4 Reasons Democracy Is In Trouble

Democracy everywhere is under siege as the wealth gap increases

Posted Jan 20, 2015

The heated and divided political climate that has wracked our country in recent years is reflected in most western democracies. It is only bound to get worse as everyone feels beleaguered and caught in a spiral of spite, suspicion and violence.

Democracy everywhere is under siege.

While it is often mistaken to find one underlying reason to a problem, it is possible to point to a phenomenon that is worldwide that undergirds the ubiquitous discontent.

The central—but not only cause—for the erosion of trust in democratic procedures is the widening gulf between the rich and poor. It isn’t simply that there are poor people but that many in the middle class see their lives worsening. The possibilities of a better future—what has been called the American Dream—are slipping away.

The budget passed by Congress in December, for example, amongst others things allows corporations to reduce pensions that affect ten million workers and cut $300 million from housing assistance to homeless people.

The downward slide of the middle class and poor is mirrored by the rise of a handful of individuals. The widening gap between the super wealthy and everyone else isn’t sustainable for democracy.

Psychologists have demonstrated that resentment builds when matters are perceived as inequitable. It isn’t only humans that are angered by unfair treatment. Primatologist Franz de Waal shows this graphically. When two monkeys receive cucumbers as a reward for a task performed, they are content with the cucumbers. But when the rewards are altered so one monkey continues to receive a cucumber while the other gets a grape for the same task, the one who gets the cucumber throws it back at the handler who has given it to him. The inequity between the monkeys causes a violent reaction. You can watch de Waal’s monkey fairness study. 

Democracy is a process that relies upon optimism regarding the future. It also rests upon the belief that the system is fair. Finally, people must believe that it possible to make substantive changes. The extreme concentration of wealthy undermines all three views.

Here are the four reasons why democracies everywhere are in crisis:

• If current trends hold, and there is little reason not to think otherwise, the international famine relief organization Oxfam says it expects that by next year the world’s wealthiest one percent will own more than 50 percent of the world's wealth.

• $1.9 trillion wealth of 80 top billionaires equal to bottom 50 percent of rest of world

• There will be a $600 billion increase in wealth for 80 top billionaires in four years or 50 percent rise.

• There will be a $750 billion drop in wealth for the poorest 50 percent of the world in four years.