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Liberal democracy is still under threat

In countries such as the US, Italy and France, status quo-style politics won't win elections anymore.

By Ben Walker

Sighs of relief could be heard around the world following Joe Biden’s election victory as US president last year. For many in the West, his win over Donald Trump signalled that populism could be beaten. The Biden campaign’s strategy of firing up the liberal base while also reaching out to those on the fence worked wonders, and presented advocates for liberal democracy with a win.

But Biden’s victory can’t be read as the death knell for populism, be it in the US or elsewhere. The issues that transformed public disillusionment into wins for Trump, Brexit and other populist movements worldwide – both on the left and the right – are just as strong today as they were five or so years ago.

A Pew Research survey of global attitudes earlier this year found distrust of the political and economic order was highest in some of the richest countries in the world. In the US, 85 per cent of Americans said the political order should be either completely reformed or subject to a major change, while 66 per cent said the same about the economy, and 76 per cent about the healthcare system.

In Italy, Spain, Greece and France, the vast majority of voters were in alignment with Americans, expressing disaffection with the status quo, not to mention a dissatisfaction over the effectiveness of democracy, too.

Research shows that the electorates of many countries around the world are unsatisfied with their current political and economic systems. The groups agitating for change in these countries may not be far right or far left. They don't need to be. But they could threaten to destabilise those systems if those in power stick to a “steady as she goes” agenda rather than a “change things up” one.

Data indicates that the current systems most under threat are in the Mediterranean, France and the US. Biden's victory last year was more a win against Trump than a win for Biden. His victory shouldn’t be written as an endorsement for all things Bidenite. The political and economic order there is in need of repair. Voters want something to be done, and want their leaders to be seen doing it. If they feel the systems, parties and candidates available are unable to deliver on that, they may go searching for alternative movements. Pessimism in America that anything can change stands at 58 per cent. If Biden fails to convince voters that he can make changes, the conditions for a Trump (or Trump-style) comeback and subsequent win are there.

It appears Biden and his strategists know that, however. His first 100 days have, as my colleague Emily Tamkin writes, been more “action-packed” than many expected. As to whether he continues to implement change though – and be seen to be making change – it is too early to say. Right now, he is more popular than Trump, but that gap grows smaller by the day.

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In France, meanwhile, scepticism that political change can be realised is almost as high as in America, at 54 per cent. Here is a country that by all poll-based metrics should be electing radicals. Many are disillusioned with its political and economic systems. The majority’s attitude to minorities is less égalité and more éloignement, and is susceptible to extreme right-wing ideas such as the “great replacement theory, an unfounded belief that white populations are being replaced by non-European immigrants. Support for candidates on the radical right is rising, and TV personality and far-right contrarian Éric Zemmour is proving to have more appeal in France than the more established Marine Le Pen.

[See also: French election 2022: centre-right candidates fail to find their voice in debate]

But wins for such candidates remain, while not impossible, improbable. Emmanuel Macron is not a perfect advocate for liberal democracy. He’s seen as woefully out of touch, a candidate of the rich, and he continues to alienate the left wing who backed him in 2017. Yet more than 54 per cent of French voters believe he has made some change in the country. While just 9 per cent regard those efforts as part of his promised “radical transformation”, a substantial number do not see their president as a man on the sidelines. He holds greater appeal than François Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy ever had at this point in their presidencies.

Whatever the French citizenry’s politics, it at least regards him as a man relevant to the changes in the people’s daily lives. To them, he is a politician doing things. At the same time, because Macron commands a country that is vastly disillusioned with the established order, he is treading thin ice – and he may yet fall through. So far, though, his ability to be seen as the “change” candidate has kept him top dog – a lesson, perhaps, for other leaders.

The final months of 2021 will see a world still grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and, along with it, electorates hungry for change. In a way, it’s a world not so different to 2008 or 2016, when candidates such as Barack Obama, with his “hope” and “change” campaign, and Boris Johnson, with his “Take back control” slogan, had greater pull than those pushing continuity. Meanwhile, “drain the swamp” was adopted by the American right.

Liberal democrats need to be seen as agitators for reform, to reassess our contemporary order and be seen to reform it. Many dismiss Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern for their steady hands, but key to their appeal is how they have been active politicians, seen to be tackling problems. Although the fact that disaffection with the political and economic order in both Germany and New Zealand is drastically lower than in France and elsewhere has also aided Merkel and Ardern.

To argue for the status quo today in places like the US or western and southern Europe is to risk losing ground to radical forces. Liberal democracy is not in the clear. It needs to be seen to change with society, reflecting it and its demands in the process, lest it be wrestled by the radicals and torn to shreds.

[See also: Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump]