The Crisis in Democracy
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The Crisis in Democracy

Oct. 26, 2016  |     |  0 comments

In his seminal 1989 essay “The End of History?” — which he expanded into his bestselling 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man — Francis Fukuyama argued that the human desire for recognition, which is driven by the part of the psyche the ancient Greeks identified as “thymos” (spiritedness), is best fulfilled by the political and economic structure of liberal democracy. As he pointed out, while some authoritarian governments may create economic conditions that lead to rising wealth for their populations, the “thymotic pride” of the people will eventually lead them to “demand democratic governments that treat them like adults rather than children, recognizing their autonomy as free individuals” (Fukuyama, 1992, pp. xviii-xix). Unlike communist states, the capitalist economies of the world’s liberal democracies allow for the “megalothymia” (desire for recognition of one’s greatness) of the people to be fulfilled in a range of activities including entrepreneurship, science and technology, competitive sports, the arts, and politics (Fukuyama, 1992, pp. 313-321).


Fukuyama’s work emerged during the period of collapse of the Soviet Union, and for a time he was popularly seen as the prescient guru of liberal democracy. Even after the global political and economic upheavals that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union made it clear that “the end of history” had not occurred, and that the triumph of liberal democracy was still an open question, Fukuyama, writing in 2014, remained confident that liberal democracy still “doesn’t have any real competitors,” and that the rival Chinese model, consisting of “authoritarian government with a partially market-based economy and a high level of technocratic and technological competence,” is ultimately fragile as “the system’s legitimacy and the party’s ongoing rule rest on continued high levels of growth,” and that the “growing middle class likely won’t accept the current system of corrupt paternalism when times get tough.” Ironically, while China’s ongoing economic transition has indeed created social and economic pressures in its industrial regions like Dongguan, the similar economic slowdown in the US has given rise to the populist movement of Donald Trump. However, as Browne (2016) points out, the impact of China’s economic slowdown is in some ways not as bad as it is in the US:


“Deindustrialization in Dongguan looks very different from its historical counterpart in New England or in the smokestack cities of the American Midwest and South, which have emerged as Mr. Trump’s political base. There, communities disintegrate, skilled factory workers bag groceries at Wal-Mart, and many of the unemployed succumb to the opiates plague. In Dongguan, blue-collar armies simply melt back into the countryside, and many are able to pick up work in urban areas closer to home … Even in depressed Dongguan, employment agencies advertise positions at $1,000 a month for motorcycle couriers who deliver office lunches and packages. And, so far at least, the Chinese public’s faith in their government’s economic management remains solid.”


The “losers of globalization” in the US who have gathered around Trump may best be understood in terms of what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes as “thymotic politics” — the loss of pride and dignity arising from their economic plight has redirected their thymotic passions into support for the political candidate whom they feel best articulates their grievances and rage — in this case Donald Trump. Sloterdijk’s notion that “political groups are ensembles; they endogenously stand in relationships of thymotic tension” offers a psychological explanation for Brubaker and Cooper’s identification of “political entrepreneurs” who are able to “persuade certain people that they are (for certain purposes) ‘identical’ with one another and at the same time different from others, and to organize and justify collective action along certain lines.” In the case of Trump, he has been able to convert the rage of the “losers of globalization” into political identification with his campaign, and he has reinforced this with the identification of enemies such as China, which he has accused of “manipulating its currency” to “rape” the US and conduct the “greatest theft in the history of the world” (Sloterdijk, 2010, pp. 19-20; Brubaker and Cooper, 2000, pp. 4-5; Lim, 2016b; “Trump accuses,” 2016).


