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OP-ED | 23-12-2017 11:28

Except for all the others

Yet it is not only the credibility of Congress which is at stake but democracy as a whole – and this malaise is global.

Unlikely to figure among any requests to Santa Claus, taxes have somehow contrived to become the political agenda’s Christmas present to the nation, with the government’s reform package heading for final approval in the Senate this coming week. But this is not yet another Argentine anomaly – in the United States Donald Trump has made his December priority a tax reform as controversial as almost everything else in his presidency, while in Brazil a government with rock-bottom popularity ratings and corruption scandals taken far more seriously there than here has nevertheless tried to push through its own tricky pension and labour reforms which are on Mauricio Macri’s front-burner. An Argentina already in the G20 chair is thus very much part of the world in this sense.

All kinds of comparison suggest themselves but perhaps they should start with the place that has been at the heart of recent action yet strangely irrelevant – namely Congress. Argentina, Brazil and the United States are all very much presidential democracies yet Congress here is arguably the most disregarded despite being the only one of the trio without any government majority. Congress has been nominally the star of this year as the object of the midterm elections dominating 2017 until October and subsequently the seat of the legislation advanced in the wake of its results. Yet the midterms were never properly understood as a parliamentary contest with a widespread reductionism limiting the issue to one province and two parties. And this month virtually all the attention has fallen on the surrounding violence rather than the legislative contents – how many people bothered to ascertain even one word of the 17 hours of pension reform debate last Monday and Tuesday?

Yet it is not only the credibility of Congress which is at stake but democracy as a whole – and this malaise is global. If democracy has expanded worldwide in the last quarter-century (and at one point, it seemed on the brink of becoming universal with the Arab Spring of 2011), in recent years it has been increasingly challenged by populism everywhere – a trend which cannot be simplistically ascribed to economic downturn because it is equally evident in Switzerland and Eastern European countries with what are known as “Chinese” growth rates, not to mention the world’s superpower, the United States.

Yet an essentially simplistic populism has even less chance in today’s highly complex, fragmented and multicultural society than in the previous century – the opinion pollsters can find majorities in both Europe and North America to agree that democratic politics are dysfunctional and inherently corrupt but two-thirds of the same sample would accept that there is no substitute. Akin to that oft-quoted line of Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others” – a future model for post-representative democracy has yet to emerge.

In a way perhaps Chistmas is like democratic politics – increasingly challenged by a pluralistic and secular society with changing family patterns, it not only has yet to find a substitute but has spread worldwide.


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