Is Democracy on the Ropes?

Oh dear. This weekend gone, it was the turn of the Italians and Austrians to join the populist revolt against politics. Although Austria’s voters ultimately rejected the presidential candidate of the far-right Freedom Party, they did so by a narrow margin – close on half the population voted for a party with a neo-nazi heritage. Just a few hours later, Italians delivered a stinging rebuke to their Prime Minister’s proposed constitutional reform. His subsequent resignation was then greeted by a tweet from the surging far-right opposition leader saying ‘Viva Trump, Viva Putin!’

As if the rise of authoritarian populists aren’t reason enough for believers in liberal democracy to sprout grey hairs, recent research has confirmed that Westerners more generally are losing faith in democracy. Most worrying is the drift among young people, who in larger numbers are reporting a willingness to support radical, anti-democratic measures, including military coups.

But lest we succumb to the temptation to find parallels with Weimar Germany, when amid economic and political crisis the Nazis won a popular mandate, it’s worth bearing in mind that anti-democratic and illiberal attitudes have always been widespread in Western democracies. Generations of American politics undergraduates were weaned from their civics-lessons on Dye and Ziegler’s Irony of Democracy, which revealed how widespread illiberal attitudes were among the American public. In their ‘uncommon introduction’ to American politics, they argued that what preserved the health of the system is that ordinary people had little say beyond approving the choices presented to them by a governing elite.

In Globalization and Inequality, I argued that a constant of political history is that the stability of regimes, which are implicit contracts binding elites to masses in bonds of mutual obligation, always and everywhere depend on a mass perception that everyone’s getting their fair share. When this perception breaks down, so does regime stability.

Democracy’s great virtue, therefore, is that it offers an early-warning system of troubles ahead. Rather than wait until the streets are burning, the masses can signal their disapproval of the governing class at the ballot box. Already by the 1990s, as I wrote over a decade ago, signs of such regime crisis were growing. With neoliberalism having done so much to worsen income distribution, citizens were starting to turn against democracy. Young people, for instance, were already showing signs of increasing cynicism about politics, and parties of the far-right had gained a foothold in many Western democracies.

Unfortunately, elites then turned a blind eye to these warning-signs. They dismissed worsening inequality by invoking the neoliberal mantra that since incomes were rising across the board – at least in the 1990s – ordinary people didn’t mind if the rich were making off with most of the loot. In so doing, they overlooked generations of research on the effects of ‘relative deprivation’ amid plenty, to say nothing of millennia of accumulated wisdom: over two-thousand years ago, after all, Confucius wrote in the Analects that the wise ruler ‘is not concerned lest his people should be poor, but only lest what they have should be ill-apportioned.’

But quite apart from their misguided faith in the neoliberal belief that more money makes everyone more quiescent, the elites of the last generation had simply lost touch with the masses (as I wrote in a recent column). Twenty years ago, the late historian Christopher Lasch wrote in The Revolt of the Elites that in their fascination with the greater contact with their peers abroad that globalisation afforded them, America’s leaders had turned their backs on their own peoples. It wasn’t just politicians who were guilty. Any university student struggling with swelling debts is familiar with the tenured Marxist who drives a Mercedes and seldom, if ever, spent time in menial labour, actually seeing what life is like for the working class.

Given their remoteness from the lives of the people for whom they claim to speak, it’s not surprising that what was required to get the elite’s attention was what one Italian populist has described as a loud ‘fuck you.’ They seem, finally, to be getting the message. Now they’re running around, like panicked school-children, unsure of what to do.

Take heart, new ideas for dealing with the crisis are out there. As documented in a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, off the radar and far from the campuses, a new generation of progressive intellectuals has been pondering the shape of the emerging world, and exploring possible solutions to the crisis. Frozen out of the academic job market by the austerity of the Great Recession, they have eschewed campus radicalism to set up little magazines and blogs. Their necessarily modest lifestyles have brought them close to the people whose concerns they address.

This may look like a grim time. But for some young intellectuals, it is an exciting time to be alive.

 

Image: Leg of Mutton Nature Reserve, south London

 

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