Is Populist Democracy an erosion of Democratic Values

Democracy is a given in the Western World – or is it? There is so much debate in recent times about democratic rights of various factions my head is spinning trying to comprehend how this word is being used – or abused.

If we go back to the fundamental meaning of democracy, we need to consider nation States where civil liberties and fundamental political freedoms are not only respected but also reinforced by a political culture based on democratic principles. If we consider the characteristics that should define a democracy, we will see freely elected government representation, respect of civil liberties, an independent judiciary, organised and elected opposition, all enshrined within the Rule of Law.

Being a member of Chatham House I was invited to participate in a session entitled ‘The Pandemic, Populism and the Democratic Recession’ during which Professor Larry Diamond from Stanford University in the USA outlined his argument that, especially during the past 20-years, democracy as we understand it is on the decline as Nation States throughout the World labelled as democracies remove ever more powers from and/or impose more authority over the people, currently Hungary and Poland within the EU. Whereas I fundamentally disagreed with his understanding of both the UK and the EU, both politically and economically, his view that democracy is in recession resonated. I also agreed that the rise of Modern Populism is a major factor in degraded political governance. But what is driving this degradation?

As a Christmas treat in 2004 I took my then 14-year old daughter to Boston and New York City in an attempt to give her some feel for life in the USA using the more sedate and conservative Boston as a marker against the cut and thrust of New York City. Whilst in New York we passed the CBS Building more commonly known as Black Rock. In the window there was a large screen stating, ‘United States of America – the oldest surviving democracy in the World’. This statement, for me, encapsulates the problems encountered by Americans throughout the World. I question whether the USA can consider itself a democracy when I see President Trump with connivance of the Republican led Senate impose their choice of person in the form of Amy Coney Barrett as a Supreme Court Judge for life. This can only be described as political stuffing of the Judiciary where such body is defined as independent within a democracy. Furthermore the turbulence over recent years where the whole Government apparatus becomes stagnant because the Senate and House of Representatives cannot agree a budget suggests the Political System in the USA is in need of structural reform to redefine and enhance democracy to better serve all the people before preaching their form of democracy to others. During my teenage years, segregation was still rife in the USA, and recent events stirring the Black Lives Matter upheaval suggests problems still exist.

Having close ties with Switzerland since the late 1970s I recall earlier this millennium being asked by a former Federal Counsellor of Switzerland to review their speech to an upcoming gathering of EU ministers considering the further integration into the EU of the former satellite states of the former USSR. There was a section in this speech lauding democracy, declaring Switzerland as a glowing example of a stable democracy. I could not help but point out that, in Switzerland, the Executive has total control over the judiciary with several recent occasions where the Federal Council has overridden judicial review to protect their own interests. I consider Switzerland as a Police State where people are declared guilty until they prove themselves innocent – hardly democratic. And they clearly have difficulties trying to govern in four different languages and associated cultures.

Countries such as Russia and China are accepted as undemocratic. We have witnessed both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping engineer their longevity in leadership amending constitutional rules as needed to secure their positions. Opposition is summarily dismissed even using horrendous methods such as Novichok agent with apparent impunity. China’s reversal of democracy in Hongkong with its latest dictum that MPs in Hongkong must be patriotic to Beijing if they want to serve demonstrates blatant disregard for the democratic freedoms afforded the people of Hongkong under the hand-over Treaty with the UK.

The recent elections in Belarus demonstrate that power corrupts leaving most of the former socialist States, even those classified as democratic, revealing the flaws in their leadership determined to retain authoritarian power by any means as the people become more aware of the rights they should enjoy as citizens. And, of course, we should not ignore the corrupt Governments in Africa whose leaders will use any level of guile and oppression to retain their corrupt power.

