Democracy at Crossroads

December 1, 2023

The emergence of autocratic leaders is not limited to Putin; accusations of veering towards dictatorship are levied at leaders globally, including Bibi in Israel, as well as figures in Argentina, Hungary, Poland, and Spain. Autocratic tendencies were notably present in the United States during Trump's presidency. This global shift away from democracy can be attributed to the unprecedented pace of change, akin to a "fish scale" rather than an atomistic environment.

In contrast to an atomistic setting, where subsystems react independently to change, a fish scale environment witnesses changes triggering interconnected impacts across multiple subsystems simultaneously. The internet, as a technological change, exemplifies this phenomenon by concurrently affecting legal, economic, social, and political dimensions, intensifying the complexity of societal issues.

As these multi-subsystem changes accelerate, uncertainty and risk rise, prompting people to demand swift solutions from their leaders. Within a democratic system, open criticism of proposed solutions can degrade into mutual accusations of corruption and incompetence, eroding public trust. In this climate, a person with no political experience but a simple, confidently presented solution—albeit possibly incorrect—becomes attractive and is elected, marking a departure from democratic values toward an autocratic style.

Democratic decision-making, reliant on debating issues, produces effective decisions. It is, however, a time-consuming inefficient system. Autocracy, on the other hand, because debating is minimized, is efficient in decision making but poses risks of producing biased and potentially disastrous, ineffective decisions.In times of rapid change, the urgency of decision-making may overshadow the importance of making higher-quality, effective decisions. The appeal of swift decisions, even if flawed, temporarily satisfies public expectations. As future leaders however inherit the consequences of those decisions and criticize their predecessors, it contributes to a loss of confidence in the democratic system and creates an environment where autocracy is welcomed.

While representative democracy may excel in environments with a slow rate of change and lower problem complexity, for the complexity of modern life, exploring alternatives such as workplace democracy and decentralized models of governance could be worth considering.1

1. See: Ichak Adizes, Elizabeth Mann Borgese: Self Management: New Dimensions to Democracy (Initially Published by ABC -CLIO and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, January 1977, Reprinted by Adizes Institute Publications

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes