This is going to be a fast gallop over heavy ground. In a few thousand words and a handful of chapters I am going to set out what I think has gone wrong with liberal democracy in the last forty years. But this is not a book about failure. It is a book about hope. The threats to democracy can be beaten off and reversed.
Because they seek to respond to the views and expectations of their citizens, liberal democratic societies are inherently adaptable and resilient. But some of them have drifted, and some are drifting; they risk tipping into the ditch of despotism or worse. They can and must be refashioned to function and thrive in the culture of the new age that has been thrust upon us. There will not be one uniform solution. Each nation is going to have to find salvation built upon the foundation of its individual history, culture, and aspirations, as well as how it has come out of the pandemic socially and economically. COVID-19 has changed the rules of many games, but it is also a reminder of what is of value in human communities, what is essential to making them flourish, and what is mere frippery. The timing of the pandemic and the insights it has provided ought to enliven the quest to restore democracy. It is a challenge that ought to be embraced with excitement and exhilaration. It is an adventure that should be approached with an entirely open mind for the almost infinite possibilities available for the construction and protection of democratic frameworks fit for the purpose of this age. This exploration will require courage, perseverance, and a clear understanding of what has gone wrong in the last four decades.
The factors I consider important in the erosion of democracies are my own, based on my fifty-five years in journalism. That experience in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia has given me the opportunity to see up close how democracies are created; what sustains them; why some fail to survive adolescence; and the tricks despots use to destroy them. I make no claim that the events I’ve written about are exhaustive or the only ones or best ones to illustrate the situation. They do, however, illuminate my concerns. I have chosen to focus on the challenges to democracy in the countries of Europe and North America, a region I refer to as the North Atlantic Basin, the repository of North Atlantic Culture. My purpose is two-fold. Taking account of the widely differing cultural contexts in other democracies threatened by populism, such as Brazil, India, or the Philippines, would widen the lens too much and the narrative would lose focus. Examples of the kinds of threats to democracy evident world-wide are to be found around the North Atlantic Basin. In my career as a journalist and, more pertinently, as a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist since 1979 in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America, I have been in the front row as many of the events described in this book unfolded. Many of my judgements and selections may be open to criticism, but they were come by honestly.
One of humanity’s less attractive traits is a passion for gloom and doom. All too often people see the cloud on the horizon and not the sweep of the otherwise flawless blue sky above. The tendency to focus only on the negative is a real danger in these times of political turmoil and uncertainty. Paranoia can become self-fulfilling. We face an unceasing barrage from talking heads and political strategists warning us that democracy and its accompanying virtues of liberalism, tolerance, and communal cohesion are under immediate threat from the forces of authoritarianism, hatred, and tribalism. There are indeed threats to modern democratic liberalism from within and without, just as there always have been as it emerged and matured out of Western Europe’s Age of Enlightenment three and a half centuries ago. There is nothing inevitable about the victory of populists, depots, and demagogues, no matter how fertile the ground may be for them. Far from it.
The concept of liberal democracy has always contained contradictions and fundamental differences of opinion and philosophy about what it means, even among its most avid supporters. During most of the 20th century, those contradictions were sidelined by the greater battles between democratic liberalism and, first, fascism and then communism. But with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union the fallibility and conflicts within liberal democracy have not only bubbled to the surface, they are threatening to erode the whole structure of what I think of as North Atlantic Culture. The threats include the emergence of intellectually detached and socially isolated ruling classes that span politics, government officialdom, business, academia, and the media. Accompanying that isolation are gross disparities of wealth. This has produced entire segments of communities beached by technological advances and changing patterns of commerce while, according to Oxfam, one per cent of the world’s population — 75 million people — holds half the world’s wealth, making them richer than the other 7.4 billion people.
