Behind dysfunctional government, is democracy itself in decay?
It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That constitution proved marvelously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, fought off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.
It would be 2,000 years before democracy was reinvented in the U.S. Constitution, now as representative democracy. Again, government by popular consent proved ingenious. The United States grew into the world’s leading power — economically, culturally and militarily. In Europe, democracies overtook authoritarian monarchies and fascist and communist dictatorships. In recent decades, democracy’s spread has made the remaining autocracies a minority.
The second democratic experiment is approaching 250 years. It has been as successful as the first. But the lesson from Athens is that success does not breed success. Democracy is not the default. It is a form of government that must be created with determination and that will disintegrate unless nurtured. In the United States and Britain, democracy is disintegrating when it should be nurtured by leadership. If the lights go out in the model democracies, they will not stay on elsewhere.
It’s not enough for governments to simply be democratic; they must deliver or decay. In Britain, government is increasingly ineffectual. The constitutional scholar Anthony King has described it as declining from “order” to “mess” in less than 30 years. During 10 years of New Labor rule, that proposition was tested and confirmed. In 1997 a new government was voted in with a mandate and determination to turn the tide on Thatcherite inequality.
It was given all the parliamentary power a democratic government could dream of and benefited from 10 years of steady economic growth. But a strong government was defeated by a weak system of governance. It delivered nothing of what it intended and left Britain more unequal than where the previous regime had left off.