Democracy in Crisis

Sunday, November 12, 2017
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Is It

Democratic systems of government are supposed to reflect the interests of ordinary citizens, and not some shadowy political elite. But more and more, we see the influence of big money and special interest groups in so-called democratic politics, while income inequality and voter suppression grow. With millions convinced that politicians don’t speak for them, is there a "crisis of representation" in the US? Are these problems a result of political decay in our institutions, or is democracy in trouble everywhere? How can we achieve an efficient and prosperous democracy in which the average citizen is truly represented? Should we consider a radically different system of government? John and Ken keep calm with renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama, author of Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. This program was recorded live on the Stanford University campus.

Listening Notes

John opens on a rather pessimistic note wondering whether if there even is an American democracy to be in crisis in the first place. Ken responds that of course there is. There might be problems with it, but certainly there’s certainly no need to be so pessimistic.

John and Ken invite guest Francis Fukuyama, author of Political Order and Political Decay. Francis opens by discussing how his views have changed since The End of History. John asks Francis whether there are democracies doing well outside of the U.S. Francis notes that Scandinavian and German democracies are doing well, and the number of democracies have risen considerably throughout the world. With this trend of rising middle classes and democracies, there seems to be reason for optimism regarding democracy in the long run.

Ken asks what a healthy democracy would look like. Francis responds that there is a need for citizens to participate politically on a daily basis, not just when elections come around. However, there are limits to the degree to which people are participating, so we’ve settled for a compromise where citizens can participate if they want to. Ken asks Francis to diagnose how dire the situation is in the US. Francis responds that it isn’t nearly as bad as it was right before the Civil War, but it is clear that we are not receiving as good of governance as we deserve. The rise of special interest groups and the power of money currently blocks collective desires.

Answering questions from the audience, Francis argues that illiberal democracies are not true democracies and discusses the unique role of the Court played in American democracy. Ken and Francis discuss how America has more checks and balances than other democracies, which adds to its inefficiency. John then asks whether it would be wise to incorporate a lottery system for legislation, similar to how the Athenians handled their laws. Taking another question from the audience, Francis then discusses how it is difficult in America for a third party to win an election. Another question from the audience asks whether the crisis is caused more by cultural reasons rather than institutional ones. That is, it seems like American citizens are more concerned with the commercial than with the political nowadays.

John has some fun asking Francis what he would decree if he were the Czar of America for a week in order to solve American political problems. Francis responds that he would shift to a parliamentary system, but more realistically, he would get rid of the filibuster, would streamline the budget process so lobbyists and interest groups become more limited, and also force money to be channeled through the party mechanism, meaning private contributions are not under the control of the contributors. Responding to a final question, Francis argues that the rise of technology rises people’s expectations which leads to a crisis of authority that poses a problem for democracies all over the world.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 7:15): Shuka Kalantari looks at the Citizens United decision and how money has made United States less democratic, and how little the voice of citizens matters anymore. Furthermore, it seems like it is only getting worse. But all is not lost: there needs to be campaign finance reform. Until then, our government will respond only to the powerful few.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:05): Ian Shoales discusses the Koch Brothers, the role they’ve played in politics, and the reach and limits of money in politics.


Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, March 13, 2023 -- 7:48 AM

The first two sentences of

The first two sentences of your 'what is it' expose the iceberg, seems to me. As the size of national budget and debt increase, the effectiveness and viability of democracy shrink. Numbers of people demanding pie expand, leaving less pie to go 'round. Ever diminishing returns. The complexity of civilization and demands on economies and infrastructures are untenable. You can't get there from here anymore. Democracy is corruptable. Foucault knew this. Corruptability thrives on power. He knew that too.

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Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Sunday, December 10, 2023 -- 11:20 AM

Here is another take on the

Here is another take on the crisis assessment. How about: democracy in its' death throes? Russell at least hinted at this, around 1950. If Bert was a futurist---in any good way---i don't know if he admitted that. Over time, even, overtime there have been chicken littles. Doomsday sayers were traditionally laughed at. Conventional wisdom said we were better than that. Fewer are laughing now. Why? Well, as Murphey, or was that Murphy, said: anything that can go wrong will. Yep. Murph was right.

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