The citizens of the World are becoming more aware of the concept of democracy and seek to exert their rights within the accepted democratic framework. Authoritarian leaders who cannot easily apply direct oppression are seeking other means to retain their power. Knowing that many people have very little if any understanding of politics or economics they use Modern Populism as a powerful aphrodisiac. Knowing the affection of the people for pop artists and movie stars authoritarian leaders personify themselves as superstars worthy of the embrace of the people. Such charismatic leaders manipulate receptive voters by promising outrageous utopia whilst vilifying opponents using the ever-increasing wealth gap to decry the corruption and self-interest cronyism of the elite. Unfortunately, this works for enough voters to swing elections from capable Government into governments in name only. The star-struck voters get what they deserve, only realising their error when it is too late for 4 – 5 years, or as we are witnessing in countries such as China and Russia, for life of the leader holding the power. Constitutions are revised to cement the power base; democracy becoming no more than a word of convenient political rhetoric. This herald back to kingdoms where the leader has absolute power for life – no matter what.

The recent Brexit debacle in the UK sheds interesting light into this discussion. After the first Brexit Referendum the so-called Remainers – the voters who wanted the UK to remain part of the EU – made many outrageous claims that the Brexiteers were duped by Populism, being too uneducated to understand the issues. This view carried into Parliament where MPs from constituencies who clearly voted to leave the EU chose to ignore their local constituency vote instead voting to stifle the process. It took two further elections and the loss of a number of seasoned politicians and some younger opportunistic politicians to give Boris Johnson a mandate to leave the EU but many Remainers still argue that voters were casting their vote to prevent Jeremy Corbyn from leading a Government, not to leave the EU. Thus, we have a perplexing problem of voters not considered capable of casting a reasoned vote thus voting a Populist ticket, and the losers not accepting the outcome yielding a breakdown in credibility of the democratic system.

An alternate way of reading the last General Election in the UK is that Boris Johnson saw the opportunity to use the voters to disguise the Brexit issue within the Jeremy Corbyn ultra-left-wing Modern Populism and rely on the voters to see reason that the outrageous promises to the voters by a Jeremy Corbyn led Government would condemn the UK to the Dark Ages again. The results tend to suggest even in the more depressed, typically Labour stronghold constituencies of the UK the voters were savvy enough to know what they didn’t want both in Corbyn and the EU.  

One of the long-held complaints with the EU is the unelected but powerful European Commission. How can the EU declare itself founded upon democratic principles? The agenda of the EU is clear to ever more of its citizens. The UK has responded. Who’s next?

The current Presidential election in the USA could be described as Modern Populism versus Pragmatism but look how close the popular vote. If we apply the argument that many voters are not capable of understanding the debate one would expect the vote to be more pronounced in favour of Populism or Pragmatism. I don’t envy President elect Joe Biden who must repair such a polarised nation not least because of no clear Republican or Democrat majority in either House likely creating stagnation in policy agenda. And the losing voters will consider themselves robbed of victory especially if led by Donald Trump when his legal challenges fail.

Why is democracy failing when so many oppressed people in the World crave the liberty and freedoms it promises? I grew up in the aftermath of WWII where people relied on resourcefulness and resilience to survive and thrive. Communities worked together to rebuild their lives. Life was not idyllic, far from it, but an attitude was instilled that essentially meant that if you wanted to achieve you are responsible to make it happen. This attitude accelerated during what I call the Youth Revolution – the period between the 1966 World Cup and the landing of Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969. Resilience and resourcefulness built in prior years now could be expressed in ways which changed the UK from an essentially conservative Government to a more liberal approach. Much wealth creation during this period across the spectrum of voters – class boundaries fracturing. People felt liberated and empowered to determine their own destiny in the World and demanded a more liberal framework by Governments.

This empowerment led to the people looking to exert their rights to whatever they could get for their votes building a now overburdened welfare state where an attitude of entitlement overshadows the need for resourcefulness among the poorer sectors. For example, could a political party now get elected on a ticket of much needed scale back and structural reform of the NHS to reflect need over want? Resourcefulness has morphed into indoctrinated entitlement. Resilience has morphed into insecurity with a new lexicon of mental disorders amongst younger people. Instead of the resilience to cope, people crumble. Having observed the depressing inability of people to cope with Covid-19 lockdown goodness knows what would happen if the lights went out for any length of time. Today there are still many families who have members who survived some 6 years of WWII in the shadow of bombing raids, losing loved ones, coping with rationing, and extreme workload to support the war effort. Has what I would term as Modern Socialist Populism created a complacency that quietly forgets the price paid for the freedoms they enjoy? Thank goodness for the emergence of heroes like Capt. Tom whose positive resilience injected a much-needed dose of reflection and goodwill.

