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In-built checks protect against the flaws of Western-style democracies

By Harvey Morris | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-10-09 09:45
The White House in Washington [Photo/IC]

In the United States, a president faces impeachment for allegedly conspiring with a foreign government and in the United Kingdom the highest court in the land has ruled a prime minister acted unlawfully by suspending Parliament.

The modern world's two oldest democracies appear to be undergoing a collective nervous breakdown just at a time when global challenges such as climate change are piling up on the international agenda.

The turmoil has not been confined to the Anglosphere. France's Emmanuel Macron is facing a revival of the gilet jaunes protests by those who believe their lives are being overlooked by an overweening elite.

The apparent cracks in the facade of Western democracy have generated a wave of soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic, with political scientists-and the not so scientific-offering competing analyses on what went wrong.

The current Amazon US top 10 books list tells its own story. Topped by Timothy Snyder's Tyranny, a history of totalitarianism in the 20th century, it also includes two titles on the saga of US President Donald Trump including: Exonerated: The Failed Takedown of President Donald Trump by the Swamp. It is pretty clear in advance what position that one takes.

In the UK, it is something of a comfort that For the Record, the memoir of former prime minister David Cameron, who got the country into its current mess with an ill-thought-out Brexit referendum in 2016, is struggling in the number 18 spot.

The US media carry regular updates from psychologists and psychiatrists diagnosing the state of Trump's mental health, while in the UK the newspapers headline the latest examples of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's alleged dishonesty or moral turpitude.

Among the questions being posed these days, to borrow the soul-searching titles of a recent batch of publications, are: Can Democracy Survive in the Digital Age? and Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? David Runciman, author of How Democracy Ends might appear to have already made up his mind.

Elected, representative democracy is only one method of governance devised over the millennia of human history. It is a relatively recent one at that.

And even those who embrace it acknowledge its shortcomings: regular elections can lead to short-termism among political decisionmakers, while the two-party system that prevails in the US and UK tends to silence alternative voices.

Given the challenges facing those countries, has modern democracy had its day, as some Western political scientists now appear to suggest?

At the outset, it is worth recalling that the system has faced worse challenges in the past. German democracy crumbled in the 1930s to be replaced by the totalitarianism of the Nazis who then overran the democracies of much of Europe.

Runciman insists that Europe is not reliving that bleak first half of the 20th century. But he acknowledges that there is widespread disgust these days with democratic politics.

The reasons are not hard to find. Declining incomes and a widening income gap, the pernicious rise of fake news, conspiracy theories and online trolling, and a general perception that politicians are out for themselves, have contributed to the contemporary malaise.

Runciman's view, however, is that Western democracies are confronting a mid-life crisis rather than their demise. He warns, however, that a key, underlying failure of the system is its inability to tackle fundamental underlying problems in society.

Politicians who think only as far as the next election are not very good at addressing existential threats facing the whole of humanity, notably climate change. Thinking about the end of the world, according to the author, "is too much for democracy to cope with".

The conclusion of Runciman and other analysts is that democracy will have to adapt if the system is to survive. Not all innovations will restore harmony, as Cameron's decision to solve a political conundrum with a yes-no UK plebiscite in 2016 starkly illustrates.

The current challenges facing Western-style democracy have clearly dented the post-Cold War ambitions of those who sought to promote it as a one-size-fits-all solution to global governance.

However, as a model for North America and Europe, no one has come up with a satisfactory alternative yet.

Supporters of Western-style democracy could argue that, both in the US and the UK, the system is actually working by allowing elected legislatures to protect voters from the actions of executives such as Trump and Johnson.

The Anglosphere is likely to recover from its current nervous breakdown. Checks and balances within the democratic system still have the capacity to check the machinations of those who seek to skirt the rules-or else replace them.

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