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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-03-2019 10:41

Democracy faces an uncertain future

The “populism” which these days greatly agitates defenders of the established order is a halfway house.

By the end of the last century, democracy or something like it had spread out from the few countries in which it had assumed its modern shape to much of the rest of the world, including most of Latin America. It did so because it seemed to work far better than any of the alternatives. For 200 years, the English-speaking powers – first Great Britain and then the United States – were not only freer than most others, they were also richer and, when the time came, proved stronger on the battlefield. Had they been outpaced or outfought by rivals such as Nazi Germany, Communist Russia and Imperial Japan, many countries that as time went by adopted democratic institutions and, up to a point, democratic practices, would surely have continued to prefer authoritarian regimes. What is more, once it became clear that the advanced economies – which combined free-market capitalism with social welfare – made life easier for most people, a large majority decided it would be in its interest to keep them much as they were.

This long period in which the democratic ideal reigned supreme in the minds of most people in the West – apart from those intellectuals who for ideological reasons favoured dictatorship – may be approaching its end. Thanks to the irruption of Donald Trump and the crazed reaction of many Democrats, the US model has lost much of its prestige and appeal. The turmoil surrounding Brexit, with both the Tories and Labourites unable to make up their collective minds on how to manage their country’s departure from the European Union, has deprived the UK of its reputation for being a haven of political sanity.

Hopes soon faded that after a few months things would somehow return to normal. The gulf separating Trump and his supporters from the leftists who are busily taking over the Democrat Party in the US is getting wider and deeper by the day. In the UK, the outlook is less dire, but unless the Eurocrats in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere decide that on the whole it would be better not to punish the islanders too harshly for wanting to have nothing to do with their beloved project, the coming months seem certain to be unpleasantly troublesome for many Britons.

The “populism” which these days greatly agitates defenders of the established order is a halfway house. Its exponents, a heterogeneous lot, may play by the democratic rules while it suits them, but many clearly have a vengeful authoritarian streak and would have no qualms about breaking them should circumstances appear to demand tough action. Among those who have already crossed the line are Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and, needless to say, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Others, however, got where they are only because mainstream politicians lost touch with the people they were supposed to represent. Some may be fascists or totalitarian Communists at heart, but most are merely reluctant to accept that certain topics – among them the challenge posed by Islamism – should be kept off limits.

By refusing to take seriously the problems that have been caused by immigration of an unprecedented scale from Africa, the Middle East and further afield, leftists and middle-of-theroad politicians handed populists control of what, after all, is one of the most important issues of our time. Not surprisingly, they are making the most of it. Every terrorist attack, episode of sexual misconduct by young people unaccustomed to the way Westerners behave, and a blatant refusal to integrate expressed by getting women to wear what is in effect a highly visible uniform, strengthens the “populists.”

Another issue most politicians of the old school would rather not talk too much about, because they have no simple answers, is the plight of the many who are getting left behind by the way all economies are developing. Those on the left who try to whip up resentment take what may be described as a populist approach by blaming the growing difficulties such people face on “austerity,” as though it were common knowledge that there is plenty of money available but for sinister reasons right-wing, centrist or soft-left governments would much rather give it to bankers and the like while cutting back on much-needed social services.

As we have been reminded time and time again, government overspending can wreak havoc on any economy. Nasty as austerity is for a great many men and women, they would suffer even more if, as has happened so often in this part of the world, the local government decided to let things rip for what it would say are humanitarian motives but really because it wants to win an impending election by pretending to be generous. Unfortunately, convincing enough people that this is the case when being against austerity can get a politician the votes he or she needs is never easy. Even in the staunchly capitalistic US, pressures on whoever is in government to spend much more on welfare schemes are increasing. In Europe, Germany is one of the few countries in which most people seem genuinely fond of austerity, though that may turn out to be an illusion.

While there can be no doubt that it was thanks in large measure to the prestige of the UK and the US that democracy came into fashion, after over two millennia in which it was regarded as a Greek eccentricity that might be suitable for some small and fairly homogeneous communities in Switzerland or other such places, the system would never have taken hold in other parts of the world had it not been for the economic benefits that accompanied it. Unless a majority of voters feel that it works for them and not just for a handful of aristocrats, plutocrats, politicians or media personalities, they will back individuals who promise, plausibly or not, either to put things right or bring down those associated with the old order. Democracy should be able to survive the waning of the two powers that did most to promote it, but unless the advanced economies regain the trust of the many millions of middle-class people who have lost ground in recent years and fear they have nothing good to look forward to, it could go under

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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