Democracies Don't Dazzle

02/24/2014 01:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2014

As developing economies developed, their process of democratization seemed inevitable. Indeed many western scholars believed that the process democratization was a given natural development for any state.

What once seemed so certain seems much less obvious. Democracies are simply less attractive today. As states form they face new realities and don't necessarily look to the West, but also to the East for answers and best practice.

So, what made democracies lose their luster? The picture is complex and many theories have been put forward. In my opinion there are at least three major trends to be reckoned with:

  1. Democracies underperform economically
  2. Democracies are ill-suited to deal with long time spans
  3. Democracies are slow at adapting to mass digitization

Poor economic performance

Last year China's burgeoning influence on the world economy reached milestone as use of the Yuan in trade finance overtook the Euro and the Yen. And the familiar tune is that China's economic performance challenges American political leadership. It is not untrue, but it is only part of the truth. In terms of growth it is not only the shining city upon a hill that is falling behind, most of the traditional bastions of democracy are, and Mainland China is not even among leaders of the pack. Libya, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Turks and Caicos Islands, Niger, Turkmenistan, Panama, Macau, and Cote d'Ivoire were the top ten countries by real GDP growth rate in 2012. The days when exemplary democracies were economic beacons are gone.

Growth is not the end-all-goal of politics, but it is one of the most compelling deliverables. And it is a goal constantly being put forward as worth pursuing by the democratic states themselves. When democracies don't deliver growth alternatives seem more attractive.

Long time span

In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon asked China's first premier, Zhou Enlai, for his assessment of the French Revolution, 183 years after the revolution's conclusion. Zhou's response: "It is too early to say." Apparently, the jury's still out on modern democracy that resulted from the French Revolution. While major issues like the global-warming crisis and the energy-water nexus, become more complex and require longer timeframes to solve, the West is becoming increasingly shortsighted. China's and states with long-serving leaders' main competitive advantage over the U.S. and E.U. may well be a broader perspective on time. The latest financial crisis might even have been avoided had we been looking at century-long cycles rather than four-year political periods.

Part of the problem is that the quickening pace of, well, just about everything is deemed a benefit. Over time, our political attention spans have adjusted to short electoral terms, myopic quarterly reports set the business horizon and computerized flash-trading practices recognize movements in market sentiment in split seconds.

State of Social Proof

You would think that democracies' core, their inclusive nature and sheer ability to govern would still look attractive. After all, we all seem to have more and more choices. Everything seems to be on a path of "democratization" - switching from top-down to bottom-up approaches. Disregarding digitization's potential privacy related cyber threats such as the American espionage on the COP15 parties, I believe digital culture is challenging democracy at its core. In his new book Infostorms, Vincent F. Hendricks describes this challenge and our post-factual democracy.

During the U.S. presidential election of 2012, the Republican candidate for the vice presidency, Paul Ryan, made a speech that according to Fox News, was "... an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech." Regardless, the herding effect of the 'likes', 'thumbs up', 'favorite' etc. can socially "prove" such speech content and cause it to go viral. And, Paul Ryan's credibility was obviously not obliterated.

Citizens have long been easily influenced by the opinions of others and sought social proof, but social media have amplified the phenomena to unprecedented heights. As digital devices permeate every aspect of our lives, it has boosted the way in which information can distort truth. The abundance of information driven by digital media has allowed us to increasingly bypass source criticism, which can seem ponderous and time consuming. Thus the lines between information and knowledge are being blurred by new digital habits.

Democracy is not just about voting, but about informed voting. If democracy doesn't have access to reliable sources of information and instead relies on social proof then there is no way of distinguishing between junk evidence and actual knowledge. Qualified voting is sensitive to the information available for deliberation, decision and action; as such a democracy is sensitive to the quality of information. If you can control the information citizens have for voting, you control democracy.

Now what?

Does this mean we should give up on democracy? No, but it means we can't take it for granted and have to work at it. Here are some of the things we can start doing:

  • Become Entrepreneurial at a state level
  • What if we learned from successes from fast growing regions and appropriated them by implementing design policies directed at growth?

  • Reward people much, much later in life
  • What if we took the Chinese perspective and civil-servant approach? We would reward people decades after they were employed. We could even let historians help figure out how to distribute bonuses. Why not let pensions be determined by a person's long-term contribution to society as a whole?

  • Bet on the way long term
  • In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of the decade. Such an aim should be the benchmark for policy makers: Decide on an ambitious target and, with a strong vision, set out to reach it. Today, it's difficult to imagine any responsible Western politician declare even a ten-year goal. But in retrospect, Kennedy's goal was perhaps too near-sighted. Historians argue that by focusing all American expertise on one symbolic goal, the big picture got lost. The manned exploration of Mars, was left behind in the debris and more advanced means of propulsion could have been developed to enable us to colonize remote corners of space. Let's think bolder and further into the future. Let's, for example, bet on reaching habitable exoplanets by the end of this century.

  • Educate for the digital age
  • School students understand less and less of the technologies that surround them. They need to get the same level of understanding of coding of digital devices as previous generations had for the mechanics that surrounded them. And they need to appropriate methods for proper source criticism of digital sources. Let's change our curriculums!

  • Celebrate hard work
  • We need to reinstate time-consuming and demanding work as an asset. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the rule that we need 10.000 hours of labour to get good at anything. However it can't be just any kind of work. It needs to be arduous, concentrated work. We simply need to find ways to reinstate hard work as a cornerstone cultural value. Why not celebrate it?

Some of this might sound utopian, but not long ago, Western countries had high growth rates, long-term perspectives, and a critical approach to sources of information.

Some years ago, the Danish secretary of defense received a letter from a forester named Lars Toksvig informing him that the oak timber Denmark had ordered in 1807 to secure the fleet was ready for delivery. Today, this type of planning sounds preposterous. But perhaps an ability to project very, very far into the future is just one of the things we need to re-learn.