However, the prospect of Trump achieving electoral success in the 2016 US general election is just another instance of authoritarianism’s global challenge to democracy. The electoral successes of the authoritarian politicians Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines were followed, respectively, by Erdoğan’s widespread purge of the followers of his political rival Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, and Duterte’s violent campaign against the users and distributors of illegal narcotics. In both cases, the crackdowns enjoyed popular local support despite foreign criticism, indicating Erdoğan’s and Duterte’s successes in building constituencies of thymotic affiliation against their identified enemies (Almendral, 2016; Lim, 2016a; Malsin, 2016). The global crisis in democracy is not just limited to Erdoğan, Duterte, and Trump. As Matlack (2016) warns, Europe “is entering an election supercycle in which … four of Europe’s five largest economies have votes that will almost certainly mean serious gains for right-wing populists and nationalists”:


“Once seen as fringe groups, France’s National Front, Italy’s Five Star Movement, and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands have attracted legions of followers by tapping discontent over immigration, terrorism, and feeble economic performance … Even Europe’s most powerful politician, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is under assault. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has drained support from Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats in recent state and local elections, capitalizing on discontent over Germany’s refugee crisis.” (Matlack, 2016)


The rise in popular support around the world for authoritarian movements can also be seen in the shift in responses in the World Values Survey which show a steady erosion in global support for democratic values:


“Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.” (Foa and Mounk, 2016, p. 7)


Alarmingly, this “democratic disconnect” is manifested across age cohorts, with the younger generations being increasingly susceptible to the allure of authoritarian leaders:


“Not so long ago, young people were much more enthusiastic than older people about democratic values: In the first waves of the World Values Survey, in 1981–84 and 1990–93, young respondents were much keener than their elders on protecting freedom of speech and significantly less likely to embrace political radicalism. Today, the roles have reversed: On the whole, support for political radicalism in North America and Western Europe is higher among the young, and support for freedom of speech lower.” (Foa and Mounk, 2016, p. 8)


The world’s liberal democracies hence find themselves challenged by “political entrepreneurs” who have identified the major sources of stress for their electorates (the Gülen movement in Turkey; the drug problem in the Philippines; globalization in the US; the refugee crisis in Europe) and have thereby been able to channel the thymotic passions of the masses into popular support for their authoritarian movements. The supporters of democracy in these nations will need to resolve the problems which have caused such popular discontent, as leaving the discontent to fester will further weaken popular support for democracy and accelerate its deconsolidation. As Foa and Mounk (2016) warn: “as democracies deconsolidate, the prospect of democratic breakdown becomes increasingly likely — even in parts of the world that have long been spared such instability” (p. 17). The spectacle of the authoritarian transformation of the world’s major democracies will further strengthen the position of the existing authoritarian regimes, highlighting to their populations the weakness of the democratic system of government. Should there be no resolution to the crisis of democracy, authoritarianism may emerge as the true end point of history.




Almendral, A. (2016, October 13). Rodrigo Duterte, scorned abroad, remains popular in the Philippines. New York Times. Retrieved from


Browne, A. (2016, October 21). Xi Jinping’s Trump moment. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from


Brubaker, R., and Cooper, F. (2000). Beyond “identity.” Theory and Society, 29(1), 1-47.


Foa, R. S., and Mounk, Y. (2016, July). The danger of deconsolidation: The democratic disconnect. Journal of Democracy, 27(3), 5-17.


Fukuyama, F. (1989). The end of history? After the Battle of Jena. The National Interest, 16, 3-18.


Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.


Fukuyama, F. (2014). At the “end of history” still stands democracy. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from


Lim, A. C. H. (2016a, May 23). The new Philippine leadership andp for Sino-Philippine relations. Eurasia Review. Retrieved from


Lim, A. C. H. (2016b, August 5). The politically incorrect allure of Donald Trump. IPP Review. Retrieved from


Malsin, J. (2016, July 27). How Erdogan united Turkey against Fethullah Gulen. Time. Retrieved from


Matlack, C. (2016, October 20). Nationalists and populists poised to dominate European balloting. Bloomberg. Retrieved from


Sloterdijk, P. (2010). Rage and Time: A Psychopolitical Investigation. (M. Wenning, Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.


Trump accuses China of ‘raping’ US with unfair trade policy. (2016, May 2). BBC News. Retrieved from


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