03/10/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

Doubting Democracy?

The Economist

When the Economist –- one of the most authoritative voices in the global media -- begins to doubt democracy, it is time to get serious about fixing things.

Last week’s cover story (March 1-7) was titled “What’s Gone Wrong With Democracy: And How to Revive It.” The magazine’s extensive deliberation that stretches over a six page essay was prompted by the rapid-fire events of the past several years –-popular eruptions from the original Orange Revolution in Ukraine to the Arab Spring that have cast autocrats out only to replace them with failed attempts at democracy and then a return to autocratic rule, often as not backed by men in uniforms. The continuing dysfunction and gridlock in Washington and other Western capitals is equally a cause for their worry.

As the essay puts it:

“Democracy is going through a difficult time. Where autocrats have been driven out of office, opponents have mostly failed to create viable democratic regimes. Even in established democracies, flaws in the system have become worryingly visible and disillusion with politics is rife.”

The most interesting part of the essay is the Economist’s discussion of how advanced democracies are undermining themselves through lack of institutionalized restraint against the populist pressures of voters as well as the lobbying of special interests. Both lead governments to promise more than they can deliver and spend more than they can afford -– whether for welfare or war. Further, in societies integrated into a global economy where issues are complex and the actions of others beyond borders can impact the fate of a nation, key decisions are necessarily beyond the scope of ordinary citizens whose horizons are limited by the everyday preoccupations of family and work.

The innovation in governance that the Economist proposes as a remedy would combine a greater role for non-partisan technocrats -– knowledgable meritocrats might be a better description -- with more participation of citizens through direct democracy. Each checks the other: Technocratic judgments must be transparent, curbed by a participatory public; the “appetites” (Plato’s word) of the public will be restrained by impartial judgments based on knowledge, not political pandering or partisanship.

As the Economist puts it:

“Delegation upwards toward grandees and technocrats must be balanced by delegation downwards, handing some decisions to ordinary people. The trick is to harness the twin forces of globalism and localism, rather than trying to ignore or resist them. With the right balance of these two approaches, the same forces that threaten established democracies from above, through globalization, and below, through the rise of micro-powers, can reinforce rather than undermine democracy.”

This “devolve, involve and decision-division” concept is a critical advance in thinking about the reform of democratic governance that is well worth putting into practice. (Indeed, it is the guiding framework of the Berggruen Institute on Governance as outlined in a book I wrote with Nicolas Berggruen in 2012 entitled “Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century”).

As an example, the Economist points to Chile, where an appointed commission of experts oversees the volatility of copper prices (copper is Chile’s main export) to ensure that export revenues are husbanded for investment in the future and not spent as they come in as a result of populist pressures to spend it all now.

“The most encouraging example,” the Economist article goes on to say, “is California.” The essay points to a series of reforms proposed in recent years of open instead of partisan primaries, a citizen’s commission to draw electoral boundaries and the efforts of the Berggruen Institute’s Think Long Committee for California to “counteract the short term tendencies of ballot initiatives” with a non-partisan public review process by impartial state officials, such as the State Auditor, and former justices of the state’s Supreme Court.

This is exactly the kind of governance hybrid the Economist suggests: a non-partisan meritocratic body combined with the direct democracy of the initiative process (whereby citizens can vote to directly make laws and change the constitution).

Another key proposal of the Think Long Committee, a “rainy day fund” to put away revenues for the future rather than spend them when there is a government surplus, has been taken up by Gov. Jerry Brown at the top of his agenda this year. As the governor puts it, “fiscal responsibility is not the enemy of democracy, but its fundamental predicate.”

The idea of combining knowledgable democracy with accountable meritocracy, as suggested by the Economist, is not far from the vision of the so-called American Founding Fathers who designed institutions in their time to ward off both monarch and mob.

Governance is not static, but must respond to the conditions a society faces. It is time to update the genius of America’s Founding Fathers to fit our present circumstances. If we can’t manage to be equal to their spirit, the democracy they so carefully crafted is bound to falter.