We live in extraordinary times. In extraordinary times the stakes of politics aren’t just high, they are existential.
A short time ago we reached that time of year when we reflect on the state of our democracy. The results of the ICS/ISCTE poll painted a disheartening picture. Whilst most people still believe that democracy is the best system of government, 74% feel that politicians are out of touch with the people and their interests, and 72% disagree with the proposition that the State is governed in the “common interest” or in a way that benefits all its people.
Portugal is no outlier. Many liberal democracies have lost vitality and public support; some have shed key features of the liberal democratic form of government; a few have abandoned it outright. From Hungary, Poland and Turkey to India and Brazil, authoritarian-minded leaders are in power. Freedom of the press is under threat, as is the rule of law and the peaceful coexistence of ethnic and religious groups within diverse societies.
Of perhaps greater concern is the disenchantment that people feel with democracy in the West, especially among the younger populations and those that have been hit the hardest by the economic dislocation that came with globalization. This is well illustrated in Yascha Mounk’s 2018 book: “The people vs. Democracy: Why our freedom is in danger and how to save it,” an ironic title if ever there was one. If democracy is supposed to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people” why are the “people” increasingly turning against it?
In the US when you ask older people born in the 1930s and 1940s how important it is to live in a democracy, over two thirds reply “really important”; when you ask Millennials (born since 1980), less than one third say that it is crucial for them to live in a democracy. When asked about different radical alternatives to democracy the picture gets bleaker. If twenty years ago, only one in sixteen Americans would entertain the idea of Army rule, today one in six see this as a viable alternative. In Europe populism has become a veritable electoral force in the last few years.
Russia and China, never claiming to be advocates of liberal democracy, are riding this wave of discontent and have tightened their grip on power. Disenchantment with liberal democracy in the West only serves their interests and aspirations and legitimises their rule.
We live in extraordinary times. In extraordinary times the stakes of politics aren’t just high, they are existential. If democracy is deferred today, it may be out of reach indefinitely. If we lose the next few battles, we may just land up losing the whole fight.
This is nothing new. The fortunes of a more inclusive form of government, waxed and waned in ancient Greece and Rome. For the past two centuries, every era has had its own form of anti-liberalism. In the nineteenth century, it was the Holy Alliance. In the twentieth, it was regimes driven by antiliberal ideologies like communism and fascism.
However, the greatest challenge to liberal democracy today comes not from external subversion but from internal discontent. Support for liberal democracies tends to be of two kinds. Some citizens prize it for its principles and values. There is simply no substitute for living in freedom. Others judge it by its performance. If liberal-democratic governments fail to address their countries’ most urgent problems and deliver “the goods” like a high quality of life, economic growth, jobs, security, well-being, and so forth, then support for liberal-democratic institutions will decline, opening the door to alternatives. Another question is whether our democracies can continue to deliver sustained economic growth and at what cost to our environment. But no other alternative to date has proven to be as efficient economically or provide increased social well-being. Ask anyone living in North Korea, Venezuela or Cuba. Equally China, a mix of a semi-market economy and an illiberal form of one-party “democracy” is no credible alternative. Impressive economic growth was in no small measure achieved by introducing more freedom, not less.
To what do we owe this backslide in support for democracy? Much ink has been spilt on this subject, by scholars and political analysts alike, and here I can only provide a very rudimentary overview of a more nuanced discussion. The catalogue of causes is clear and largely consensual, though the weight given to each specific cause may differ. The gripes against liberal democracy tend to be of an economic, cultural and political nature.
The first is economic stagnation. Throughout the history of democracy, we saw a rapid increase in the living standards of the average person. This is no longer the case. Since the mid-80s, average incomes in the West have remained relatively stagnant. As the manufacturing sector struggled, many working- and middle-class citizens became victims of globalization and the rise of the information economy. The global financial crisis in 2008 further undermined confidence in both democratic institutions and markets, the two often seen as going hand in hand. The slow recovery and the adoption of fiscal austerity fed public discontent, as did the bail-out of banks, and the growing inequality between geographic regions or economic classes within countries. The film Nomadland, a favourite of this year’s Academy Awards, is a testament to this. It tells the heart-breaking story of a widow who loses her home and is forced to roam the country in a van.
Public discontent goes well beyond economic issues. As globalization intensified and the pace of immigration accelerated, national populations became more diverse. Immigrants and their descendants are now demanding equality and full inclusion. Whilst some citizens – mainly among the urban and highly educated – in general, accepted this, others did not. The 2015 European refugee crisis exacerbated this split and anti-immigration parties enjoyed a surge of popular support. Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy did nothing to help the US play the role of the chief guardian of democracy. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter allow those who feel left behind and forgotten to inhabit echo chambers, that fuel hate, xenophobia, and racism.
