Ours is a time of abnormal democracy. Some think that it is enough to return to certain political normality for the course of democracy to take its ordinary course; others think that the time has come to create something different or radical. Perhaps we have not realized that, on one side or the other, they are no longer talking about the same form of government when they say “democracy”.
Both academics and political forces agree that democracy is in crisis. For political actors, the origin of the crisis is either in those who govern – the concentration of power in Nicaragua or Venezuela – or in those who seek to take power away from them. In Mexico, the presidential discourse insists that “conservatives” are preventing the transformation of the country.
Although academics have identified three factors that threaten democracy, namely authoritarian impulses, populism, and illiberal tendencies, the diversity of ideas and concepts that have been coined to explain the current crisis reveals its complexity. In this sense, from the classic term “delegative democracies” we can find, among other aspects, tired, weak, illiberal, authoritarian, and fragile democracies.
But which democracy is in crisis? The normal one, that is, the form of government on which there was agreement about its basic principles (individual freedom and political equality) and about its representative institutions, that make real the popular will expressed through universal suffrage. Normal democracy is that one consolidated after World War II accompanying the welfare state and which maintains its basic principles in the subsequent Global Neoliberal State.
In a normal democracy, the “who” and the “how” form consensus. The “who” of democracy was the broadest number of citizens characterized by their freedoms and their right to political participation through the “how”, which are those procedures that allow them to participate in collective decision-making and elections. Electoral campaigns used to be directed at the citizenry, but today this has changed, as the “who” is in dispute.
Whether they are running as opposition or as part of the government, political actors no longer have a consensus on the democratic “who”. Today, when those actors say “Mexicans”, “Colombians”, “Chileans” and do not say citizens, they mean “people”, that is, a fragmented entity of the citizenry on which they seek to legitimize their access to power through what they call democracy, that is, elections.
In a normal democracy, power is an empty place that seeks to be occupied by political forces that “represent” the citizenry, even if only partially. In abnormal democracy, power is a space emptied of that representation and which political parties seek to fill with a part of the whole. In abnormal democracy, political discourse makes poor people, the nationals, the excluded, and the offended – the only legitimate part for making collective decisions.
Many have not realized that this means the disappearance of the consensus on what we should understand by democracy. But this has broken down in as much as for populists it is enough with the support -legitimate, by the way- of their people to come to power, while for some authoritarians it is enough with the support of the right political and social forces to stay in power. It is no longer necessary to speak of rights, freedoms, or participation; it is enough to say “elections”, “patriots” or “people” to speak of democracy.
We have been wrong in believing that in order to explain the current democratic crisis, we must think of democracy as formed by a nucleus that, if altered, implies its degeneration. But if the solution is to return to normal democracy, this would imply closing the means for the denunciation of legitimate exclusions and injustices because there are, indeed, “people” that have been ignored by the hegemonic consensus of normal democracy.
Some political actors have taken advantage of this, through polarization and fragmentation, to disfigure democracy. Under the flag of their “people”, they fail to understand that without limits to their power there will be no democracy. Therefore, we cannot fail to denounce their threats, but as long as we think that a return to normal democracy is the solution, we will not know how to deal with those threats.
The idea of the abnormal democracy represents the idea that we have lost the consensus on the meaning of democracy, and its dispute over “who”, is an opportunity to attack old inequalities through new powers. The idea of abnormal democracy seeks to emphasize the fact that democracy, its values, and institutions, is the result of its contestations. For the moment: we had better know how to transform democracy, so as not to lose it.
Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva