Monday, December 31, 2012

The Crisis of Democracy

Noam Chomsky - Deterring Democracy 11/24/92

The vitality of democracy in the United States in the 1960s produced a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in governmental authority.
—Samuel P. Huntington

The Crisis of Democracy: On the Governability of Democracies was initially a 1975 report written by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki for the Trilateral Commission and later published as a book.

The report observed the political state of the United States, Europe and Japan and says that in the United States the problems of governance "stem from an excess of democracy" and thus advocates "to restore the prestige and authority of central government institutions."

The report says the problems of the United States in the 1960s was the "impulse of democracy is to make government less powerful and more active, to increase its functions, and to decrease its authority" and concludes these demands are contradictory. The impulse for the undermining of legitimacy was said to be done by new activism, an adversarial news media while the increase in government was said to be due to the Cold War defense budget and Great Society programs. Thus what is said to be needed is a "balance is to be restored between governmental activity and governmental authority". The effects of this "excess of democracy" if not fixed are said to be an inability to maintain international trade, budget deficits and inability to maintain "hegemonic power" in the world.

It has been observed by critics that many members of the Trilateral Commission had roles in the Carter Administration and have been influenced by the report.[2] Specifically, Zbigniew Brzezinski stated the conclusions of the report in an op-ed for the St. Petersburg Times.

Noam Chomsky has criticized the report as being "the ideology of the "liberal" wing of the state capitalist ruling elite"

  1. ^ The Crisis of Democracy Trilateral Commission Report, pg. 123, 179
  2. ^ a b "The Carter Administration: Myth and Reality", Noam Chomsky
  3. ^ "Examining the crisis of democracy"Aug 2, 1974, St. Petersburg Times


The report outlines that in 1960s Western Europe the governments are "overloaded with participants and demands" which the highly bureaucratic political systems are unable to handle and thus is becoming ungovernable. It points to a political decision made by France that was made in "semisecret, without open political debate, but with a tremendous amount of lobbying and intrabureaucratic conflict".


The current pessimism seems to stem from the conjunction of three types of challenges to democratic government.

First, contextual challenges: arise autonomously from the external environments in which democracies operate and are not directly a product of the functioning of democratic government itself. The Czechoslovak government, for instance, is less democratic today than it might otherwise be not because of anything over which it had any control. A severe reversal in foreign relations, such as either a military disaster or diplomatic humiliation, is likely to pose a challenge to regime stability. Defeat in war is usually fatal to any system of government, including a democratic one. (Conversely, the number of regimes in complex societies which have been overthrown in circumstances not involving foreign defeat is extremely small: all regimes, including democratic ones, benefit from a Law of Political Inertia which tends to keep them functioning until some external force interposes itself.) So, also, worldwide depression or inflation may be caused by factors which are external to any particular society and which are not caused directly by the operation of democratic government; and yet they may present serious problems to the functioning of democracy.

The nature and seriousness of the contextual challenges may vary significantly from one country to another, reflecting differences in size, history, location, culture, and level of development. In combination, these factors may produce few contextual challenges to democracy, as was generally the case, for instance, in nineteenth-century America, or they may create an environment which makes the operation of democracy extremely difficult, as for instance in Weimar Germany.

Changes in the international distribution of economic, political, and military power and in the relations both among the Trilateral societies and between them and the Second and Third Worlds now confront the democratic societies with a set of interrelated contextual challenges which did not exist in the same way a decade ago. The problems of inflation, commodity shortages, international monetary stability, the management of economic interdependence, and collective military security affect all the Trilateral societies.

They constitute the critical policy issues on the agenda for collective action.2 At the same time* however, particular issues pose special problems for particular countries. With the most active foreign policy of any democratic country, the United States is far more vulnerable to defeats in that area than other democratic governments, which, attempting less, also risk less. Given the relative decline in its military, economic, and political influence, the United States is more likely to face serious military or diplomatic reversal during the coming years than at any previous time in its history. If this does occur, it could pose a traumatic shock to American democracy. The United States is, on the other hand, reasonably well equipped to deal with many economic problems which would constitute serious threats to a resource-short and trade-dependent country like Japan.

These contextual challenges would pose major issues of policy and institutional innovation in the best of circumstances. They arise, however, at a time when democratic governments are also confronted with other serious problems stemming from the social evolution and political dynamics of their own societies. The viability of democracy in a country clearly is related to the social structure and social trends in that country. A social structure in which wealth and learning were concentrated in the hands of a very few would not be conducive to democracy; nor would a society deeply divided between two polarized ethnic or regional groups. In the history of the West, industrialization and democratization moved ahead in
somewhat parallel courses, although in Germany, democratization lagged behind industrialization. Outside the West, in Japan, the lag was also considerable. In general, however, the development of cities and the emergence of the bourgeoisie diversified the sources of power, led to the assertion of personal and property rights against the state, and helped to make government more representative of the principal groups in society. The power of traditional aristocratic groups hostile to democracy tended to decline.

