No panacea for political ills: Why democracy is in trouble

John Gray reviews Philip Coggan's <em>The Last Vote: the Threats to Western Democracy.</em>

The documentary "State of Control" (2013) exposes China's clampdown on information flows about Tibet. Image: Production still from "State of Control". Photographer: Katja Kulenkampff

The Last Vote: the Threats to Western Democracy
Philip Coggan
Allen Lane, 320pp, £20

Like Winston Churchill, Philip Coggan believes that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried”. At the same time, Coggan believes the world’s democracies are in trouble. He is not expecting a rerun of the 1930s: “This book is not predicting the arrival of a new Hitler or Stalin,” he writes. Nor is he suggesting that the late-20th-century wave that has left about half the world’s population under some version of democratic government is going into reverse. Yet, he reminds us, “History can be capricious”:

It is easy to think that because most western countries have been democratic in living memory, they will always remain so. But in the mid-1980s most people thought that eastern Europe would be communist for the foreseeable future. By the early 20th century, the Hapsburgs had been dynastic rulers for more than 600 years and the Romanovs for 400; yet by 1918 both had been swept away.

Major regime shifts were commonplace during much of the 20th century and, so far, this century shows no sign of being any different.

Coggan was a journalist at the Financial Times for over 20 years and he is consistently illuminating in his careful analysis of the economic failings of western democracies. Excessive government borrowing makes them vulnerable to destabilising shocks from global markets while the economy has yet to recover from the after-effects of the financial crisis. Even the US, which seems to be recovering most strongly, has achieved only a weak return to growth – despite a huge monetary stimulus from the Fed. Loose monetary policy, he notes, was “only supposed to be a temporary expedient until growth returns”.

What if growth isn’t going to return for the foreseeable future? Ever since the Second World War, the stability of western democracies has rested on the prospect of continuing economic expansion. Can that stability be maintained against the background of a permanent regime of austerity in government spending and stagnant or declining incomes for the working majority?

It is hard to see how serious unrest can be avoided indefinitely. In the US, sub-prime mortgages masked how real incomes were falling for all but the very rich. When middleclass decline became starkly visible after the crash, the result was the rise of the Tea Party. That movement of reactionary protest has blown itself out, buthow liberal democracies can coexist with a continuing state of nearzero growth remains an open question.

This dependency on growth isn’t peculiar to democracy. Pretty well all 21st-century states are versions of popular government that base their authority largely on the claim that they can deliver the benefits of growth to the majority of people. Political legitimacy in post-Mao China comes no longer from ideology but mainly from rising material living standards.

Much the same is true in democracies. Western governments like to talk of freedom and the rule of law but it is the promise of prosperity that secures the loyalty of their citizens. At present, authoritarian and democratic regimes are not so much opposites as rivals competing to achieve similar goals. That is one reason why democracy is in trouble. Unlike during the cold war, authoritarian regimes can no longer be relied on to be economically backward.

Relative economic decline is not the only reason that democracy is faltering. Another is that democratic government assumes a certain degree of commonality in the population. As Coggan notes, “Democracy can become unworkable if the community is sufficiently divided.” He gives as examples Northern Ireland, where a built-in Protestant majority was able to discriminate against the Catholic minority, and Yugoslavia, where communities that had coexisted for generations became enemies after the collapse of the Tito regime.

However, the two cases are quite different in the lessons they teach. Whereas Northern Ireland showed us how an existing democracy performs badly when it operates amid deep communal divisions, Yugoslavia demonstrated that when democracy replaces authoritarianism in divided societies, the result is normally the break-up of the state.

This may be something of a crux for Coggan’s argument, which he stresses is directed not against democracy but only against democracy’s flaws. Admirably balanced, refusing to parrot the agendas of the left or the right, The Last Vote is an exploration of democracy’s ills that anyone concerned with the current state of the world will benefit from reading. Despite the subtitle, it is a book that addresses universal questions: why is democracy faltering and what can be done to improve how democratic systems function?

Coggan considers and proposes a number of useful reforms. Wisely, he accepts that such reforms cannot rejuvenate democracy – what is needed is that each of us accepts responsibility for democracy’s flaws: “The fault is not in our stars, [nor] in our politicians, but in ourselves.” If we’re interested in democracy surviving, he argues, we should treat each vote as if it were our last.

The trouble is that not all the ailments Coggan identifies are curable. It is hardly accidental that the spread of democracy into the former Yugoslavia occurred at the same time as ethnic cleansing. The same was true after the collapse of the Hapsburg empire in interwar central Europe and in much of postcolonial Africa, while something not dissimilar seems to be happening in Myanmar along with the move from military dictatorship.

