Democracy is going through its worst crisis since the 1930s. The number of countries that can plausibly be described as democracies is shrinking. Strongmen are in power in countries that once looked as if they were democratising. The United States – the engine room of democratisation for most of the postwar period – has a president who taunted his opponent with chants of “lock her up” and refused to say if he would accept the result of the election if it went against him. We are, sadly, entering the post-democratic age.
The above paragraph could appear without much alteration in any one of thousands of commentaries written since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. In fact, it did: except for the final line, which I came up with, it is taken from the Economist’s review of Yascha Mounk’s book, The People vs Democracy.
Many of those mourning the current phase of democratic history – whether a recession, a pause, or something else – are disappointed by the substitution of, to them, agreeable and moderate leaders by more forthright types, who often reflect and nourish populist instincts.
In his review of David Runciman’s excellent new book, How Democracy Ends, my New Statesman colleague John Gray argued that the author had given insufficient credence to illiberal democracy as a viable form of government. Runciman was recently a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week and his eyes lit up when I mentioned a work by one of his Cambridge colleagues in which – I only realised subsequently – he appears, in the acknowledgements.
Of all the books written by authors whose lectures I attended as a student, few influenced me quite like Raymond Geuss’s History and Illusion in Politics. The conclusion to this dense but profound book, written in the now ancient epoch of 2001, begins: “A particular world-view dominates the contemporary political scene. It is composed of the assumption that societies should be organised as modern states conjoined with a commitment to a form of liberalism, democracy as a form of government, and a system of individual human rights. This conjunction, in my view, does not make much sense.”
Geuss argues that these elements are in constant tension. And it is illuminating to see democracy itself in a similar manner, as an unlikely composition of elements in constant tension, whose fortunes fluctuate. These include: universal suffrage; the provision of security and prosperity; regular elections; independent law courts; and a rigorous media able to establish a baseline of facts on which decisions are made and disputes settled.
Some of these can be anti-democratic. Authoritarians adore elections: they provide an opportunity for renewal. Provision of prosperity, if it is not distributed reasonably, can lead to oligarchy.
The ascent of rivals to liberal democracy, such as China, is a defining trait of our time. But why should the current, relative decline in democracy’s fortunes be permanent? Aspects of our democracy may simply have temporarily ceased to deliver the goods necessary for faith in democracy to be justified.
To take two in particular: the stagnation in real incomes for many people has enhanced the appeal of populists; and social media, while lowering the barriers to entry into democratic discussion, has degraded the truth. Facebook is both the most and the least democratic technology ever invented.
Doubtless some consider any mention of democracy’s enduring merit utopian. But the availability heuristic is skewing analysis of the contemporary West, so that a kind of fatalism is setting in.
In fact, giving power to the people is a permanent negotiation between principles and practices we had come to take for granted. Yet a new deal can revive it. Whether citizens have the inclination to enact such a deal will determine whether democracy experiences a mere recession, or a permanent decline.
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman