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On Democracy and Demagogues

06/05/2016 17:00

Let us lift our heads from England's town halls. Let us ignore the governments of Scotland, Wales, and northern Ireland. And let us even, if we can, pay no attention at all to the next mayor of London, one of the greatest cities in the world.

Instead, let us contemplate the very nature of democracy, and the warning of Socrates: 'Tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.' Not because tyrants are on the march here in the UK - when Nigel Farage and George Galloway are our biggest threats, I think we may still sleep easy in our beds - but because we see them on the march elsewhere. In Russia, where Vladimir Putin seeks to eliminate the last vestiges of opposition to his rule; in Turkey, a NATO ally, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just deposed his prime minister and is gaily trampling on any signs of free speech or political debate; and even, perhaps, in the United States, where Donald Trump continues his seemingly unstoppable assault on the Washington citadel.

In a brilliant, terrifying essay in the latest issue of New York magazine, the British-born American commentator Andrew Sullivan says of Trump: 'In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.' He also says: 'Neo-fascist movements do not advance gradually by persuasion; they first transform the terms of the debate, create a new movement based on untrammeled emotion, take over existing institutions, and then ruthlessly exploit events.' 

I tend to be wary of apocalyptic forecasts. As an optimist by temperament, I prefer to believe that things are likely to get better than worse. But as a democrat, I have to acknowledge that the spread of democracy through Europe and elsewhere that followed the end of the Cold War may not always have brought only benefits in its wake.

I still cannot bring myself to believe that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. But nor can I deny Sullivan's thesis: 'Late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain -- and has actually helped exacerbate. For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome.'

This central dilemma is at the heart of the political crises that are now affecting virtually all European democracies. Whether in Greece, Spain, Italy, France or Germany, deeply disaffected voters are turning their backs on the traditional political classes and switching their support to parties that can better articulate their anger and their fear. Sullivan again: 'It is precisely because of the great accomplishments of our democracy that we should be vigilant about its specific, unique vulnerability: its susceptibility, in stressful times, to the appeal of a shameless demagogue.'

It is not difficult for an American demagogue to lambast the record of a Washington elite, as Sullivan points out: '... that presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, [and] that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy.' 

Tim Montgomerie wrote in The Times this week: 'The post-crash period was a moment when many, on the left and right, expected a backlash against the capitalist system. It didn't happen. Frightened electorates voted for calm, reassuring people. Obama-Biden over McCain-Palin. Angela Merkel. David Cameron. Stephen Harper. Phase I of the post-2008 period has largely been the Boringsville era. Well, friends, phase II may have arrived and politics isn't boring any more. Revolutions occur when the peasants have been fed but the memory of injustice still burns and when the middle classes are feeling the pain, too.'

All of which seems to me to be far more significant than this week's muddled UK Super Thursday election results. If, contrary to all the pundits' expectations (and they have been wrong about just about everything else of late), Trump is elected in November, four of the world's most militarily-powerful nations - the US, China, Turkey and Russia - will be in the hands of populist demagogues. That leaves just India, where prime minister Narendra Modi is far from being a paragon of liberal democracy.

It's not always easy being an optimist. Thank goodness the sun is shining.

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