TFR 8 – The Crisis of Democracy



For almost a quarter-century the Trilateral countries have shared a tripartite interest in military security, economic development, and political democracy. They have coordinated their efforts to provide for their common defense. They have cooperated together in the tasks of economic reconstruction, industrial development, and the promotion of trade, investment, and welfare within a framework of common international economic institutions. They have brought the comforts and the anxieties of middle-class status to a growing majority of their peoples. In somewhat parallel fashion, they have, also, each in its own way, developed and consolidated their own particular forms of political democracy, involving universal suffrage, regular elections, party competition, freedom of speech and assembly. After twenty-five years, it is not surprising that earlier assumptions and policies relating to military security need to be reviewed and altered in the light of the changed circumstances. Nor is it surprising that the policies and institutions of the postwar economic system based on the preeminence of the dollar are in heed of a drastic overhaul. Governments, after all, have traditionally existed to deal with problems of security and economics, and, individually and collectively, to adapt their policies in these areas to changing environments.

What is much more disturbing, because it is more surprising, is the extent to which it appears that the process of reconsideration must extend not only to these familiar arenas of governmental policy but also to the basic institutional framework through which governments govern. What are in doubt today are not just the economic and military policies but also the political institutions inherited from the past. Is political democracy, as it exists today, a viable form of government for the industrialized countries of Europe, North America, and Asia? Can these countries continue to function during the final quarter of the twentieth century with the forms of political democracy which they evolved during the third quarter of that century?

In recent years, acute observers on all three continents have seen a bleak future for democratic government. Before leaving office, Willy Brandt was reported to believe that "Western Europe has only 20 or 30 more years of democracy left in it; after that it will slide, engineless and rudderless, under the surrounding sea of dictatorship, and whether the dictation comes from a politburo or a junta will not make that much difference." If Britain continues to be unable to resolve the seemingly unresolvable problems of inflation-cum-prospective depression, observed one senior British official, "parliamentary democracy would ultimately be replaced by a dictatorship." "Japanese democracy will collapse," warned Takeo Miki in his first days in office, unless major reforms can be carried out and "the people's confidence in politics" be restored.1 The image which recurs in these and other statements is one of the disintegration of civil order, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders, and the alienation of citizens. Even what have been thought to be the most civic of industrialized societies have been held to be prey to these disabilities, as observers speak of the Vietnamization of America and the Italianization of Britain.

This pessimism about the future of democracy has coincided with a parallel pessimism about the future of economic conditions. Economists have rediscovered the fifty-year Kondratieff cycle, according to which 1971 (like 1921) should have marked the beginning of a sustained economic downturn from which the industrialized capitalist world would not emerge until close to the end of the century. The implication is that just as the political developments of the 1920s and 1930s furnished the ironic and tragic aftermath to a war fought to make the world safe for democracy, so also the 1970s and 1980s might furnish a similarly ironic political aftermath to twenty years of sustained economic development designed in part to make the world prosperous enough for democracy.

Social thought in Western Europe and North America tends to go through Pollyanna and Cassandra phases. The prevalence of pessimism today does not mean that this pessimism necessarily is well founded. That such pessimism has not been well founded in the past also does not mean that it is necessarily ill founded at present. A principal purpose of this report is to identify and to analyze the challenges confronting democratic government in today's world, to ascertain the bases for optimism or pessimism about the future of democracy, and to suggest whatever innovations may seem appropriate to make democracy more viable in the future.


The current pessimism seems to stem from the conjunction of three types of challenges to democratic government.

First, contextual challenges arise autonomously from the external environments in which democracies operate and are not directly a product of the functioning of democratic government itself. The Czechoslovak government, for instance, is less democratic today than it might otherwise be not because of anything over which it had any control. A severe reversal in foreign relations, such as either a military disaster or diplomatic humiliation, is likely to pose a challenge to regime stability. Defeat in war is usually fatal to any system of government, including a democratic one. (Conversely, the number of regimes in complex societies which have been overthrown in circumstances not involving foreign defeat is extremely small: all regimes, including democratic ones, benefit from a Law of Political Inertia which tends to keep them functioning until some external force interposes itself.) So, also, worldwide depression or inflation may be caused by factors which are external to any particular society and which are not caused directly by the operation of democratic government; and yet they may present serious problems to the functioning of democracy. The nature and seriousness of the contextual challenges may vary significantly from one country to another, reflecting differences in size, history, location, culture, and level of development. In combination, these factors may produce few contextual challenges to democracy, as was generally the case, for instance, in nineteenth-century America, or they may create an environment which makes the operation of democracy extremely difficult, as for instance in Weimar Germany.