Subsequently, democratic trends were challenged, in some cases successfully, by the rise of fascist movements appealing to the economic insecurities and nationalistic impulses of lower-middle-class groups, supported by the remaining traditional authoritarian structure. Japan also suffered from a reactionary military establishment, against which the bourgeoisie found itself too weak to struggle and to be able to coexist. In addition, in many countries, communist parties developed substantial strength among the working class," advocating the overthrow of "bourgeois democracy" in the name of revolutionary socialism.

The political and organizational legacy of this phase still exists in France and Italy, although it is by no means as clear as it once was that communist participation in the government of either country would necessarily be the prelude to the death of democracy there. Thus, at one time or another, threats to the viability of democratic government have come from the aristocracy, the military, the middle classes, and the working class. Presumably, as social evolution occurs, additional threats may well arise from other points in the social structure.

At the present time, a significant challenge comes from the intellectuals and related groups who assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to "monopoly capitalism." The development of an "adversary culture" among intellectuals has affected students, scholars, and the media. Intellectuals are, as Schumpeter put it, "people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs."3 In some measure, the advanced industrial societies have spawned a stratum of value-oriented intellectuals who often devote themselves to the derogation of leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking and delegitimation of established institutions, their behavior contrasting with that of the also increasing numbers of technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals. In an age of widespread secondary school and university education, the pervasiveness of the mass media, and the displacement of manual labor by clerical and professional employees, this development constitutes a challenge to democratic government which is, potentially at least, as serious as those posed in the past by the aristocratic cliques, fascist movements, and communist parties.

In addition to the emergence of the adversary intellectuals and their culture, a parallel and possibly related trend affecting the viability of democracy concerns broader changes in social values. In all three Trilateral regions, a shift in values is taking place away from the materialistic work-oriented, public-spirited values toward those which stress private satisfaction, leisure, and the need for "belonging and intellectual and esthetic self-fulfillment."4

These values are, of course, most notable in the younger generation. They often coexist with greater skepticism towards political leaders and institutions and with greater alienation from the political processes. They tend to be privatistic in their impact and import. The rise of this syndrome of values is presumably related to the relative affluence in which most groups in the Trilateral societies came to share during the economic expansion of the 1960s.

The new values may not survive recession and resource shortages. But if they do, they pose an additional new problem for democratic government in terms of its ability to mobilize its citizens for the achievement of social and political goals and to impose discipline and sacrifice upon its citizens in order to achieve those goals.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there are the intrinsic challenges to the viability of democratic government which grow directly out of the functioning of democracy.

Democratic government does not necessarily function in a self-sustaining or self-correcting equilibrium fashion. It may instead function so as to give rise to forces and tendencies which, if unchecked by some outside agency, will eventually lead to the undermining of democracy. This was, of course, a central theme in de Tocqueville's forebodings about democracy; it reappeared in the writings of Schumpeter and Lippmann; it is a key element in the current pessimism about the future of democracy.

The contextual challenges differ, as we have seen, for each society. Variations in the nature of the particular democratic institutions and processes in each society may also make some types of intrinsic challenges more prominent in one society than in another. But, overall, the intrinsic threats are general ones which are in some degree common to the operation of all democratic systems. The more democratic a system is, indeed, the more likely it is to be endangered by intrinsic threats. Intrinsic challenges are, in this sense, more serious than extrinsic ones.

Democracies may be able to avoid, moderate, or learn to live with contextual challenges to their viability. There is deeper reason for pessimism if the threats to democracy arise ineluctably from the inherent workings of the democratic process itself. Yet, in recent years, the operations of the democratic process do indeed appear to have generated a breakdown of traditional means of social control, adelegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.

The current pessimism about the viability of democratic government stems in large part from the extent to which contextual threats, societal trends., and intrinsic challenges have simultaneously manifested themselves in recent years. A democratic system which was not racked by intrinsic weaknesses stemming from its own performance as a democracy could much more easily deal with contextual policy challenges. A system which did not have such significant demands imposed upon it by its external environment might be able to correct the deficiencies which arose out of its own operations. It is, however, the conjunction of the policy problems arising from the contextual challenges, the decay in the social base of democracy manifested in the rise of oppositionist intellectuals and privatistic youth, and the imbalances stemming from the actual operations oi democracy itself which make the govemability of democracy a vital and, indeed, an urgent issue for the Trilateral societies.

This combination of challenges seems to create a situation in which the needs for longer-term and more broadly formulated purposes and priorities., for a greater overall coherence of policy, appear at the same time that the increasing complexity of the social order, increasing political pressures on government, and decreasing legitimacy of government make it more and more difficult for government to achieve these goals.

The demands on democratic government grow, while the capacity of democratic government stagnates. This, it would appear, is the central dilemma of the governability of democracy which has manifested itself in Europe, North America, and Japan in the 1970s.

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