Saturday, July 13, 2019

Why democracy is in trouble - a different view

For well over a century, the idea of modern democracy as the superior and only legitimate form of government has reigned unchallenged in the English speaking world and must of the rest of the West.  In the second half of the twentieth century, after democracy had defeated Fascism and contained Communism, it also seemed to be spreading around much of the third world as well.  Then came the collapse of Communism and the brief illusion that liberal democracy had swept all before it.

Now, thirty years later, the picture looks very different.  Liberal democracy has failed to take hold in most of eastern Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland.  It has given away to authoritarian rule in Russia and much of the rest of the former USSR, and China is not evolving towards it as well.  Countries such as  Israel, Turkey and India which embraced at least the forms of secular democracy during the 20th century are moving towards religious nationalism.  Countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have elected authoritarian rulers with no respect for democratic norms.  And the two nations that did the most to spread the democratic model, the United States and Great Britain, present pitiful spectacles of paralyzed governments and polarized electorates.   A boisterous demagogue heads the US government and another is poised to take over in Britain as well.  Such movements are also gaining ground in some of the British dominions.  Populists also hold power in Italy, the German government is deeply divided, and France, the only major country in which one party rules, has not lined up behind its government either.  Why has this happened?

Democracy, I would argue, thrived and spread to the extent that it did in the twentieth century for several reasons.  One was the purely intellectual idea of self-government and equal rights, which in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries brought down the idea of privileged orders and hereditary rule in country after country.  That is the idea which so many of our educated classes still cling to, even though its application, in recent decades, has not met the needs of a good many of our citizens.  A second reason--once again, in the second half of the twentieth century--was that the victory of democratic Great Britain and the United States in the Second World War gave democracy a certain world wide legitimacy. (Ironically, in some of the world, the victory of the USSR did the same for Communism.)  But the other reason, the one that we have in my opinion lost sight of, was that democracies had managed to accomplish so much, in so many ways, by mobilizing their society's resources.  Not merely the beauty of their ideals, but also the record of their achievements, inspired confidence.

Many of these accomplishments occurred in the field of international conflict.  The multipolar world of the 19th and early 20th centuries required all major states to maintain large armies and navies.  Young men in every major nation eventually were conscripted in peace as well as in war, until the great turning point of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Yet that was not all.  In those same centuries, the major nations were expanding their rule and influence overseas. The United States in the 1960s went a step further, and sent men to the moon. They were building modern infrastructure for transportation and communication at home.  Many built and maintained public educational systems.  In response to the great economic and political catastrophe of the Great Depression, governments became employers of last resort, and regulated capital markets to stop speculative excesses.  In Europe, where political failure had brought about the catastrophe of the two world wars, the project of a united Europe brought many governments together.    Citizens across the income distribution paid higher taxes, in many cases, than they do today, but many really felt part of critical common enterprises in which they could take genuine pride. 

These conditions, of course, carried dangers of their own with them.  The well-organized industrial states of the first half of the twentieth century fought wars on a new and destructive scale.  In the Second World War, many millions died in death camps, in cities firebombed by aerial bombing, and on the battlefield. The development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatened the complete annihilation of the human race.  A certain uniformity of dress, custom and values prevailed across the industrialized world.  And thus, it seems, a great revolt, led by the generation born in the wake of the Second World War, became inevitable, and burst forth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Its consequences are still with us.

I am not going to try to trace the steady erosion of loyalty and common purpose that has marked the last few decades.  Western governments still play a huge role in their citizens lives, but the nature of that role has changed.  They provide critical financial support for many of their citizens, particularly the elderly, and many of them use taxes to provide health care for their whole population.  But they have allowed globalization to usurp their role as economic planners, and have often failed to cope successfully with its consequences for their people.  Another huge change reflects the behavior of the inhabitants of the industrialized nations.  Their birth rates have fallen very significantly, creating labor shortages that only new waves of immigration could solve.  But without the kind of common enterprises that the twentieth century featured--including great wars--the new immigrants, it seems to me, have had much more trouble assimilating.  In many countries, including the United States, large numbers of them do not even enjoy the right to vote. 

The decline of print media, I think, also plays a role in the decline of democracy.  Modern societies are enormously complex. Understanding them demands a great deal of journalists, who have to bring facts and their significance to the attention of the public, and citizens, who need to devote time and energy to reading and thinking.  Neither television nor social media can fill the gap left by the decline of serious journalism.  Instead, they appeal to tribal and ideological loyalties, and spend many hours on sensational scandals of a kind that older generations tried to keep out of politics.  That is the only reason, it seems to me, that Donald Trump, who so obviously lacks the knowledge and intellectual ability to be President, could have reached the White House.  Too many voters no longer care about those qualities at all.  Another culprit is my own profession of history, which began to conclude, in the wake of Vietnam, that the whole idea of a national history was simply a snare and a delusion designed to keep certain groups in power.  When everyone's individual story becomes equally important, there is no longer room for the larger story that can bind us all.

Our economic inequality has now, it seems to me, become self-sustaining, and I don't expect it to be reversed any time soon.  Yet if our governments cannot increase economic justice, they could still show some capacity to solve problems such as infrastructure and health care that involve us all.  The government could also find a sustainable mix of solutions to the immigration crisis.  Such measures will not make everyone  happy in our fractured landscape, but they could once again make us feel that we share certain common enterprises, and that we can make them succeed.  That, I think, is now the necessary first step to any real renewal of democracy.

4 comments:

JRW said...

If market driven capitalist “democracies” can’t deal with the man made climate crisis, then surely the war between have and have-not nations and regions will make the current refugee crisis look pale by comparison. Democracies have not, as you mentioned, recognized how media changes have fractured any common purpose. The crazies on both sides tell us that the Internet has increased freedom, but it has offered up the easy solution for people who don’t like to reason, learn, and investigate to dwell in their often “fake” reality. The emerging global oligarch class controls more and has no real idea of what will evolve other than perpetuating their power and wealth by seizing even more power. The rich “liberals” still don’t get it and try to put their money in social programs to replace what the right wing oligarchs have dismantled and don’t fund grass roots political action which the Koch’s and the other right wingers have done for the past 70 years.

Bozon said...

Professor
Enjoyable post to read through.

I part ways with it, of course, here and there, as always, but it has a pleasant flow, with nice transitions.

It seems a good piece to tone down for Time.

I think of Time, perhaps I am wrong, as requiring a sort of innocuousness not quite fully struck here, although you come close.

Perhaps it is that it is not ultimately uplifting enough, in a Whiggish way, for a true Time article....For Time, democracy cannot remain for long in trouble.

The idea of progress, also, must perhaps always lurk, it seems to me, behind all momentary bad news, for Time, and your long term cloud covered landscape is not sunny enough soon enough for it.

All the best

Energyflow said...

Liberal ideals seem rooted in individual rights. Taken to its extreme this emphasis goes against the collective at all levels. Nietzsche went to the ultimate extreme in this regard. OTOH collectivism whether religious or communist or nationalist has its own dangers of repression. The liberal ideal in the West is leading to extreme individuualism, discord, identity crises for groups, individuals who have nowhere to turn. In effect the pendulum swings back to collectivism as people need group identity, i.e. collectivism, tribalism to survive. Other countries with more traditional cultures, which you have mentioned have reverted to som form of collectivism, according to their cultures but borrowing Western forms of democracy and market capitalism. Meanwhile the West's insistence on the extremest form of liberalism, individual right as in Citizens United court case or transgendrism while viewing all other traditional cultural expression(male/femaleness, religious morality, ethnic and national identities) as revisionist, backward, dictatorial even is extremely revolutionary and dictatorial in its own right and can only lead to the fall of our culture as a failed experiment. In the subconscious of earler Western generations cultural norms as elsewhere were similar. One might ask for example why Russia, with 15 million muslims, has little problem with them in daily life? Their traditional moral culture, even under communism, now under orthodoxy is essentially the same. Family mores, heterosexuality, collectivist ethnic values are respected. Experimental communism of the first genertion of young leaders ws sexually hippie commune level. Under ex seminary student Stalin this dissipated. Expeiments in China during the Great Leap Forward to separate families were resisted during agricultural collectvization. Pol Pot is still considered essentially insane in method. Our culture has gon further towards the individual aided by technology. Imagine a housewife ca. 1900, monday washdays, Tuesday ironing, all day. Then cook, scrub, shopping, etc. Nowadays microwave ovens, fast foods, easy wear clothing make women like men (no multiple layers, girdles,etc) allowing freedom of public movement unimaginable before. For women this fredom to live alone, earn money ws liberalism, in China, Teheran or New York. Washer dryer, refrigerator, microwave oven. But within we have a need for group identity. We cannot release our innate humanity to automation. When a woman loves to cook, traditional goulash in hungary or an iranian cuisine or peking duck and feel the family togetherness (after a long day of wage work)and satisfaction while their men do male traditionl jobs, fix up the house and play cards, mah jong or chess or similar with male companions why should a planner at the IMF or a Think Tank take umbrage that the men aren't coooking, coke isn't on the menu and people don't speak english at home, and monoethnicity and a standard religion is normal there instead of emotional, moral, sexul and religious smorgasbord. We are biological beings with evolutionary needs which rational, logical theory a la insane Pol Pot expriments cannot eliminate.

Pmathews1939 said...

See also that period in history I call "The Dying Republic Saeculum", with Publius Clodius and his sister mobilizing Rome's "basket of deplorables", who fought it out on the streets with gangsters from the conservative party, led by someone nicknamed Milo. And a crude,vulgar, money-grubber known for his wealth, the one who gave his name to the adjective "crass". Polarization bad enough to deadlock the government, and private fortunes far outweighing the budget of the official government deciding great issues behind said government's back....

Everything old is new again in the same way, in a different way....

Well, I needn't tell the writer of this column that, but the readers might fine it edifying.

Oh, and as for social media of unparalleled nastiness, consider both Rome's graffiti, and on a mire literate plane, the poems of Catullus.