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Is democracy in crisis? A Q&A with TED ebook author Ivan Krastev, who says “yes”

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All around the globe, people are feeling increasingly skeptical and mistrustful of their leaders. According to one global trust barometer, only 52% of survey respondents said that they trusted their government to do the right thing in 2011 and, in 2012, the number plummeted to 43%. As recent surveys reveal, only 18% of Italians believe their vote matters, just 15% of Greeks says that pulling a lever makes a difference and a scant 20% of Americans agree that their government makes good decisions. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea suffered 26- and 17-point declines in government trust ratings this year, respectively.

These are all democracies. Which means that citizens do not trust the very people they voted into office.

In his new TED Book, In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?, political scientist Ivan Krastev takes a deeper look at why this is happening and what can be done to turn the tide. While his thoughts often aren’t optimistic (“I’m Bulgarian,” he says in his TED Talk, “and we are the most pessimistic people in the world”), they are hugely important. In this book, he sounds a loud warning bell on a stark change in perception.

We gave Krastev a call to talk more about what he calls “democracy in crisis,” and to see what he thinks can be done to improve the relationship between citizens and their leaders.

Why is the concept of a democracy in crisis?

Democracy has always been in crisis: democracy is all about practicing the art of bearable dissatisfaction. In democratic societies, people often complain about their leaders and their institutions. The gap between the ideal democracy and the existing one cannot be bridged.

The movie legend Cary Grant once arrived at a Hollywood charity function and, deploying every ounce of his charm told the difficult woman at the welcome desk that he had forgotten his ticket. Without looking up she cut him short, “You don’t have a ticket, you can’t go in.” “I understand,” he said, “but . . . I’m Cary Grant.” The woman looked up at him and gave her final verdict, “You don’t look like Cary Grant.” “Nobody does,” responded the actor. And he was right. In real life nobody — not even Cary Grant himself — looks like Cary Grant on the screen.

Democracy we dream about is never the same as democracy we live in. But the fact that the existing democracies as a rule are imperfect has never been a reason to prevent us from respecting them, making use of them, improving them and even being ready to die for them. What makes me worry today is the alarming decline in the trust in democratic institutions — political parties, Parliaments, political leaders. Less and less people are going to the polls in most advanced democracies. The people least interested in voting are the poor, unemployed and the young — those who should be most interested in using the political system to improve their lot. What makes current crisis of democracy special is that today democracy seems to fall victim not of its failures but of its successes. Our societies are more democratic than ever but our public institutions are less trusted; the citizens in the West are freer than ever before but voters feel less powerful than yesterday.

When you push people to reflect on, “Do you feel empowered? Do you really believe that you can influence politics?” many people in very well-established democracies don’t believe that their voice matters anymore. For example, the latest data for Greece and Italy is that only 15% of Greeks and 18% of Italians believe that their voice really matters.

If democracies are so problematic, why do so many countries aspire to become democracies?

You do not always need to fall in love with somebody else in order to leave your wife or husband. The crisis of democracy in the West is not the result of falling in love with another system. In Europe and America people who are disillusioned with democracy do not dream about the Chinese model or any other form of authoritarian rule. They do not dream about government that controls Internet and puts in prison those daring to disagree.

Authoritarianism is not pretending anymore to be a real alternative to democracy, but we can see many more authoritarian practices and styles basically being smuggled into democratic governments.

Paradoxically, part of the problems of democracy is that today almost everybody claims his sympathy for the principle of self-government. Elections are the only source of legitimate government. Even religious fundamentalists who still insist that power derives from God tend to agree that the best way to interpret God’s will is to count the ballots on election day. In short, democracy is the only game in town but many people start asking themselves: is it a game worth playing? Do the voters have the power to bring meaningful change? Could they change, for example, economic policies or could they only change governments who at the end of the day implement the same economic policy? Today politicians often insist that when it comes to economy “there is no alternative” but if there are no alternatives, could there be democracy? When politicians justify their policies not with the argument that these are the best policies — or even the better policies — but simply with the argument that these are the only possible policies … the meaning of democracy is changed.