Playing on the insecurity fostered by economic stagnation are fundamental changes in the concept of the nation state. For many people, especially in the North Atlantic Basin, their culturally familiar and homogenous communities are changing or disappearing as foreigners migrate to their countries in search of work or freedom from fear and war. These migrants bring cultural and social changes with them. When a community’s identity and self-confidence is already under stress from economic uncertainty, the arrival of foreign influences are not always welcome. For some liberal democracies — especially nations built by immigration such as Canada — cultural, social, and racial diversity remains a virtue and a goal. But even in immigrant societies like Canada and Australia, and among some European countries with welcoming refugee policies, there are resentful minorities who feel their culture is being changed or diluted. These people must not be ignored.
The volume and intensity of the debate over these conflicts and contradictions is ratcheted up by confusion over what constitutes fantasy, truth, and lies. The cacophony created by the torrents of instantaneous digital communications and chaotic social media is a white noise unlike anything with which humans have had to contend before.
Singly and in combination, these threats provide fodder for those who would undermine and overthrow democracy. Some of the adversaries come from within. These are the populist flimflam artists and those darker beings who believe in the constructive power of destruction. They see the buffeting of democracy as an opportunity unavailable to them in calmer times to indulge their own personality disorders and extremist notions.
There are fundamental differences between the populist uprisings in Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Poland and Hungary are countries in transition to democracy from long histories of authoritarian rule; they are moving from the grip of one empire, the Soviet Union, into the belly of another, the European Union. These difficult and scary progressions deserve a lot more careful attention than they are currently receiving. It was a populist movement, perhaps even a revolution, that led to Britain’s departure from the EU at the end of January 2020. But what stands out is that the three years of apparent chaos between the referendum and “getting Brexit done” were so difficult because those involved were determined to play by the rules of parliamentary democracy. The same cannot be said of populism in the United States. The unholy alliance of Tea Party libertarians and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals that has propelled populism in the US is bent on destroying the national institutions that stand between them and their visions of paradise. Donald Trump is the chosen and willing agent of this agenda. In his first term he has already done much to undermine the rule of law — always the first target of would-be despots — and to continue the already well-entrenched perversion of the US political system.
The US is the one nation of North Atlantic Culture where I find it impossible to be optimistic about the survival of democracy.
The attacks from outside the US are principally from Russia and China. Russian leader Vladimir Putin is intent on trying to buttress his country against being dominated by the West and to try to regain something of Moscow’s global stature lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union. China sees within its grasp a return to its position as the world’s pre-eminent nation that pertained through most of recorded human history. The “humiliation” of China by semi-colonial incursions of the industrialized nations in the last 200 years is an angst not yet buried by the country’s extraordinary economic, military, and political revival that began in the 1980s. To these ends, China and Russia seek, in some cases with success, to turn democracy’s strengths and virtues against it. One of the most difficult questions for democracies to address is that their virtues of transparency, the rule of law, and constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and of association are all open doors to the kind of national home invasions being mounted by Moscow and Beijing. Somehow, democracies have to find ways of fighting off the autocrats without setting aside, in the process, the very freedoms that define their societies.
This book takes as its foundation the belief that democracy is the most effective and philosophically defendable method of governing human affairs that has been devised so far. It is generally accepted that there are four cardinal principles to a fully democratic society. The first is that the government should be a faithful representation of the choices made by citizens in free and fair elections. The second is that all citizens, including the head of state, should be subject to the rule of laws administered by an independent judiciary. Those laws and that judiciary must also be required to protect the liberties, and human and civic rights of the citizens. Finally, and possibly most importantly, in a successful democracy, society as a whole must promote and enable its citizens to participate in the democratic process and the functioning of their societies.
Remarkably few countries have achieved complete democracy under those fundamental principles. An annual assessment published by The Economist Intelligence Unit lists only twenty-two countries as complete democracies in 2019. The list starts with Norway, runs through Iceland, New Zealand, Finland and Ireland, puts Canada equal with Denmark at seventh, picks up with Australia, Switzerland and Netherlands at ninth, tenth and eleventh places, swings down through Luxembourg and Germany, picks up the United Kingdom, gathers up Uruguay, Austria, Spain, and Mauritius, and then concludes with Costa Rica, France, Chile, and Portugal. The US appears as twenty-fifth on the list, sandwiched between Japan and Malta, among fifty-four “flawed democracies.”
