Does Inequality Kill a Democracy?

To Kill a Democracy
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Inequality in Democracy

It’s not controversial to say democracy is about more than elections. Most scholars recognize democracy depends on liberal rights like free speech and the rights of the accused. Liberal democracy strives to combine civil liberties with political equality. But does democracy also depend on economic equality or at least economic opportunities? This question remains unresolved. Some argue democracy cannot exist in an environment of substantial economic inequality. In many ways this was the subject of Joseph Fishkin and William Forbath’s recent book The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution. 

However, Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane make a slightly different point in their book To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism. They argue the inability to resolve social problems wears away at the foundations of a democracy. They look to India as a paradigmatic example, but their argument is not limited to Indian democracy. Indeed, the account they provide is eerily similar to the United States. 

Central to their account is an idea about the purpose of democracy. They imply democracy imposes obligations and duties to resolve fundamental social questions. Political freedom does not allow for the freedom to ignore social issues or neglect problems in society. It’s a controversial position, because many believe democracy allows for debate about whether to tackle problems or issues at all. Chowdhury and Keane instead follow a growing number of scholars who believe democracy commits a community to fundamental values. They argue democracy does not demand specific policies, but requires a commitment to pursue solutions to social challenges. 

Indian Democracy

The rise of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has concerned many scholars of democracy from around the world. Freedom House has downgraded their assessment of Indian democracy from free to partly free. Many believe India lies somewhere between a fragile democracy and competitive authoritarianism. Most of the blame focuses on Modi and other leaders of the BJP. However, Chowdhury and Keane argue the challenges facing Indian democracy predate the rise of Modi. 

Indeed, India has faced challenges to its democracy and overcome them before. Over a 21 month period from 1975 until 1977, Indira Gandhi asserted dictatorial powers under the Indian constitution. However, the period was brief and Indians renewed their commitment to democracy and its institutions. Chowdhury and Keane find a parallel from the emergency to the current historical moment. They write, “Indian democracy is threatened by what is being called an ‘undeclared’ political emergency.” 

They argue Modi is a symptom rather than the source of the problem. Instead, they refer to six different social emergencies. They include challenges in education, the environment, healthcare, hunger, transportation, and labor conditions. It’s easy to view these challenges as uniquely Indian problems, but they have their parallels in the United States as well. Chowdhury and Keane believe the failure to confront these problems undermined faith in democratic institutions and liberal values. In other words, the failure of democracy to confront these problems facilitated the rise of Hindu Nationalism. 

To Kill a Democracy

A few weeks ago the podcast featured Joseph Fishkin to discuss his book The Ant-Oligarchy Constitution. Throughout the conversation he stressed that the American constitution imposed affirmative obligations in its commitment to a republican form of government. He’s not alone. Other writers have made similar arguments regarding the link between economic inequality and democracy. However, they tend to imply economic inequality merely corrupts democracy. They suggest wide disparities in wealth or income hold back democratic ideals, but they do not suggest it necessarily kills or destroys democracy over time. 

Chowdhury and Keane take this line of argument a step beyond most other writers on this subject. They argue economic and social inequalities wear away at the foundations of democracy over time. Eventually it does not merely corrupt democracy, but actually kills democracy. Of course, democracy for them is more than a political system. They write, “Democracy is a whole way of life in which people from different walks of social life see eye to eye, rub shoulders, cooperate and compromise, and generally think of themselves as the equals of one another.” In this light, democracy is far more than a political system or regime. It shapes and influences every social interaction and relationship.  

It’s difficult for some to understand India’s democratic decline, because its elections remain an important part of its political system. Indeed, India’s illiberalism extends beyond the state. Vigilante groups use violence to pursue political or religious goals. Of course, vigilantism rarely flourishes without the support of the government. Christophe Jaffrelot writes, “These vigilante groups… could not have blossomed and flourished without the tacit consent of the state and, in particular, its armed wing: the police.“ Chowdhury and Keane themselves warn, “The new despotisms show that elections without democracy are possible.”

Does Inequality Kill a Democracy?

Democracy faces challenges in nearly every part of the globe. Even autocratic governments have found ways to become more autocratic in recent years. Yet the solutions are neither easy to recognize nor simple to execute. At the same time, some scholars worry we have mistaken the symptoms for the disease in our diagnosis of democracy’s challenges. Is populism a threat to democracy or merely a symptom of even deeper problems? Democracy implies more than ideals and freedoms. It suggests actual governance. So while much of the good governance literature focuses on the eradication of corruption, it also suggests confronting difficult issues. 

Discussions about economic inequality typically involve policy proposals. However, Chowdhury and Keane show how social and economic inequalities raise important questions about democracy. The larger question involves whether democracy imposes obligations or duties of governance. Does political freedom allow the people to set their own agenda or do the values of democracy determine the political agenda? It’s a nuanced question with plenty of room for caveats, objections, and debate. At the same time, the world has seen too many democracies die in recent years. Chowdhury and Keane offer hope and a warning, “The death of democracy is never a foregone conclusion. Democide happens because it is chosen by political actors in political circumstances not of their choosing.”

Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane join the podcast tomorrow to discuss the many challenges facing India’s democracy and discuss their book To Kill a Democracy

Further Reading

Bilal A. Baloch (2021) When Ideas Matter: Democracy and Corruption in India

Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane (2021) To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism

Joseph Fishkin and William E. Forbath (2022) The Anti-Oligarchy Constitution: Reconstructing the Economic Foundations of American Democracy

Christophe Jaffrelot (2021) Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and the Rise of Ethnic Democracy

The Economist (2022) The Other Midterms

Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg (2018) How to Save a Constitutional Democracy

Thomas Piketty (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz (2021) Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy Under Siege

Ashutosh Varshney (2019), “Electoral Vibrancy, Mounting Liberal Deficits,” Journal of Democracy

Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky (2018) How Democracies Die

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Debasish Roy Chowdhury and John Keane on the Decline of Indian Democracy

Christophe Jaffrelot on Narendra Modi and Hindu Nationalism

More Episodes from the Podcast

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