Equally, the more radical left seems to have abandoned class politics altogether to adopt an identity politics. Their discourse is no longer one of class-struggle. Equity is now to be achieved by concentrating on issues of race, sexuality and gender identity. History is to be rewritten, by this woke movement, that also seeks to censor our language and our way of thinking. Anyone who dares disagree with their views, is branded a reactionary, a racist, a xenophobe or a fascist. Those who feel left behind in an increasingly globalised world feel like they no longer have anyone to champion their cause. The more traditional, religious or conservative members of society, not to mention those that value their hard-earned freedoms of expression and thought, resent this imposition by what they see as cultural elites that are increasingly out of touch with regular people.
Finally, governance itself has become a source of discontent. In more long-established democracies, a duopoly of centre-left and centre-right political parties that alternated in power, has left many citizens feeling unrepresented. Glaring economic inequalities, corruption, the state of the judicial system and the power of unelected and unrepresentative institutions and bureaucrats who dominate regulatory and financial bodies have left many citizens feeling estranged from the political system. Many political decisions have been removed from parliament and the “will of the people” and handed over to independent central banks and international or regional institutions. The system appears insufficiently responsive to the concerns of ordinary people, and hence the rise of extreme populist parties.
The result of this is that populist leaders like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil who came to power by democratic means, claim they are the true representatives of “the people”. Once in power they have restricted freedom of the press, repressed minorities and desecrated the rule of law. The two core components of liberal democracy – individual rights and the popular will – increasingly seem to be at war with one another.
What can be done about this? The obvious answer is that we need to constantly remind people that however bad things get, the alternatives are always much worse. As Sir Winston Churchill stated in the House of Commons on 8 December 1944: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
Educating the younger generations about our history and the reasons that made us opt for liberal democracy as our primal system of government is essential. It is fundamental that we demystify the false promises of authoritarianism and populism. Liberal democracy assures us that the collective cannot tell us what to do, what to say and what not to say, who to worship or who we have a relationship with. The very fact that we can change those who govern us without resorting to violent revolutions is an unparalleled advantage, not to be belittled.
Politicians need to enact reforms that benefit the many, not the few. The popular will and individual rights can no longer continue to be at war with one another if liberal democracy is to survive. Even though there are forces that appear beyond our control like globalization and automation, we can design economic policies that make sure that the benefits of economic growth benefit the majority and not a small rich minority. Judicial reforms and greater transparency are essential and must not continue to be empty mantras. Corruption can no longer be rewarded.
Finally, those of us that feel our democratic system is worth saving should get involved in ordinary politics. This is especially true for our younger people who have become disheartened with politics. They are the most educated and well-prepared generation of all times. They are also our future. Millennials have never experienced what it is like not to live in democracy, at least in the West. Some are turning towards other forms of government. Others take our democracies for granted, as if it were the natural state of things. How wrong they are on both counts. The only way to beat a populist, or a bad government, is to beat them at the polls.
We haven’t done enough for young people to benefit economically. This is the first generation that does not expect to have a better standard of living than their parents. Most cannot move out of their parents’ home or have to live hours from their jobs. Those lucky enough to find employment are badly paid. Others have to emigrate to find opportunities abroad.
Most of us have spent our lives in ordinary times. In ordinary times, the stakes of politics are always high, but we maintain an understanding that we can resolve our disagreements through peaceful democratic means. If we fight for a just cause and are defeated, then justice is not gone forever, it may simply be deferred until tomorrow. We can lose this battle, but there is always another way to win the fight. We may be entering an era that is now quite different!
The Israeli writer, novelist, journalist and intellectual Amos Oz once used a memorable analogy in how we can effect change. To paraphrase: If there is a huge fire raging, we have three options. We can choose to run away, as far away and as fast as possible and let those who cannot run burn – in other words ignore the threats to democracy. We can write angry letters to the editor of a paper and demand that those responsible be removed from office – a passive approach. Or we can take effective action. “We can throw a bucket of water on the fire. Maybe not everyone has a bucket, but everyone has a teaspoon. A teaspoon is small and by itself will effect little change, but there are millions of us and each one of us has a teaspoon…” We can effect change, hold our politicians to account, ensure they govern and represent the will of the majority, address the concerns of all their people, implement policies that are effective, whilst at the same time safeguarding the rule of law, individual rights and constitutional checks and balances. Democracy needs saving. Democracy needs you.