Democracy requires a high level of mutual trust, which is difficult to sustain when a state contains permanent minorities. If communities that are culturally distinct and geographically concentrated fear frequently losing out under majority rule, they may prefer to opt for separatism. That is why the spread of democracy has so often gone with the rise of secessionist movements demanding national self-determination.

Reflecting on these questions, Coggan asks: “Could the answer be to get rid of national self-determination? Possibly the whole idea of nationalism may turn out to be a temporary concept, like the city states of the Middle Ages.” It is an attractive suggestion. Even in its supposedly civil varieties, nationalism historically has been responsible for spilling vast quantities of blood.

Yet transcending nationalism is barely conceivable when populations all over the world are demanding self-government. Democracy’s connection with the nation state is not incidental. A democratic polity requires nation-building, a process that is often repressive and at times extremely violent, and with all its faults the nation state is in practice the upper limit of democratic accountability. There are exceptions – multinational democracies that are stable and widely accepted as legitimate but, embarrassingly for progressives, they are inheritances of empire or monarchy: Spain, Canada and the UK, for instance. Aside from these relics, cosmopolitan democracy is a figment of the imagination.

The condition of the eurozone, where there has been a concerted attempt to transcend national self-determination, illustrates the point. Coggan cites Sheri Berman, an American professor of political science at Columbia University, who writes: “The lack of authoritative democratic political institutions at the regional level has robbed the EU of the ability to respond forcefully to the crisis, thereby fanning the flames of nationalism and creating a backlash against the European project itself.”

For all the empty chatter about remedying Europe’s “democratic deficit”, there isn’t the remotest prospect of building effective democracy at the transnational level. As Coggan points out, the European Parliament isn’t the basis of a European government. I’d go further: in the medium to long run of a decade or so, the most tangible prospect is the fragmentation of European institutions.

Although Coggan is anxious not be interpreted as presenting an argument against democracy, a demystifying critique could be quite useful at the present time. Think of China, which everyone in the west insists must become a democracy. This is not going to happen any time soon, because it would lead more or less immediately to the break-up of the state. An almost inescapable side effect of democratisation in China would be Tibetan secession – an eventuality that, for geostrategic reasons having to do with Tibet’s natural resources and its border with India, no Chinese government will tolerate.

To be sure, the Tibetan demand for independence will cease to be significant when Han Chinese become the majority population in Tibet, a predictable result of the continuing influx of Chinese settlers. Democracy can be realised in China without the risk of secession only when Tibetan and other minorities have all but ceased to exist –which shows how unreal are the west’s expectations of what democracy would involve in practice.

Or consider Russia, currently the scene of a vile campaign against gay people. Everything that can be done by western governments and NGOs to stop this assault on civilised values should be done. Yet if Putin is promoting homophobia, it is because he believes doing so is politically advantageous. His calculation may be well founded, given that the effect of resisting western pressure on other issues has been to increase support for him in Russia. Would the situation be better if Russia were more democratic? Anyone who thinks the answer is clearly in the affirmative is displaying a confidence in the essential decency of majorities that 20thcentury history does little to support.

If most voters support democracy because they believe it will deliver prosperity, bien-pensants support democracy because they think it delivers liberal values – but the links between liberal values and democratic government can be more tenuous than these high-minded souls imagine.

Commenting on how torture was practised “under the presidency of a man who made much of his Christian faith”, Coggan notes that Bush II’s endorsement of the barbarous practice did him little electoral harm: reports of waterboarding, he writes, failed to “dent George W Bush’s support among his Christian base. He was re-elected in November 2004.”

Stated more bluntly, torture was popular, just as drone warfare is today. Bush wasn’t penalised electorally for his support of torture; no doubt some will object that this only shows that democracy doesn’t always work very well. Yet the opposite is true. Bush’s stance on the merits of torture accurately reflected that of the American majority. In this regard, democracy was working well enough.

That democracy can work against liberal values was well understood by earlier generations of liberal thinkers. John Stuart Mill, whom the author cites on several occasions, was a committed democrat (and for some years a member of parliament) who devoted much of his life to thinking about how the dangers of democracy could be countered. Today, Mill would be regarded as intolerably elitist. When the risks of majority tyranny are recognised, many insist that they can be dealt with by constitutional and legal safeguards – a curiously innocent view, considering how democratic governments routinely flout the law when it suits them and they know most voters aren’t bothered.

Perhaps it’s time democracy was removed from its pedestal, if only to dust down the icon. If democracy’s appeal is universal, so are its limitations. It may be the worst system of government apart from all the others and the freedoms that it still protects certainly must not be treated lightly – but it is not a panacea for political ills and it comes with some of its own.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: on Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)