Monday, 24 October 2016

Is western-style democracy in trouble?


Democracy doesn't always look all that much fun at the moment, does it? You put up a few mild opinions, you get back some alt-left or alt-right links from The Canary or Breitbart full of plot twists and ways of speaking that you'd never heard before you stumbled into that particular echo chamber. You post a link on Twitter. An anonymous egg of a profile pops up to call you a 'traitor' or a 'disgrace'. It's enough to make most middle-of-the-road citizens, without much to lose from the online shouting match, just give up on the effort to engage altogether.

There's also much worse out there - more structural signs of deep dysfunction that ought to be giving us all even more concern than the social media filtering bubbles to which the symptoms of decline are linked. The amount of rage directed at journalists, either asked to 'name their sources' (when doing just that might endanger sources, or indeed the ability to get a story out at all), or verbally abused, or continuously menaced in some very dark and bleak scenarios indeed. There's the number of people on the Left who are prepared to turn a blind eye to the deeds of the Assad regime and their Russian allies in Aleppo. There's Right-wingers who are happy to use Wikileaks to damage Hilary Clinton's presidential bid in the US, despite the fact that their source is so obviously now an arm of Russian power. All just to prove a point: to win a poisonous game of ins-and-outs, party-versus-party, that matters much less, in the long run, than just holding together as societies and polities.

Western societies are becoming very divided. It would be easy and cheap to say that this is linked to income inequality and increasing economic polarisation, though there's clearly something much more general happening than this. Our splintering - and fury - appear to be affecting countries that indeed have seen a huge recent surge in inequality (the United States), and those that have not, at least since the 1980s (the United Kingdom). Yes, one key to the Brexit vote in the UK was the poor services and bleak economic state of much of non-metropolitan England and Wales. But it wasn't the only reason, as votes from quite wealthy areas which nonetheless feel culturally alienated from metropolitan internationalism (North Surrey, Kent) demonstrate all too well.

It's partly the flows of hate that can coarse through the body politic via Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, 'I read it on Facebook' might one day be seen as the five words that became the epitaph of civilised, reasoned argument. All that allows stories that might not be quite what they seem to take wing very quickly. It allows parties to be taken over by small minorities of the population - as micro-level organisation and the ownership of mailing lists become political gold. The flow of unfiltered information is altering the very nature of democracy itself.

But it's deeper than that, too. Education is emerging as one of the key dividing lines in modern politics. It was there in the Brexit campaign. It's there now, perhaps even more clearly, in the battle between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump (above). It basically pits one entire world-view - outward looking, conceptual, liberal, confident, socially tolerant - against another: autarkic, concrete, conservative, fearful, concerned. As change speeds up, rather than slows down, this seems likely to become an ever-deeper trench dug across the national landscape.

There's so much more to this - the subject of a series of blogs, perhaps, rather than a once-and-for-all entry - but polarisation is wherever you look. It's there in the urban-versus-rural divide we saw in the EU independence referendum, and once again we can see it laid bare in the present US Presidential election. What will it be: bikes and metro? Or: cars and buses? Coffee shops, or cafes? Parks, or gardens? Low-carb, and low-carbon, or high-fat, and big wheels? All of that seems much more important than the traditional story woven around tax and spending. It's all about ways of thinking, seeing and speaking - not about policy, objective winners and losers, or set off-the-peg ideologies. That's why it seems so bewildering to many insiders. That's why it all changes so quickly. That's why we don't seem to have as many collective reference points or shared ground anymore. That's what's behind the age of political fury.

Still, as any historian should tell you, democracy's run into trouble before. Economic populism and protection swept the world in the late nineteenth century. It was fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s to talk about the aridity of British politics, frozen into two huge blocs of social class alone, and thus unable to adapt to the modern world. Between the wars, as economic crisis after economic crisis smashed into one another, there was much talk in Western Europe and North America of 'expert government', autocracy and scientific management - all in the place of what Parliament and Congress had been wont to do. Across most of the fascist and communist world, there was much cod-philosophical and pseudo-religious talk about the end of history - as organic, determined, historically-validated and above all inevitable rules replaced the merely bourgeois periodic choice of different faces to run the status quo. By June 1940, those self-destructive ideologies had basically carried all before them. That was a far greater crisis than that we face now.

That example actually tells us a lot about human agency. Faced with Depression and fascism, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill were able to fuse very different personal views into new politics: on the part of the first, a New Deal economics that brought hope and a sense of national purpose, whatever its controversial contribution to actual recovery; and for Churchill, a mystical romantic patriotism that drew on Britons' deep sense of national mission and exceptionalism.

Democracy's ever-adaptive synapses may perform the same function again, without the need for such a crisis to speed up the process of adjustment. Somewhere, there's probably a programmer with a good alternative to the social media algorithms that point us in the main to opinions we're already going to like. One day, Putinism's appeal to Left and Right will be seen as the tawdry opportunism it really is. The ranks of American Republicans probably contain a socially liberal Justin Trudeau type, who will march his or her party back towards Reaganesque optimism and the sunny uplands of the world as it is, not as it seems in the fevered imagination of alt-right conspiracies. British Labour will one day find new ideas, fusing together social justice and economic efficiency as did the New Liberals when they read Hobson and Hobhouse, or when Harold Wilson began to promote the application of science and technology as the way to a better society. And so on.

So, yes, 'western' democracy is labouring low indeed in the water - for now. Its challengers, both internal and external, are strong, confident, loud and well-organised. They have the wind at their backs. But representative democracy, the rule of law and the liberal public sphere have met and surmounted much greater challenges. It would be very, very foolish indeed to bet against them doing so again.

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