American democracy has been on a downward slide for well over a decade. Its faults, according to the EIU’s ranking, include low scores for political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. The US shares these deficits with France, Italy, Belgium, and several other countries often considered top-tier democracies. The reality that even many countries commonly considered democracies — such as the former-Soviet-dominated states, now members of the European Union — have yet to achieve that goal is an important and sometimes crucial matter when assessing the assaults they face.
The EIU report said it has tabulated a general decline in democratic values among Western democracies for several years. The EIU’s evidence for this is:
• An increasing emphasis on elite/expert governance rather than popular participatory democracy;
• A growing influence of unelected, unaccountable institutions and expert bodies;
• The removal of substantive issues of national importance from the political arena to be decided by politicians, experts or supranational bodies behind closed doors;
• A widening gap between political elites and parties on the one hand and national electorates on the other; and
• A decline in civil liberties, including media freedom and freedom of speech.
“In the mature democracies the result was an unsustainable political status quo: the increasing vacuity of national politics and the retreat of political elites and parties from engagement with their electorates resulted in falling levels of popular trust in political institutions and parties, declining political engagement, and a growing resentment among electorates at the lack of political representation. Eventually the alienation of people from the twenty-firsti-century body politic gave rise to populist movements, which repudiated the mainstream political parties and demanded a new political contract between the people and their elected representatives.”
A complicating factor is that there is no universal agreement on what liberal democracy means. Democracy and liberalism grew out of the Enlightenment — the re-discovery and embellishment of the political, communal, and artistic philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Northern Europe. That revival blossomed on roots nurtured by the withering of feudalism, the Protestant Reformation, and the emergence of politically active and demanding merchant and commercial classes. This ended the dominance of the Catholic Church and fostered unrestricted thinking on religious matters, which in turn encouraged intellectual curiosity. The downside of intellectual freedom, of course, was the rise of contesting religious certainties and several hundred years of persecution and warfare.
Over the past four hundred years, two major conventions have emerged when defining liberalism. These revolve around the dividing line that roughly segregates those who put personal rights and freedoms as the paramount elements of liberal democracy, and those who think communal responsibilities and duties should dominate. Usually, in the politics of North Atlantic Culture in the last one hundred years, these differences have manifested themselves as support for left-leaning or right-leaning political parties. The parties of the left can be full-blown socialist operations managing nationalised industries, or, more usually, social democratic parties blending free market economics with welfare state social services. Right-of-centre parties are mirror images of this. Centrist conservative parties tend to put more emphasis on the efficient use of tax revenues, and user-pay elements in state-provided education, health, and other social services. Parties further to the right often advocate the privatisation of social services, and even responsibilities stemming from a government’s duty to preserve the security of the state, such as the management of prisons. Where right-wing parties contain strands of social conservatism — frequently borne of strong religious elements in the political party — this may produce lack of empathy or interest in minority groups, and in extreme cases disdain and contempt.
These definitions are not hard-and-fast. Two examples of Christian-based parties make the point. While the puritanical conservative beliefs of the evangelical Christian right have been the main influence on the anti-social policies of the Trump administration in the US, the same is not true of Angela Merkel’s right-of-centre Christian Democratic Union in Germany. Indeed, it was Merkel and her CDU who spearheaded the European efforts to receive and assimilate the estimated 1.5 million refugees seeking asylum in Europe after the 2011 “Arab Spring” revolutions and civil wars. And under Merkel’s administration, Germany alone received more than one million refugees, mostly from Syria.