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What can be done to improve the interaction between our leaders and the citizens? 

The fact that a growing number of people are mistrustful of the politicians who govern them is good news for democracy. The critical argument of my book is that in order for democracy to function, people need to have a real choice and a shared purpose.

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy,” remarked the playwright Tom Stoppard, “it’s the counting.” In this sense, monitoring those in power is of great importance. But transparent policy is not the same as good policy. The book argues that the hope that transparency can revive the trust in democratic institutions and leaders is a dangerous illusion. Transparency will not restore trust — it will reduce politics to the management of mistrust. What we lack dramatically today is what I call democratic reformism — political actions that are not just control of those in power or pressure for a certain cause or in favor of a certain group, but a political strategy that tries to envision the improvement of society as a whole.

Has the advent of new technologies made us more or less trustful?

The current crisis of democracy is not the outcome of the new technologies but it is also naïve to believe that new technologies can by themselves present the answer to the agonizing questions that representative democracy faces today. The new technologies radically empowered the individual and made new ways of making politics and mobilizing society possible, but they also made politics more difficult because the citizen grew less interested in compromise and looking for the support of others in order to achieve what is most important for him.

Somebody asked me recently to try to imagine the fate of Desdemona in the age of the new technologies. Would it not have been easier for her to convince Othello of her innocence if she could have relied on the security cameras recording the movements in and out of her house? It might have been. But one can also imagine that in the age of technically superb manipulation, Desdemona’s fate would have been the same. Security cameras are not the ones that kill trust, but they also cannot be expected to resurrect it.

America just avoided going over the “fiscal cliff,” but it looks like our leaders have lost their ability to reach consensus. Is this a symptom of democracy in crisis?

In the last decade, American democracy has been turned into a game of chicken, in which preventing the other side from governing is more important than governing yourself. From 2008 to 2012, Republicans in Congress have used the filibuster as often as it was deployed in the whole seven decades between World War I and the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. This fact alone makes democracy look ungovernable.

Viewed from Europe, the U.S. looks like a dysfunctional post-communist democracy in which politics is an ungovernable zero-sum game. Compromise has become more difficult than ever because most Congressmen and Senators come from a one-party state where you are rewarded for non-compromising.

Recently a friend of mine said that they’re working on software that, any moment a politician is giving a statement on an issue, automatically shows the different positions on the same issue he or she has taken.  And this is perceived as a great contribution to democracy because you can show that a politician is changing his view. But democracy is not about people not changing their views. The most important figure in democratic politics is not the guy who is not changing his view. The most important and positive hero for the democratic society is somebody who is ready to change his views after a rational argument. If I cannot change the politician’s view, even giving him a very strong argument against his position, he’s either an idiot or a fanatic. I’m afraid because these type of technologies are making consistency more important than reasonability.

Does if affect how European democracies view the Americans?

From the American perspective, European democracies resemble decaying semi-authoritarian regimes in which elites make all their choices behind the backs of voters. In some sense, the difference in the American and European elite responses to constraints on democratic politics in the age of globalization resembles the contrast between the Hollywood movie and the French experimental novel. American politicians hope to keep voters interested in politics by retaining a traditional plot, with black and white choices. European politicians, however, ditched the plot and worked instead to convince voters to focus on the style and sophistication of the writing. In the U.S., the risk is that voters will at some point realize that although their political representatives disagree on nearly everything, their economic policies are awfully similar. It is here where the anti-elite resentment skyrockets and people are ready to endorse radical platforms. In Europe, the risk is that voters will simply stop “reading”; in other words, the non-voter will become the protagonist of European politics.

What got you interested in thinking about problems with democracy?

It’s very personal. I was 24-years-old when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. And on one level, of course, democracy was extremely important for our generation. But on the other hand, we learned in 1989 how fragile the world is. For a long time, in my youth, we had been told that the problems of socialism could be cured with more socialism. So when I hear people talking about their problem with democracy, but we’re curing the problems of democracies with more democracy, I decided that I needed to look at what we’re talking about.

In Mistrust We Trust 
is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone and get a subscription.