdict in a trial over a banned independence referendum in Barcelona
Separatist demonstrators protest after a verdict in a trial over a banned independence referendum in Barcelona

There is no longer any denying that democracy is at risk worldwide. Many people doubt that democracy is working for them, or that it is working properly at all.

Elections don’t seem to yield real-world results, other than to deepen existing political and social fissures. The crisis of democracy is largely a crisis of representation – or, to be more precise, an absence of representation.

Recent elections in Spain and Israel, for example, have been inconclusive and frustrating. And the United States, the world’s longstanding bastion of democracy, is in the midst of a constitutional crisis over a president who was elected by a minority of voters, and who has since made a mockery of democratic norms and the rule of law.


Meanwhile, in Britain, which will hold a general election on December 12, the two major parties and their respective leaders have become increasingly unattractive; but the only alternative – the Liberal Democrats – has struggled to fill the void. Only regional parties – the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru in Wales, and the Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland – are commanding any credibility. And in Germany, an apparently exhausted “grand coalition” has become a source of growing disillusion.


To many commentators, today’s democratic fatigue is eerily similar to that of the interwar years. But there is an obvious difference: that earlier crisis of democracy was inextricably linked to the economic misery of the Great Depression, whereas today’s crisis has arrived at a time of historically high levels of employment. Though plenty of people today feel a sense of economic insecurity, the response to the current crisis cannot simply be a repeat of what came before.

During the interwar years, democratic governance was frequently remolded to include different forms of representation. The most attractive at the time was corporatism, whereby formally organized interest groups negotiated with the government on behalf of a particular occupation or economic sector. The expectation was that collectives of factory workers, farmers, and even employers would be more capable of arriving at decisions than elected representative assemblies, which had come to be seen as cumbersome and riven by intractable political divisions.

The interwar corporatist model now seems abhorrent, not least because it was associated with the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. For a time, though, Mussolini’s approach was attractive to politicians elsewhere, including those who did not think of themselves as occupying a political extreme. For example, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original vision of the New Deal comprised many corporatist elements, including price controls, which would be negotiated by unions and industrial organizations. If we have forgotten about these corporatist provisions, it is because they did not survive a 1935 decision by the Supreme Court, which ruled Title I of the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act to be unconstitutional.

But, of course, elections and pseudo-elections during this period were also producing dictatorships, not just in Europe but also in Asia and South America. And owing to these catastrophic failures, democracy came to be circumscribed in the post-war era, both by new domestic constitutional and legal boundaries and through international commitments.

In the case of continental Europe and Japan, democracy was largely imposed as a consequence of military defeat, which meant that its rules were set from the outside and not subjected to any formal challenge. Thereafter, European integration – in the form of the European Economic Community and then the European Union – manifested as a system of adjudication and enforcement in the service of established norms. And more broadly, international agreements became a way of implying that certain rules were unbreakable or simply inevitable; they could no longer be contested, democratically or otherwise.

These new legal constraints were, of course, augmented by military considerations. International alliances were presented as the means for maintaining domestic security. NATO, in the famous words of its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, was meant “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and Germans down.”


This uniquely successful arrangement for ensuring post-war stability was disintegrating even before the sudden decline in US legitimacy following the 2003 Iraq War and the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. When French President Emmanuel Macron recently used extreme language to describe the EU as standing “on the edge of a precipice” and NATO as brain dead, he was being entirely accurate. Under President Donald Trump, America – and thus NATO – is no longer capable of strategic thinking, nor willing to safeguard transatlantic interests.


The post-war order was often criticized for not allowing any genuine democratic choice. Accordingly, Western political scientists started talking about widespread demobilization. And well before a new German radical right appeared, prominent German intellectuals had concluded that voting was unimportant, that modernity is about rule by self-constrained moderates on behalf of the immobile – a “lethargocracy.”

The modern challenge, then, is to achieve greater democratic inclusiveness. Old-style corporatism cannot be the answer, because most people no longer define themselves solely or even largely by one occupation. By the same token, the argument for an international rules-based technocracy now looks tired and lazy, even though international institutions (including the EU and even NATO) are still needed to provide public goods.

Nowadays, personal identity is determined by a complex array of factors. Most people think of themselves as consumers, producers, lovers, parents, citizens, and breathers of the same air, depending on the context. More frequent and clearly defined choices are needed to translate the complexities of selfhood into political expression.

Fortunately, current technologies could help. Digital citizenship – through electronic voting, polling, and petitioning – is one obvious solution to the problem of declining participation. Of course, it is important to think through which decisions we subject to new, more direct methods of deliberation and voting. Such mechanisms should not be used for major, defining choices that are inherently controversial and divisive; but they could help with more quotidian, practical issues such as the location of a rail or road system or the details of emissions control and energy pricing.

This vision of democratic renewal would work most effectively in smaller countries like Estonia, which has pioneered digital citizenship and e-residency. Individual cities could do the same, thereby offering lessons for larger polities. Thinking locally about the problem of representation may be the first step toward overcoming the crisis of democracy globally.

Harold James is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.