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EL ESPECTADOR

How 21st Century Democracies Destroy Themselves From Within

From Venezuela to Hungary, populist leaders are carving away at fundamental checks and balances in slow and often subtle ways.

Voting centers in the San Diego municipality, in Venezuela, during the elections of councilmen for the municipal councils of each state
Voting centers in the San Diego municipality, in Venezuela, during the elections of councilmen for the municipal councils of each state
Rodrigo Uprimny*

-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — The Intimate Enemies of Democracy is the name of a beautiful, profound book by the late Tzvetan Todorov, who died in 2017 and was one of the sharpest of modern thinkers. The work examines the dangers that threaten contemporary democracies, and that are worth considering here in Colombia, especially with regional elections looming.

Todorov's proposition is similar to the thesis presented in another, best-selling book, How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. The idea in both books is that today's democracies don't end the way they did in the 20th century, through sudden, external interventions such as an invasion or a coup, like the the one in Chile in 1973. Their demise, rather, is slow — to the point where it's sometimes difficult to say when the collapse really took place. Today's democracies are also undone by internal enemies, rather than outside attackers.

Todorov sees three categories of internal enemies, starting with populism, which invokes majority votes to destroy horizontal controls like judicial independence. These checks constitute crucial elements of the rule of law and are a necessary condition for the existence of any democracy worthy of the name.

Today's democracies are also undone by internal enemies, rather than outside attackers.

Secondly, there is political messianism, which breaks social support networks that are essential to the cohesion of a political community. The phenomenon also fuels a sharp rise in economic inequalities that undermine democracies. Ultimately, as the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau said more than two centuries ago, a proper, functioning democracy requires that no citizen "be so wealthy as to be able to buy another, and none be so poor as to be compelled to sell himself."

Orban and his wife Aniko Levai voting at 2014 parliamentary election — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

The threat from internal enemies has no clear political color, as attacks sometimes come from the Left, but also from the Right.

An example is the democracy that the Left has worn away in Venezuela: the country's late, charismatic leader Hugo Chávez, who won several elections with resounding popular support, believed he had a popular mandate so robust and a revolutionary mission so messianic that he simply had to subject the judiciary and other organs of control to the Chavista vision. This did not happen overnight but in stages, making it difficult to know when exactly Venezuelan democracy died. But it did.

One great difficulty in fighting these internal enemies of democracy is in their use of democratic language and instruments to undermine the system. And that includes elections.

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Ideas

Artificial Satellite Pollution, Perils For Biodiversity In Space And On Earth

Exploiting space resources and littering it with satellite and other anthropogenic objects is endangering the ecosystem of space, which also damages the earth and its creatures below.

Image of the small satellite NanoRacks-Remove Debris satellite deployed into space by the ISS

Thomas Lewton

Outer space isn’t what most people would think of as an ecosystem. Its barren and frigid void isn’t exactly akin to the verdant canopies of a rainforest or to the iridescent shoals that swim among coral cities. But if we are to become better stewards of the increasingly frenzied band of orbital space above our atmosphere, a shift to thinking of it as an ecosystem — as part of an interconnected system of living things interacting with their physical environment — may be just what we need.

Last month, in the journal Nature Astronomy, a collective of 11 astrophysicists and space scientists proposed we do just that, citing the proliferation of anthropogenic space objects. Thousands of satellites currently orbit the Earth, with commercial internet providers such as SpaceX’s Starlink launching new ones at a dizzying pace. Based on proposals for projects in the future, the authors note, the number could reach more than a hundred thousand within the decade. Artificial satellites, long a vital part of the space ecosystem, have arguably become an invasive species.

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