On the Concept of Democratic Sustainability

Laurence Whitehead

A critical posture towards ‘democratic sustainability’ enhances the concept’s leverage in exploring the uneven trajectories and regional specificities of democratic change.

March 22, 2023

The qualifier “sustainability” is increasingly deployed to provide assurance concerning the temporal durability of a variety of macro-social complexes – the rule of law; sovereign debt; ecological balance; and many more. As such it combines a tone of detachment and neutrality; the appearance of rationality; and the comfort of a stable framework of expectations. Although it seems technical and evidence-based it is also somewhat aspirational and perhaps even a shade hortatory. For social processes to be sustainable is usually a good thing- conveying a sense of order, stability, and predictability that serves limit insecurity and facilitate co-operation. Actors operating within a sustainable setting can take a long run view of their interests and have an incentive to judge situations in the round, rather than to react in fear or on impulse. However, labelling a situation sustainable may not suffice to ensure that it is so, and the sceptic may have grounds for doubting that such an assurance can be taken at face value. The grounds for confidence may be stronger in the case of sovereign debt (given known enforcement patterns and incentives) than with regard to climate change (where the margin of imprecision is far greater and the forces in contention are largely beyond human volition). Each macro-social complex demands its own order of verification.

Contesting the Concept

The sustainability of democracy is a fashionable concept that needs to be specified and tested on its own terms. In 1942 the only democratic regimes still operating in continental Europe were in Sweden and Switzerland. Half a century later liberal democracy appeared to many observers to be the only durable regime type in prospect across that continent. After three more decades perceptions changed once more – “democratic regression” became the dominant buzzword, and war against democracy was once again openly engaged. Likewise, in Latin America by 1973 authoritarian (usually military) rule prevailed in all but a handful of the twenty republics, whereas by 2001 the Inter-American Democratic Charter seemed to promise a hemisphere composed solely of sustainable democracies. Two decades later only a small shift of electoral preferences in the USA might well suffice to wholly overturn that prospect. So at large world region level two of the most favourable locations display clear evidence that any so-called “waves” of democratization flow back as well as forward over the generations. Note also, however, that in a few special cases (Costa Rica in the Americas and Switzerland in Europe) individual democratic regimes may prove more sustainable over time than their neighbours.

Contextualizing Sustainability

On the other hand, in a less favourable regional context efforts to establish democracy (such as the 2011 “Arab Spring”) are typically crushed before they can gain traction, and even the few instances of genuine democratization (Lebanon and Tunisia) have proved unsustainable. Among the factors accounting for democratic resilience in some settings rather than in others a distinction is needed between international and domestic dimensions. For example, the MENA region is riven by great power conflicts and conflicting military alliances, occasioned in part by its vast oil wealth. Such geopolitical impediments to democratization should be distinguished from internal constraints, traceable perhaps to monarchical absolutism/ theocracy, and precarious state formation. At the ideational level, when democratic aspirations are frustrated or suppressed, they may lose momentum and perhaps even disappear from public view, but they remain latent and retain the capacity to resurface – often dramatically and unexpectedly. This subterranean resilience can persist indefinitely, but durable breakthroughs require fresh thinking and the capacity to identify and correct previous failings.

Orthodox political science privileges global assertions about democratic sustainability over more restricted regional or contextual approaches. But the value of these ahistorical and decontextualized studies seems doubtful. Huntington’s worldwide “three waves” has proved an intuitive metaphor, but it rests on a classification that is arbitrary and non-replicable. Overlooking the varied sources and patterns of democratic innovation means that it contains little explanatory force and still less predictive power. Large N quantifiers prefer to stress a supposed strong correlation between some threshold of per capita income and the ensuing permanence of procedural democracy that then ensues. But Trump and Bolsonaro shake confidence in this “objective” finding, whose popularity has faded as the “backsliding” metaphor gained traction and as both Russia and then China surged passed the magic barrier while clamping down on all signs of political liberalization. In any case, procedural democracy is of limited appeal on its own. To achieve collective legitimation and sustainable bases of support it needs to serve substantive social purposes such as citizen security, economic well-being, dignity, and equity.

All this confirms that when applied to the durability of contemporary national democratic regimes the concept of “sustainability” is approximate and contextually unstable. It may have more precision than when applied to healthcare in a pandemic, but probably less than when economists refer to sovereign debt sustainability (which in turn is an inexact science). Political scientists have proposed models of democratic “transition” and even “consolidation” that are supposed to govern today’s democratization possibilities, but the first application is strictly time-limited, and although the second promises permanence it can only deliver at best one or two generations of stability.

A Continuous Aspiration

More importantly, democratization processes are not confined to the nation state. Civil society, the family, the church, corporations, universities and many more domains can also be vehicles for such collective hopes and experiments. There may be no democratic regimes in existence in today’s Arab world, but that does not preclude democratic activism -even (pace Huntington)regional waves of mobilization. Algeria’s hirak recently provided a powerful reminder of how such aspirations may persist and be sustained in latent form despite relentless state suppression. Rising levels of popular education generate younger generations with capacities and expectations that are bound to seek greater political expression than their forebears, however atavistic the outlook of ruling autocrats. The Taliban may attempt to deny schooling to the female half of Afghanistan’s population, but women’s desire for a better future cannot be eliminated, and the democratization of family life will remain an irrepressible demand regardless of state policy. Not even in Putin’s Russia has the long run potential for personal freedom and inclusion been permanently extinguished. In fact, so long as individuals survive who remember or bear witness to the democratic way of living, that is sufficient to keep alive the potential for its eventual restoration. In this sense the sustainability of democracy is a virtually ineradicable patrimony of humanity.