However, we digress. Or have we? Creating unaffordable expectations among the masses in the pursuit of votes is destined towards a reality check. Corporate taxation at uneconomic levels, and personal taxes at levels significantly affecting quality of life are a formula for disillusionment, recrimination and ill-will towards the Government. Modern Populism hits the buffers. The Government coffers are empty. The people are disillusioned with Liberal Democracy and must pay for their sins with a period of Conservatism to rebuild the economy and reset voter expectations.

Is there not a note of déjà vu in this progression? I remember in the 1970s living under a widespread social engineering period by Labour Governments to support its popularity essentially bankrupting the country in the process requiring some 18 years of Conservative resets to prosperity. Then in 1997 Tony Blair and Gordon Brown emerged with New Labour on a Populist ticket spending a further 10-years of cradle-to-grave social entitlement engineering finally leaving the Government coffers empty in 2007 and so many young people disillusioned with their new but worthless university degrees and massive student debt. Another reset to Conservatism, austerity, and realism. The banking crisis did not help but the coffers were empty in any event. And, just as prosperity and the freedom from the EU were set to propel the UK into a new period of accelerated growth, we are hit with Covid-19. Should China have the moral fortitude to inject $2-3Trillion into the global economy to compensate for its failure to contain this virus we will most certainly see the UK thrive and prosper post-Covid-19 before the next General Election thus thwarting the Populists who will certainly make hay if recovery is still slow. In the event that China fails to stimulate the global markets but seeks to exploit the global economic weakness resulting from Covid-19 I would expect the West to reinvigorate the Marshall Plan along with a healthy dislocation from China from where three serious viruses have emerged in the past twenty years.

So what is different today? Before social media and the degradation of conventional press reporting to satisfy 24-hour news channels using their own brand of sensationalism to compete with online social media, voters could only derive information from a limited number of outlets. Social media has completely changed the dissemination of information; good, bad, or downright false or misleading. Unscrupulous entities from individuals, organisations, and even foreign powers can, in minutes, pollute social media platforms with lies, misrepresentation and complete fabrication intended to sway receptive victims to a desired outcome. I overheard a journalist from a broadsheet newspaper declare that the demand on her for articles each day meant that she had no time to fully research and validate her stories. But who, today, reads the second page corrections if indeed any are printed?

An analysis of which degradation came first would take another essay. But what is clear is we have a collision of culture and belief where national boundaries are blurred by new global organised activism built on conspiracy theories. We experience truth decay where facts no longer matter, and people lie with impunity, some merely to seek their 15-minutes of fame, but others with a more cynical intent. We observe more authoritarian countries attempt to curb access to social media. We also observe Western countries trying to marshal content but with little effect to date. One observation of this proliferation of false or il-considered content is the need of people to feel involved in this new-found freedom of expression which requires instant gratification regardless of consideration lest they be left behind. How many celebrities take the view that they need to be connected until the vitriol received causes them to retreat?

Thus, Populists and their cohorts can exploit the lack of any integrity in published works on any platform. If voters are not happy with what is, they can easily be swayed to the promised land. How such interference in democracy can be regulated will be debated relentlessly with little or no consensus throughout the World. Democracy could well become as toothless as the UN.

I put it to my readers that the degradation of integrity in politics has created a mistrust of democracy. This is a breakdown of social cohesion that amplifies by clever manipulators through social media platforms creating false impression, disenchantment, and social discourse. History repeats itself regarding the few people needed to stoke people into war with insane losses before sanity prevails. Does democracy need to follow the same cyclic course before people understand its values and limitations. It was Winston Churchill who remarked that democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others. Is it time to revisit the pillars of democracy, ensure that they are relevant, fully understood and implemented, and then guarded against abuse?

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