Changes in the international distribution of economic, political, and military power and in the relations both among the Trilateral societies and between them and the Second and Third Worlds now confront the democratic societies with a set of interrelated contextual challenges which did not exist in the same way a decade ago. The problems of inflation, commodity shortages, international monetary stability, the management of economic interdependence, and collective military security affect all the Trilateral societies. They constitute the critical policy issues on the agenda for collective action.2 At the same time, however, particular issues pose special problems for particular countries. With the most active foreign policy of any democratic country, the United States is far more vulnerable to defeats in that area than other democratic governments, which, attempting less, also risk less. Given the relative decline in its military, economic, and political influence, the United States is more likely to face serious military or diplomatic reversal during the coming years than at any previous time in its history. If this does occur, it could pose a traumatic shock to American democracy. The United States is, on the other hand, reasonably well equipped to deal with many economic problems which would constitute serious threats to a resource-short and trade-dependent country like Japan,

These contextual challenges would pose major issues of policy and institutional innovation in the best of circumstances. They arise, however, at a time when democratic governments are also confronted with other serious problems stemming from the social evolution and political dynamics of their own societies. The viability of democracy in a country clearly is related to the social structure and social trends in that country. A social structure in which wealth and learning were concentrated in the hands of a very few would not be conducive to democracy; nor would a society deeply divided between two polarized ethnic or regional groups. In the history of the West, industrialization and democratization moved ahead in somewhat parallel courses, although in Germany, democratization lagged behind industrialization. Outside the West, in Japan, the lag was also considerable. In general, however, the development of cities and the emergence of the bourgeoisie diversified the sources of power, led to the assertion of personal and property rights against the state, and helped to make government more representative of the principal groups in society. The power of traditional aristocratic groups hostile to democracy tended to decline. Subsequently, democratic trends were challenged, in some cases successfully, by the rise of fascist movements appealing to the economic insecurities, and nationalistic impulses of lower-middle-class groups, supported by the remaining traditional authoritarian structure. Japan also suffered from a reactionary military establishment, against which the bourgeoisie found itself too weak to struggle and to be able to coexist. In addition, in many countries, communist parties developed substantial strength among the working class, advocating the overthrow of "bourgeois democracy" in the name of revolutionary socialism. The political and organizational legacy of this phase still exists in France and Italy, although it is by no means as clear as it once was that communist participation in the government of either country would necessarily be the prelude to the death of democracy there. Thus, at one time or another, threats to the viability of democratic government have come from the aristocracy, the military, the middle classes, and the working class. Presumably, as social evolution occurs, additional threats may well arise from other points in the social structure.

At the present time, a significant challenge comes from the intellectuals and related groups who assert their disgust with the corruption, materialism, and inefficiency of democracy and with the subservience of democratic government to "monopoly capitalism." The development of an "adversary culture" among intellectuals has affected students, scholars, and the media. Intellectuals are, as Schumpeter put it, "people who wield the power of the spoken and the written word, and one of the touches that distinguish them from other people who do the same is the absence of direct responsibility for practical affairs,"3 In some measure, the advanced industrial societies have spawned a stratum of value-oriented intellectuals who often devote themselves to the derogation of leadership, the challenging of authority, and the unmasking and delegitimation of established institutions, their behavior contrasting with that of the also increasing numbers of technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals. In an age of widespread secondary school and university education, the pervasiveness of the mass media, and the displacement of manual labor by clerical and professional employees, this development constitutes a challenge to democratic government which is, potentially at least, as serious as those posed in the past by the aristocratic cliques, fascist movements, and communist parties.

In addition to the emergence of the adversary intellectuals and their culture, a parallel and possibly related trend affecting the viability of democracy concerns broader changes in social values. In all three Trilateral regions, a shift in values is taking place away from the materialistic work-oriented, public-spirited values toward those which stress private satisfaction, leisure, and the need for "belonging and intellectual and esthetic self-fulfillment."4 These values are, of course, most notable in the younger generation. They often coexist with greater skepticism towards political leaders and institutions and with greater alienation from the political processes. They tend to be privatistic in their impact and import. The rise of this syndrome of values, is presumably related to the relative affluence in which most groups in the Trilateral societies came to share during the economic expansion of the 1960s. The new values may not survive recession and resource shortages. But if they do, they pose an additional new problem for democratic government in terms of its ability to mobilize its citizens for the achievement of social and political goals and to impose discipline and sacrifice upon its citizens in order to achieve those goals.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, there are the intrinsic challenges to the viability of democratic government which grow directly out of the functioning of democracy. Democratic government does not necessarily function in a self-sustaining or self-correcting equilibrium fashion. It may instead function so as to give rise to forces and tendencies which, if unchecked by some outside agency, will eventually lead to the undermining of democracy. This was, of course, a central theme in de Tocqueville's forebodings about democracy; it reappeared in the writings of Schumpeter and Lippmann; it is a key element in the current pessimism about the future of democracy.

