The Ballot Box is Not Enough Social instability occurs when political systems fail to adjust to change. It might be the biggest risk the world is facing today.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit; eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace, 2005

Security is like water or oxygen – we only notice it when it is gone. The first decade of the 21st century ended with profound economic insecurity, triggered by the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Its second decade may well go down in history as an era of profound societal insecurity, caused by leaders unwilling or incapable to respond to changing public demands.

According to a joint study of the Initiative for Policy Dialogue and the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation the number of protests around the world has grown consistently and has at least doubled between 2006 and 2013. The study also shows that protests grew in size with 37 events involving more than one million protesters.

Political institutions decay when they fail to adjust to change. And this is what happened in many places over the past decade: from Tehran’s Azadi Square to New York’s Zuccotti Park, the erosion of trust in leadership and the spread of social unrest is not only a tale of authoritarian and rogue regimes. Some of the most heated protests hit democratically elected governments in places from Brazil to Turkey.

What happened? In the rich world, people grow frustrated with widening gaps between rich and poor and an eroding middle class. Income data shows that inequality in the United States and Europe is returning to 19th century levels. Some see the triumph of corporate over voter interests as the root cause: two of three Americans say elected officials are influenced by lobbyists; even more feel big companies control the political system. “The main question confronting us today is not really about capital in the twenty-first century. It is about democracy in the twenty-first century”, writes Joseph Stieglitz.

Emerging economies face the opposite challenge. Not the erosion but the emergence of the middle class is triggering civil unrest. From Cairo’s Tahrir square to the streets of Hong Kong, protesters demand greater political participation. But upheavals from Istanbul’s Gezi Park to the streets of Santiago also made clear that the ballot box is not enough: without checks and balances and the protection of minority rights, voting is mere window dressing. For democracies to function a free press and the rule of law are indispensable.

Protests are a legitimate political instrument. In most democracies they are a constitutional right. But when protests escalate they come with high economic and political costs. Hong Kong’s “umbrella movement” cost its economy more than two billion HKD. The costs of the Gezi protests are estimated at between 20 and 50 billion USD. The economic costs of the Arab Spring, according to one estimate, amount to more than 800 billion USD by the end of 2014.

Yet most troubling is the cost of life. In the wake of the Gezi protests, 11 people died and more than 8000 got injured. Regime protests in the Arab world and Ukraine came at even higher costs. At the end of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 more than 800 people were killed; the Syrian civil war claimed more than 250.000 lives. The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 cost more than 100 lives, the related conflict with Russia another 4000, and the numbers keep rising. In all these countries thousands of people were injured and displaced.

In authoritarian regimes social unrest is so costly because there are no mechanisms for peaceful change. Violent responses in middle income autocracies often rest on a calculation which is as perfidious as it is effective: populations, especially those with a growing middle class and “something to lose”, tend to put a high premium on order. Give chaos to those who seek freedom – and they will soon beg for order, no matter what kind. This is the story of Egypt or Syria.

Wealthier (and more capable) regimes prefer cash over chaos. Drawing much of its legitimacy from an extraordinary growth and development record, China’s central government faces the trade-off between carrying out indispensable economic reforms and squeezing more growth from the old and increasingly exhausted model. Whilst this defuses tensions and adverse reactions, buying stability on credit risks undermining long-term economic vibrancy.

The impact of eroding trust in liberal democracies is more subtle and more complex. The failure of democracy, as Francis Fukuyama writes, lies less in concept than in execution. It often begins with leaders refusing to take responsibility and trying to pass the buck to others: in his book “Ruling the Void”, Peter Mair describes the EU as a house which has no room for politics and where nation states pretend they are just branches of Brussels. Blaming unpopular decisions on Brussels is a popular way to obtain a short-term gain at the expense of long-term trust in leadership. The same holds true for the US where House and Senate blame one another for political gridlock.

The less trust there is in the leadership of politicians, the more polarizing electoral competition becomes, and the more attractive the extreme ends of the political spectrum get: In the US, Pew Research found that 43% of Republicans have a highly negative opinion of Democrats and nearly as many Democrats (38%) feel very unfavourably about Republicans.  The result is a widening partisan divide, a self-reinforcing cycle of distrust and political gridlock, and the unprecedented success of far left and far right positions in the run-up to the Presidential elections.