Democracy’s tragedy over the last thirty years is the erosion of the centre as political parties and establishment classes have, to one degree or another, lost touch with large segments of their societies. Socialism and communism have attracted surprisingly few of these abandoned voters, which is what happened in much of the twentieth century. Some have opted for special interests, such as the Green parties, but for the most part, disenchanted citizens have turned to the right, seeking solace with nationalist, religious, and populist solutions for their grievances. This spirit of grievance fed the Brexit campaign for the UK to leave the EU, ostensibly to regain control over its own affairs. It has sustained the rule of Viktor Oban, whose politics were unexceptional when he was first Prime Minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2004, but who has drifted to the far right since returning to power in 2010. Almost all European parliaments now have members from far-right parties, and, in some, they form part of governing coalitions.
Outside of Europe, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have all seen rising popularity for the hard right. In democracies elsewhere there have been similar movements. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is avowedly Hindu and nationalist. After he was first elected in 2014 there was much anxiety among India’s over 200 million Muslims that his government would favour the country’s 1 billion Hindus and might even turn to persecution. Those fears were heightened after Modi and the BJP won re-election in 2019 and soon afterwards ended the autonomy of the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir. He has gone on to introduce a refugee policy which appears to bar the entry into India of Muslims fleeing persecution.
Public yearning for solutions to complex social problems has lured voters in the Philippines and Brazil to the easy remedies prescribed by Eduardo Duterte and Jair Bolsonaro.
Yet while there have been shifts to the political or nationalist right in several countries, there has not been a direct and conclusive overthrow of democracy or democratic institutions.
As I write in May 2020, some established democracies are tottering on the brink, and the COVID-19 pandemic has played into the hands of several leaders, allowing populists to become would-be despots. Democracies across the North Atlantic Basin have invoked state-of-emergency laws in order to be able to confront the pandemic with the necessary agility and control. But, as will be described, there is widespread concern that once the crisis is over some leaders will hesitate to relinquish their absolute power, or will keep in place some of the most useful elements, such as editorial control over the media. There are reasonable grounds for these suspicions.
In Turkey, President Tayyip Recep Erdogan has conspired and connived for nearly twenty years to remove the institutional checks and balances of the judiciary, political opposition, the military, and the media. He has had considerable success in gathering for himself power that is not easily challenged. It is not clear yet, however, whether he has conclusively demolished Turkey’s pillars of democracy, which, in truth, were not firmly founded to begin with.
In the US, President Donald Trump has worked hard to override the checks and balances built into that country’s political system. He has tried to run government with the same kind of domineering performance he brought to his starring role in the reality television show, The Apprentice. After three years in office, he appears to have managed to intensify the anti-government feelings among his supporters, who were already philosophically suspicious of the Washington establishment in all its manifestations. On December 18, 2019, the constitutional machinery of reaction to any attempts to rule autocratically ground into gear and Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives. On January 16, 2020, articles of impeachment were drawn up and sent to the Senate for trial. But Trump is a master bully. The tactics he learned in business of loudly and persistently denying the truth, hitting back hard when challenged, and quickly diverting attention to some even more outlandish action have proved a useful apprenticeship for politics. His cowing of the Republican Party into simpering subservience is extraordinary. There was never any doubt that the Republican-controlled Senate would ignore the substantial evidence of Trump’s abuse of office, and throw out the charges against him. Like all would-be despots coming to power in democracies, Trump recognised that the rule of law and an independent judiciary were the greatest threats to his ambitions. Aping the examples of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Erdogan in Turkey, Trump has neutered the Department of Justice and waged a persistent campaign to vilify law agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Of all the democracies of the North Atlantic Basin I am most pessimistic about the ability of the United States to reform and revive its institutions. It is already going through a calamitous civic and political crisis, but there are as yet no signs of any political party, group, or individual who fully grasps the danger the country is in, let alone possesses or expresses a vision of how to reverse it. This is because, as I shall describe, I see Trump as a product of deep and irreconcilable divisions within American society. These divisions are easy fodder for merchants of fear, hatred, and violence, of which the US has more than its fair share. The US is approaching a moment when it will have to recognize that the system and structure of politics and government the Founding Fathers dreamed up at the end of the eighteenth century are no longer fit for purpose. If democracy is to survive in America radical reform and reconstruction is necessary.
