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Post-Democracy? It is the economy, stupid.

He just needed a good slogan. He already was this charming gentleman from Arkansas. He had the looks, the confidence and a good political program but he needed a catchy slogan one could remember. If he wanted to defeat Geroge H. W. Bush in the 1992 American election, Bill Clinton should come up with a phrase that showed his determination to worry about the domestic issues of his country, and not so much about international relations. After all, 1992 was a challenging year of economic crisis, and voters were more concerned about their pockets than geopolitics.

This is where James Carville comes in. An American strategist with a colourful personality, he was working on the Clinton campaign when he had the eureka moment. He was the one that came up with catch-phrase that the whole Democratic party was looking for: It is the economy, stupid!

Bill Clinton and James Carville

Yes, the economy, it is always the economy. The theory goes that in times of economic hardship societies are more prone to populism, constantly looking for a saviour or a drastic change that alleviates the situation. On the contrary, in times of economic stability the population usually supports the status quo of any political system and there is no need for radical reforms.

Examples? The entire Soviet bloc fell as a result of the great instability and ineffectiveness of the communist regime. It didn't take long for populists politicians to appear, promising those who would listen that with the arrival of capitalism everyone would be rich and living like in the American soap operas of the time. Supermarkets would no longer have empty shelves and everyone could choose between ten different brands of breakfast cereals. That is what freedom meant. Freedom to choose. Freedom to buy. Democracy.

And what about Brexit and its legion of disaffected voters who saw no economic benefit from belonging to the European Union? The EU steals from us, let's take back what is ours. Let's take a leap into the unknown, it might work.

So the conclusion is quite simple, if in many Western countries there is a drift towards populism or risky political experiments, we just have to wait for the economic waters to calm down and everything will be as it used to be. But… if only it were so simple.

The reality is that the capitalist system that sustains Western democracies as we know them today has entered a new phase a few decades ago. The economic reforms of the 1980s, financial deregulation, and the transformation of investment banks into private, publicly traded companies have been important catalysts for this transition. Some call it “late capitalism” and some others refer to it as neoliberalism. The main difference with the former capitalist liberalism is that before the State and the market were on an equal footing. It is certainly a simplification, but they watched each other and between them there was a balanced relationship. Late capitalism has seen the expansion of consumer culture and the commodification of almost every aspect of life, from education and healthcare to social relationships and personal identity. This has led to the growth of a global market in which everything is for sale, and individuals are encouraged to define themselves and their worth in terms of their consumption choices.

The many choices of capitalism

On the one hand, capitalism seems to be essential in a democracy because it allows individual choice and freedom (laissez faire). Entrepreneurship and private businesses equals innovation and economic growth, the two essential ingredients for political stability and social progress. On the other hand, this late-capitalism is increasingly incompatible with democracy as it creates big social and economic inequalities. Some scholars like F. Jameson think that real democracy, where people are not excluded from real political power, can only be achieved if we challenge the dominance of capitalism.

It would seem, then, that democracy has evolved until reaching the current situation in which voters feel displaced from decision-making and are replaced by economic interests and elites that remain in power. This shift has been fueled by globalization, technological advances, and the increasing influence of money and media in politics. Democracy is being reduced to a formal mechanism.

Perhaps this form of democracy is more effective in the world we live in. There are limits to democracy as it is not the magic formula that is going to solve all the problems in the world. For this reason, every time I fall into the temptation of thinking that democracy is becoming increasingly irrelevant for younger generations, I remind myself: It is the economy, stupid!                                             

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