BUENOS AIRES — In the 1980s, Italian political analyst Leonardo Morlino summarized the nature of the third wave of democratization in the title of his article, From Crisis of Democracy to Crisis in Democracy. The problems, he wrote, which had previously led to the collapse of the democratic order and its replacement with a dictatorship, would now be processed through normal, institutional proceedings.
Morlino's affirmation was thankfully proven right in the long term: Even profound crises like the one that struck Argentina in 2001 did not pose a challenge to democracy and were resolved within the democratic institutions.
Even if crises now happen within democracies, the essential powerlessness of democratic governments — increasingly cut off from the problems affecting ordinary people, and the solutions they are demanding — remains exposed. This is producing disaffection and conflict.
The essential powerlessness of democratic governments remains exposed.
The evident manifestation of this discontent is the intense polarization affecting most political systems in Western societies. The rift is not just Argentine: all democracies have "cracked". Politics has apparently become the rivalry of those who trust technocratic governments, with their formality and superficial courtesy and represented by leaders like Justin Trudeau or Emmanuel Macron, and those seemingly submitting to parodies of the national savior like Trump or Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro. It is no trivial division: When you believe that your doctor is useless, you seek a witch-doctor.
In Argentina, two failed dreams appear to strengthen each other in a vicious circle and downward spiral. On the one hand, new information technologies are creating expectations of direct relations between rulers and the ruled. There are suggestions democracy could work without its "political games" and the "hindrance" of parties that only seek power, or trade unions that merely serve to fatten their members. That might work somehow when things are going well, but not when they turn awry and sour, and we need a figurehead to govern with restricted resources.
After every crisis, we hope for a growth that turns into development, but suddenly everything collapses again before the recurrence of problems that are chronic in nature. This is a society whose productive abilities lag considerably behind its demands.
This cocktail of cycles of parties and hangovers and resulting anti-political tendencies is like an acid bath Argentina will not step out of. We are bereft of responsible actors we can count on to undertake necessary structural reforms — which cannot be replaced with social networks, big data or political marketing, nor by the usual "inspired" figures.
The result is the "slow death" of democracy, which is increasingly reduced to elections, with large areas beyond its scope and authority. These are the "brown zones" the late academic Guillermo O'Donnell warned of a good while ago. They constitute the real Inverse State, which provides not public goods but public ills, and is the inevitable other side of the coin in a black-market society. Its legalistic tip merely conceals a vast mass of acts and interests floating on the margins of the law.
Without transforming our anachronistic social, political and economic structures to face the turbulent challenges of the global world, we shall remain stuck at our bottleneck.
Thus amid an economic crisis, we find ourselves before key elections to choose the path to solve the country's problems. Unfortunately, these polls are increasingly looking like a de-election — wherein we discard those we definitively do not want as president. As if a multiple-choice of useless elements could somehow, miraculously, yield nothing less than the democratic government fit to run our society.
We shall remain stuck at our bottleneck.
The first government led by President Mauricio Macri of the Let's Change party ostensibly understood that its coming to power signified a promise to change the political culture. Reality soon disproved such ingenuity. On the back of its meager achievements, the presidential camp is now proposing not just a Macri government, but a Let's Change government whose institutional mass will make a deal with opposition forces possible in order to carry out reforms. Thus, a coalition government able to carry out reforms that are crucial to the country. There is no new and old politics, but good and bad politics. And the good politics today is the one that paves the way for necessary changes.
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