In Europe, the economic crisis sharpened resource conflicts between rich and poorer regions, challenged the premise that openness and integration benefit society, and grew a sentiment that policy decisions are taken by distant and unaccountable technocrats. The upcoming “Brexit” vote, separatist movements in regions from Catalonia to Scotland, as well as nationalist parties from Marine Le Pen’s Front National to Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland are the consequence.

The dissatisfaction with the political “establishment” also affects political parties, the incubators of leaders and umbilical cord between government and society: the number of people who identify with traditional parties is plummeting. When it comes to attracting idealistic and engaged people, especially the young, parties lose out against single-issue NGOs and spontaneous activism. “It is a dangerous illusion that democracy is possible without political parties and that street protests based more on social media than sustained political organizing is the way to change society”, writes Moises Naim.

All the above are worrying trends. Democracies falter when they default to winning opportunistic voters – and they falter when elections come at the expense of national unity. In the US, partisan divides are increasingly becoming personal ones, influencing where people choose to live and who they choose as friends. In the EU, the crisis years led to the twin-rise of populism and technocracy: the former implies an “authentic popular will”, the latter a technical solution to all political challenges – both do not see the need for debate, a foundation of vibrant democracies.

Problems at home also cascade internationally. Both weak governments and those that build their strength on a nationalistic platform find it hard to collaborate abroad: the former suffer from weak mandates and internal division, making strong international commitments unfeasible; the latter use division abroad to consolidate power at home. The rise of geopolitical tensions from the South China Sea to Europe’s Eastern borders is directly linked to the rise of populism and nationalism at home.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall communism collapsed and democracy became the most widely accepted form of government. This still holds trues. Very few openly profess to admire Russia’s petronationalism, Venezuela’s twenty-first century socialism or North Korea, the last bastion of communism. At the same time, trust in leadership eroded substantially in leading democracies and with that its appeal to people and nations. According to Freedom House, global freedom declined year-on-year over the past decade.

If we do not want weak governments, rising nationalism and civil unrest becoming the “new normal”, we need to transform the way societies are governed. The early enthusiasm around the Arab Spring generated big momentum around the idea that digital technology could hold the key to greater civic participation. But then the Arab Spring failed in most countries; the “99%” movement disappeared as fast as it appeared; and Ed Snowden revealed that not only individuals were being “upgraded”, but also traditional institutions. Disillusionment was the result; terms like slacktivism and clicktivism entered our vocabulary. It became clear that there is nothing in technology that inevitably makes us more or less free. Many societies where connectivity helped citizens rise up lacked the necessary structures to re-establish order.

Other proposals center on greater citizen deliberation.”The role of money in politics and the dangers of hyper-partisanship are increasingly obvious in today’s politics”, writes Manuel Arriaga; “letting ordinary citizens make policy avoids these pitfalls — they must neither cater to the interests of those who funded their campaign nor hew to the party line”. There are examples where passing political powers back into the hands of ordinary people has worked. In the Canadian province British Columbia a citizen panel of 160 people successfully worked out reforms to the province’s electoral system. In the US state of Oregon a “Citizen Initiative Review” process lets 25 randomly chosen Oregonians research and deliberate on the ballot measures up for a vote. In my home country, Switzerland, citizen deliberation is deeply engrained in the popular understanding of democracy.

More direct democracy is a powerful instrument to ensure that politics serves the people. But it is no panacea. Whilst there are many successful examples on local, communal and provincial levels, things are more tricky on national, regional and global levels. The challenge of globalization is that more and more issues are products of cross border interdependence and hence cannot be solved on national or even regional levels alone. But the more problems are growing in scale and complexity, the higher is the risk of anxiety beating analysis in citizen politics. In Switzerland, a 2014 federal popular initiative to limit immigration championed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) gained most votes in areas with very few foreigners. The paradox we face is that we we need more governance on higher levels but are reluctant to hand more power to bureaucracies that seem far removed from the people they claim to represent. Solving this paradox sits at the heart of governance reform.

Reforming political decision-making requires more involvement bottom up and more transparency and accountability of institutions that broker and represent the interests of large numbers of people. Technologies will play an important role but are not a substitute for dialogue and debate. Politics is not just an optimization problem, it is a constant sense-making process which forces us to update models of how the world is and should be. It is not about choosing the best from a discrete set of possibilities, it is about the art of creating new ones.

About Sebastian Buckup