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The Democratic Labyrinth

The Democratic Labyrinth

José Woldenberg

 Little by little (I think), as a society we come to realize that democracy is not a paradise, just a form of government, superior to the others, but replete with difficulties in its operation. The promised land that was pictured in certain naive or uninformed discourses doesn’t exist, and we are faced with a political-institutional arrangement that allows for the coexistence and competition that come with political diversity (which is no mean feat), but the arrangement is accompanied by a goodly number of checks and balances.

The PNUD (Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo / United Nations Development Program) has placed its emphasis on phenomena that damage democracy in Latin America “from outside” (poverty and inequality, deficiency in the state of law, incomplete citizenship) or in the behavior of elites (the media and politicians). CEPAL (La Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe / Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) insists that the precarious social cohesion that persists in our countries threatens everyone’s sense of belonging and thereby the possibilities for the harmonious reproduction of democracy. It is worthwhile, nonetheless, to reflect on the inherent features of democracy that make its operation difficult. They have to do with the consequences that follow from a type of government which assumes that sovereignty resides in the people and that power must be distributed, watched over, and controlled by multiple means.

I call your attention to a suggestive book by Pierre Rosanvallon, La contrademocracia (Counter-democracy; Manantial, Argentina, 2007. 312 pp.), which tries to comprehend the way in which the democratic set-up complicates its own functioning—from within. As a form of government, democracy has to struggle with distrust that is nourished by sources of two kinds: the first, of liberal origin; the others stemming from the democratic matrix itself.

1. The liberal concern. From its beginnings, the liberal impulse has tended to fear the accumulation of power and therefore, says Rosanvallon, “the aim was to protect the individual from the incursions of public power.” It is a matter of securing a sphere in which the State cannot intervene, such that individual liberties can unfold (almost) without interferences. “More democracy means, quite automatically in this case, more suspicion towards the powers that be.” One fears the expansion and strengthening of those powers at the expense of persons; one mistrusts power, and virtue appears to be on the side of citizens. All of that is in the genetic code of democracy and without those conditions such a form of government is impossible. However, it is a tension that weighs heavily at every moment on democracy’s own self-reproduction. The suspicion directed at authorities is a permanent blemish.

2. The democratic concern. Here the mechanism is also distrust, but of a different sort. “In this case, the aim is to insure that power remains faithful to its commitments,” thus giving rise to the “powers of oversight,” the “powers of obstruction,” and judicial counter-force. We are talking about “the democracy of distrust over against the democracy of electoral legitimacy.” From the latter emanate legitimized governing and legislating officials; from the former, vigilance, obstacles, and judicial protection.

2.1. Vigilance, denunciation, rating. Once the governing officials are elected, once popular sovereignty decides among the differing options, one fears—with good reason—the misconduct of authorities. And it has been found, at least rhetorically, that the great antidote is the permanent vigilance of the people over institutions. Along that path, “the democracy of control is currently at its peak.” One sees a series of mechanisms, routines, and practices that keep watch over, denounce, rate, and otherwise affect the reputation of those who exercise public power. It is a permanent and necessary shadow hovering over the operation of institutions, a formula of control (sometimes diffuse control) that modulates and models their conduct.

2.2. Obstruction. By definition, democratic societies are pluralistic. And those who govern embody the aspirations of only a small segment of that society. From the outset, significant strands of that magma we call society do not identify with their respective governments. That breeding ground is what makes the device of obstruction so attractive. From projects follow rejections, and that is part of the very foundation of the democratic arrangement. Obstruction also has a charming halo around it: “it produces really tangible and visible results” and “negative coalitions are easier to organize than positive majorities.” And if we widen the field of view to observe not only the emanations stemming from pluralism but also unofficial, non-governmental powers, obstructionist devices appear even more compelling.

2.3 Judicialization, or the capacity to appeal the decisions of sovereignty or of governments by means of the judicial process. We are starting to live that in Mexico: constitutional controversies and unconstitutional actions, as well as legal defenses, as legitimate resources for resolving differences among powers, for protecting individual rights. Those formulas “harmonize” the impacts that the agreements of representatives and governments may reach. They are mechanisms that protect citizens and restrain government.

So we are faced with a series of padlocks that complicate the functioning of democracy by way of the very principles that democratic government brings into play. They are not foreign elements, nor improvised maneuvers, but are rather the procedures proper to a governmental regimen which attempts to combine popular sovereignty with permanent vigilance over those who govern. Thus, it is best that we learn to live within that labyrinth.

Posted: April 22, 2012 at 5:09 pm

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