The contextual challenges differ, as we have seen, for each society. Variations in the nature of the particular democratic institutions and processes in each society may also make some types of intrinsic challenges more prominent in one society than in another. But, overall, the intrinsic threats are general ones which are in some degree common to the operation of all democratic systems. The more democratic a system is, indeed, the more likely it is to be endangered by intrinsic threats. Intrinsic challenges are, in this sense, more serious than extrinsic ones. Democracies may be able to avoid, moderate, or learn to live with contextual challenges to their viability. There is deeper reason for pessimism if the threats to democracy arise ineluctably from the inherent workings of the democratic process itself. Yet, in recent years, the operations of the democratic process do indeed appear to have generated a breakdown of traditional means of social control, a delegitimation of political and other forms of authority, and an overload of demands on government, exceeding its capacity to respond.

The current pessimism about the viability of democratic government stems in large part from the extent to which contextual threats, societal trends, and intrinsic challenges have simultaneously manifested themselves in recent years. A democratic system which was not racked by intrinsic weaknesses stemming from its own performance as a democracy could much more easily deal with contextual policy challenges. A system which did not have such significant demands imposed upon it by its external environment might be able to correct the deficiencies which arose out of its own operations. It is, however, the conjunction of the policy problems arising from the contextual challenges, the decay in the social base of democracy manifested in the rise of oppositionist intellectuals and privatistic youth, and the imbalances stemming from the actual operations or democracy itself which make the governability of democracy a vital and, indeed, an urgent issue for the Trilateral societies.

This combination of challenges seems to create a situation in which the needs for longer-term and more broadly formulated purposes and priorities, for a greater overall coherence of policy, appear at the same time that the increasing complexity of the social order, increasing political pressures on government, and decreasing legitimacy of government make it more and more difficult for government to achieve these goals.

The demands on democratic government grow, while the capacity of democratic government stagnates. This, it would appear, is the central dilemma of the governability of democracy which has manifested itself in Europe, North America, and Japan in the 1970s.


Michel Crozier, Founder and Director, Centre de Sociologie des Organisations, Paris; Senior Research Director of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique
Samuel P. Huntington, Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government, Harvard University; Associate Director, Center for International Affairs, Harvard University
Joji Watanuki, Professor of Sociology, Sophia University, Tokyo

Table of Contents

A. The Current Pessimism About Democracy
B. The Challenges Confronting Democratic Government
by Michel Crozier
A. Are European Democracies Becoming Ungovernable?
- The Overload of the Decision-Making Systems
- Bureaucratic Weight and Civic Irresponsibility
- The European Dimension
B. Social, Economic and Cultural Causes
- The Increase of Social Interaction
- The Impact of Economic Growth
- The Collapse of Traditional Institutions
- The Upsetting of the Intellectual World
- The Mass Media
- Inflation
C. The Role and Structure of Political Values
- The Values Structure and the Problem of Rationality
- Core Political Beliefs
- The Impact of Social, Economic and Cultural Changes on the Principles of Rationality and on the Core Political Beliefs
- Traditional Factors as a Counterweight
- The Risks of Social and Political Regression
D. Conclusions: European Vulnerability
by Samuel P. Huntington
A. The Viability and Governability of American Democracy
B. The Expansion of Governmental Activity
C. The Decline in Governmental Authority
- The Democratic Challenge to Authority
- Decline in Public Confidence and Trust
- The Decay of the Party System
- The Shifting Balance Between Government and Opposition
D. The Democratic Distemper: Consequences
E. The Democratic Distemper: Causes
F. Conclusion: Toward a Democratic Balance
by Joji Watanuki
A. Japanese Democracy's Governability
- External Conditions
- Domestic Conditions and Capabilities
B. Changing Values, New Generations and Their Impact on the Governability of Japanese Democracy
- Political Beliefs
- Social and Economic Values
C. Consequences for and Future Perspectives on the Governability of Japanese Democracy
- Time Lag
2- Decline of Leadership and Delay of Decisions
- Vagaries of Urban, Educated Nonpartisans
- The Place of the Communists in the Multiparty System
- What Will Happen in the 1980s?
A. The Changing Context of Democratic Government
B. Consensus Without Purpose: The Rise of Anomic Democracy
C. The Dysfunctions of Democracy
- The Delegitimation of Authority
- The Overloading of Government
- The Disaggregation of Interests
- Parochialism in International Affair
D. Variations Among Regions

  • Topics: Security, Multilateral Cooperation
  • Region:  North America, Europe, Pacific Asia
  • Publisher:  Trilateral Commission (New York University Press)
  • Publication Date:  © 1975
  • ISBN:  0-8147-1305-3
  • Pages:  220
  • Complete Text: Click here to download