Not that long ago, many assumed that democracy would continue to sweep all before it. The consensus was that it had shown itself to be superior to all feasible alternatives. Having seen off Nazism, Fascism and Communism, it would soon overcome the few remaining totalitarian holdouts or leave them to rot as a warning to anyone tempted to copy them.
But then things started going into reverse. The Chinese Communist Party bosses, understandably alarmed by what had happened after the Soviet Union imploded, crushed pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; about 10,000 were gunned down or crushed by tanks. The “Arab Spring” was followed by a brutally hot summer in which, to the bewilderment of those who thought religion was on its death-bed not just in Europe but everywhere else, dozens of Islamic groups stepped up their murderous campaigns against the West and democracy, the ungodly political system they associated with the enemies of the one true faith.
All this was bad enough, but then big cracks began to appear in the democratic edifices of countries where they had come to be seen as part of the natural order. Optimism gave way to doom-mongering.
Predicting the downfall of Western civilisation and, with it, the demise of democracy, is back in fashion. Some put the blame on “populists”, individuals such as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the people behind Brexit and others they say are unscrupulous demagogues who exploit the irrational fears of ordinary folk. Trump is often compared with Benito Mussolini or Juan Domingo Perón.
Populism, which may be defined as an excessive willingness to promise the citizenry whatever it wants no matter what the consequences may be, is certainly dangerous and there can be no doubt that Trump and company make tempting targets. Even so, the on occasion hysterical reaction against them is helping to undermine democracy. The more trenchant critics of Trump, Brexit and the newish movements that are thriving on the European continent have a great deal in common with those aristocrats and intellectual figures who, from the fifth century BC onwards, dismissed democracy out of hand because it would require them to pay attention to the foolish whims of the untutored masses. In their view, it was ridiculous to expect statesmen to take into account the preferences of ill-informed semi-literates. In the Spanish-speaking world, such high-minded contempt for democracy never went away.
Like the aristocrats and their camp-followers of yesteryear, the many who despise Trump, the Brexiteers and their European counterparts, are looking for ways to prevent the people Hillary Clinton famously called “deplorable” from getting anywhere near the levers of power or, if they already have, to prise them from their grubby fingers. In the United States, all efforts to do so have failed. Attempts to prove Trump is a Russian stooge are going nowhere. Attacking him for his alleged bedroom antics has done little to dent his popularity among his supporters; unlike other politicians, he never pretended to be a model of decorum. There are even signs that he is gaining ground in the black community Democrats thought was theirs for keeps.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the old guard is faring slightly better than in the US. The largely unelected individuals who run the European Union from Brussels can still go about their business without having to care that much about public opinion; they remain separated from it by thick layers of government and an opaque bureaucracy. That may not be enough; revolt is brewing in the east, where few want to see their countries made more “vibrant” by the incorporation of millions of Muslim or sub-Saharan immigrants, and in the south, where similar sentiments now prevail and economic grievances are multiplying. Just how long the progressive-minded men and women headquartered in Brussels can continue to overlook the feelings of the less enlightened majority is hard to say. Though they enjoy the backing of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, neither is particularly popular at home. In any event, what is happening in Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary suggests that they should at least pretend to show commoners a bit more respect.
The middle-of-the road Western establishment, elite, or whatever you call it, which consolidated itself in the late 20th century, may be right about a great many things, but it has been unable to make sure that almost everybody gets what most people would agree was a fair share of the astonishing amount of wealth that is being generated. While its failure to achieve what its representatives said they wanted may have been inevitable in countries in which a minority with the resources, whether intellectual or financial, that are needed for those in it to prosper is fast leaving behind a growing majority, convincing unhappy voters that something like this was always bound to happen and nothing much can be done about it is anything but easy.
This disagreeable fact confronts politicians in North America and Europe with a series of dilemmas that have long been familiar to their Argentine counterparts. Most know that if they give people what they want and have been led to think they fully deserve, the results could be disastrous for all, especially the poorest. On the other hand, if they try to do what they know is needed to keep the show on the road for a few more years, they risk falling victim to the fury of the mob.
Until quite recently, those tempted by an authoritarian approach to what may well be an insoluble problem were held in check by the comfortable belief that the ruinous Soviet “socialist experiment” had shown once and for all that, despite democracy’s many flaws, in the long run it made for greater overall efficiency and, in any case, it conferred legitimacy on governments forced to take unpopular measures. However, the rapid rise of China, where a combination of economic liberalism with political dictatorship has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and kept the lid on protest, has given worried members of the international elite an excuse to consider the possibility that democracy may not be the only available alternative. For those who think freedom really does matter, that is a disturbing development.