The Beauty and the Beast?: A Tale of Democratic Crises and Globalization

The Beauty and the Beast?: A Tale of Democratic Crises and Globalization

Marc Bühlmann (Année Politique Suisse, Institute of Political Science, University of Bern, Berne, Switzerland)
DOI: 10.4018/jsesd.2013010103


There are two competing hypotheses concerning the connection between democracy and globalization. The critics hold globalization responsible for an ongoing crisis of democracy. The enthusiasts highlight the positive contributions of financial openness and international political cooperation on the development of democracy. In this contribution the author investigates the interrelation between globalization and the quality of established democracies. He introduces the Democracy Barometer, a new instrument that measures the quality of democracy in 30 established democratic regimes between 1995 and 2005 and that explicitly does not measure sustainable government because it aims at serving as dependent as well as independent variable to explain different economic, societal and natural environment, i.e. sustainable development. Based on this instrument, the author first shows that one cannot speak of an ongoing crisis of (established) democracies. Second, he also conducts several multilevel analyses to model the different developments of the quality of democracy in the different countries. The author then shows that economy, i.e. economic globalization indeed has a positive impact on the quality of democracy. However, this impact is stronger in stable, i.e. older than in younger established democracies. Further investigations show that a high quality of democracy also goes hand in hand with societal and environmental performance.
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As every other social construct, democracy is under constant pressure to adapt to societal change. The increasing complexity of economic, social and political problems and their solutions, or the growth of critical citizens with different expectations and demands from ‘their’ governments are important challenges that established democracies have to face.

Many politicians as well as scientists fear that established democracies are not apt to handle these challenges. Based on empirical findings concerning the loss of confidence in political elites and the citizens’ declining support for democracy (Dalton, 2005), democratic nations are believed to experience veritable crises of legitimacy (Pharr & Putnam, 2000).

Usually, globalization is identified as the culprit in the story of the crisis of democracy. Globalization – understood as the economic and financial integration of market societies, the political de-nationalization of established democracies in terms of supra-nationalization and regionalization as well as the spread of main stream culture – is seen as the main source of several obstructions of democracy: reduced autonomy in national policy-making (Cox, 1997; Schmitter, 1996), the emergence of domestic losers resulting in rising income inequality and increasing public discontent (Cox, 1996; Longworth, 1998), the blurring of governmental transparency (Gill, 1995), or a degradation of the concept of citizenship (Sassen, 1996). Thus, several basic elements of a democratic system are thought to be constricted by globalization.

Of course, the crisis argument is not unchallenged in the scholarly debate on the impact of globalization on democracy. Another view suggests the opposite: globalization can even be an opportunity for democracy and enhance its quality (Eichengreen & Leblang, 2008), e.g. by reducing information costs (Diamond, 1992), by enlarging the scope of action for nation states (Gilpin, 1987; O’Riain, 2000), or by the expansion of the electoral marketplace through denationalization (Sassen, 1996). A third view expects no impact of globalization on democracy at all (Fligstein, 2001) or considers the effect of globalization to be overstated (Hirst & Thompson, 1996).

Most of the previous studies who analyzed the relationship between globalization and democracy focused on the impact of economic globalization (in terms of openness of national markets) on democratization, using large country samples which include established democracies as well as autocracies (Brune & Garett, 2005; Eichengreen & Leblang, 2008). In this contribution, I analyze the impact of globalization in terms of economic market integration and political internationalization on the quality of established democracies. I argue that established democracies deal with the challenges of globalization differently and that their success or failure in doing so is reflected in the changes of their quality over time.

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