The arrival of 2020 and the new decade was set to be the year when the contest for the survival of liberal democracy in the North Atlantic Basin would enter a more intense phase. In Europe the battlefield was the aftermath of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU — Brexit — and all the questions that raised about the survival of the community. In North America the issue was the looming campaign for the re-election of Donald Trump to the US presidency, the prospect of ever-deepening partisan intolerance, and the fate of America as the pre-eminent world power.
Then, in mid-November, a person in the central Chinese city of Wuhan died of a particularly virulent pneumonia of unknown origin. Sometime between that event and December 30, when the Chinese government notified the World Health Organization, the coronavirus called COVID-19 evolved into the highly contagious and deadly disease that has been designated the first pandemic of the twenty-first century. The virus likely originated in a bat or mammal sold for food in the Chinese “wet markets” as they are known. These markets that sell live animals of unusual or exotic species such as pangolins, civet cats, and bats, have been incubators before for diseases that have spread world-wide. The severe acute respiratory syndrome — SARS — came out of just such a market selling live wild animals in southern China in 2003. It killed nearly 800 people before it was done. But the new version of a similar coronavirus has proved to be a threat of an entirely different order. COVID-19 does not kill as many people who get infected as did SARS, but is far more contagious among humans. It swiftly moved around the world by air and sea with the aid of human carriers who did not know they were infected and infectious. By March 11, when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, COVID-19 was already infecting thousands of people a day in Europe and Asia, and killing hundreds.
At the same time, COVID-19 made itself the central player in the story of the political, economic, and social pressures threatening democracy. At the political level, the pandemic is a vivid reminder that a fundamental reason why humans created governments in the city states of Mesopotamia seven thousand years ago was for the protection and regulation of communal life. Among the essential responsibilities the authorities were expected to fulfil was maintenance of public health. That has remained a core duty and expectation of government. This has flummoxed the populist libertarians of today’s political stage, especially Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Their reluctance to abandon their own agendas and take up the ancient responsibilities of rulers led to the death and infection tolls in the US and UK being much higher than they need have been.
Eventually, all but a handful of European and North American countries shut down their economies in order to encourage people to stay at home and inhibit the spread of the disease. A good deal of public discussion has begun about using this time as an opportunity to refashion the structure of North Atlantic economies to try to address inequities that have become embedded.
The isolation imposed on people to curb COVID-19 has raised many practical and intellectual questions about the nature of community and family. In particular, the ease with which many people adopted virtual platforms for both their work and social lives has accelerated the revolution in human contact that was already underway.
Yet, by and large, the coronavirus and its fallout has underlined the lesson of the last forty years. While democracy can be vulnerable if left untended, the power of the four principles and essential elements of democracy is that they can evolve and adapt as the demands of society change. Adaptability is one of democracy’s greatest strengths. But the people who live in democracies have to work these changes. They have to manipulate the machinery of their society to protect it, and direct it where they want to go. Democracy is well able to see off the challenges it faces now, and there are some signs that the counterattack is already underway. The response needs a good deal more energy and direction than is currently evident. With that in mind, the current chorus of people, many of them eminent analysts and commentators, singing out warnings of the imminent death of democracy is strange to see. Viewed from a few steps back, this pessimism had its birth forty years ago. It is, ironically, a result of the conclusive victory of democracy in the long and tedious Cold War between the West and the communist nations of the Soviet Union and China. The end of the Cold War came with the 1989 convulsions within the Soviet Union leading to its dismemberment in 1991, and the abandonment of purist Marxist economics by China in favour of a hybrid form of state-managed market economy. But those victories bred unhealthy triumphalism among the democracies and an insouciant mood that allowed dangerous and divisive internal social ructions to remain unaddressed until they became destructive. Those attitudes sprang from political and social machinations that had been grinding and churning since the Second World War, and particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. But the widespread perception is that it was 1989 that changed the world, so it is there that this story will begin.
Victoria, British Columbia. May, 2020