DEMOCRACY today is under serious pressure, not least in Europe. The pressure, notably on representative or parliamentary democracy, is such that we will have to rethink the very constitution of liberty. This pressure comes moreover from two sides at the same time. Within countries, several developments conspire to set in motion a kind of creeping authoritarianism. These internal developments are reinforced by what is crudely called globalization, that is, the emigration of important decisions to spaces for which democratic processes and institutions do not exist.
Americans recognize some of these problems, but for a number of reasons the American position is different. Like Larry Siedentop in his influential book, Democracy in Europe, my concern focuses on the countries of Europe and with the European Union since 1989.1 Many of us still remember with joy those months twelve years ago when country after country east of the crumbling Iron Curtain emerged from nomenklatura rule to the first halting steps toward democracy. As a Popperian I never subscribed to the view that threats to liberty were forever dispelled and that Hegel's (or Kojeve's) final synthesis had arrived. At the same time I did not anticipate that within little more than a decade the risks to democracy would become so powerful.
This spring, two of the major countries of Europe, Italy and the United Kingdom, underwent--and survived--national election campaigns. In both cases, these campaigns were an expression of what might be called anti-politics. This was especially evident in Italy. The winning candidate used all his experience with-as well as ownership of--the media to project the image of a leader who is different: a star, a celebrity, an entrepreneur who knows what his customers want. It is also worth remembering what happened on the other side of the Italian political spectrum. A prime minister who by common consent did his job exceptionally well, Giuliano Amato, was considered insufficiently telegenic to lead the center-left into the election. Someone more attractive to viewers was found in the person of Francesco Rutelli. In the event, Rutelli turned out to be a very serious candidate, but the reasons for his choice tell the relevant story.
Some would argue that something similar happened in Britain, because the "real" prime minister is the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, whereas Tony Blair, who likes to surround himself with stars from anywhere but politics, is needed to get the votes. However that may be, Blair is a leader who likes to bypass political institutions like party and parliament and turn directly to the people, or, better still, to "focus groups" selected as representatives of the people.
Celebrity politics tends toward snapshot politics. Somehow, continuity has gone out of the democratic process. What counts is the view of the moment--and this is highly volatile. A week after the election, the voters are just as likely to turn against their choices. The chosen leader (if that is the word) for his part is happy to abandon his projects if what he regards as the people want something different. Throwaway politics is another notion that comes to mind: like tins of Coca-Cola, indeed like cameras and radio sets and soon mobile phones, policies are chosen, used and discarded for their short-term utility. What has gone out of our democracies is extended debate and the patient pursuit of objectives through periods of popular support as well as those of popular doubt.
Institutionally speaking, what has gone is the pivotal role of parliament. Mr. Blair's first act after his election in 1997 was to reduce "Prime Ministers Questions" in the House of Commons from two days to one--a symbolic yet significant act. Perhaps the British Parliament has always been more malleable than those of countries with a clearer separation of powers, but the tendency to strengthen the executive and weaken parliament is widespread. I am a member of a committee of the Upper House whose task it is to scrutinize bills in order to prevent government from using legislation to delegate powers to the executive. In recent years there has been a massive increase in such attempts. Elsewhere in Europe, and especially in the European Union, secondary legislation remains largely outside parliamentary control. Government by what we call "Henry VIII clauses"--that is, provisions in primary legislation that enable the executive to alter the very purpose of an act or even revoke it--is widespread.
There is also another side to the picture. While turnout in elections is still high in Europe, at least compared to the United States, observers nevertheless find widespread apathy, if not cynicism, with regard to politics. People do not care, and while they do not trust anyone in power, they cannot be bothered to do anything about it. This is how the authoritarian syndrome emerges. Contrary to totalitarianism, authoritarianism is founded not on the permanent mobilization of all subjects, but on their disinterest. People--citizens indeed!--can do what they want as long as they do not interfere with the smooth exercise of power. This power, in turn, is more and more concentrated in the executive.
Now such creeping authoritarianism does not always prevail. In France there is a well-established tradition of 100,000 teachers or farmers or nurses descending on Paris and forcing the government to mend its ways. Last year, a number of European countries reacted to blockades by lorry drivers demanding lower taxes on petrol. But none of this is democracy as James Madison or John Stuart Mill envisaged it. "Strengthening Parliament", to quote the title of a recent report by British Conservatives, has become an uphill task.