Tuesday 17th of September 2019

democracy in tatters...


Democracy (rule by the people), and specifically liberal democracy (democracy with individual rights and freedoms protected), is a central and precious part of our heritage. But now, in Britain and around the world, it is in danger. Political philosophers, social scientists and psychologists are considering how and why, and whether they can and should do more.

The first danger to democracy, evident for decades, is that it is at risk of withering as voter turnout at general elections in many countries declines, from 84 per cent in Britain in 1950 to 66 per cent in 2015. Secondly, and probably partly responsible for this, there has been a 30-year decline in trust in government (Jennings et al., 2016). An Ipsos MORI poll published in January 2016 found that only 21 per cent of Britons trust politicians to tell the truth, far behind doctors (89 per cent) and teachers (86 per cent). A recent European survey, reported in David van Reybrouck’s Against Elections: The Case for Democracy found similar results.

A third threat is growing political ignorance. Effective democracy requires that people know what they are voting for, but increasingly news is obtained from social media, where personalised newsfeeds reinforce the reader’s worldview. Extensive (American) survey data (Achen & Bartels, 2016) show that political ignorance is widespread, and voters are generally swayed by the last six months, typically rewarding or punishing politicians for events over which they have probably had little or no control. The quality of political discourse is increasingly detached from both reason (logical coherence) and reasonableness (avoiding accusations, tolerating irreconcilable differences and crediting opponents with good faith (Rawls, 2005). Around the world reasonable discussion is being replaced by post-truth politics and populism, where truth and consistency are unimportant, debate is increasingly personal, and a simplified world is portrayed, with a virtuous and homogeneous ‘us’ against an elite or alien ‘other’ (see Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason). Pluralism – accepting and respecting other perspectives – is a casualty.

Other kinds of behaviour, especially, but not only, in America, are breaking ‘the guardrails of democracy’ (Frum, 2016). These are conventions previously accepted by politicians of all parties but now increasingly abandoned: the pursuit of some vision of a common good, trustworthiness, knowledge of public affairs, adherence to some principles, accepting the primacy of national security, tolerance, and respect for political opponents. In Britain and America the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the democratic process have recently been directly challenged by news media and senior politicians. And there are widening political divisions: in Britain during the Brexit debate, and even more so in America where the breadth of the cross-party divisions has in recent years led to repeated government paralysis.

The final threat is external: growing global insecurity. Political sluggishness and sometimes paralysis through widening divisions in parliaments means that democratic governments lose both popular legitimacy and efficiency. While Western democracies disagree within and between their parliaments, Russia and China are efficiently decisive, claiming new status and territory, and challenging the current world order. Alongside this there are external and internal threats posed by radical Islamist groups and the rise of the far right in many countries.

In summary, democracy faces dangers that are passive and active, internal and external, and together they place its future in danger. How has this situation arisen?

To begin with detachment from politics, surveys (Jennings et al., 2016) show that the strongest underlying factor is the perceived flawed character of politicians, and in particular their fixation with headlines and protecting their own interests and those of the rich and powerful. Detachment in turn is a likely main cause of voter ignorance. Changes in the style of political behaviour – the rise of post-truth politics and populism – seem part of a wider retreat from reason, illustrated during the Brexit campaign by Michael Gove announcing that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. The changes in political discourse also reveal the weakening of a shared moral basis for politics. This is surely the significance of the breaking of the guardrails of democracy, and reflects what American political philosopher Michael Sandel calls ‘the moral vacancy of contemporary politics’. Sandel links this to ‘market triumphalism’; the extension of the market mechanism and market values into more and more spheres – moving from having a market economy to being a market society. Everything must be ncreased prosperity for one group or another.

Widening political divisions have frequently been linked to growing economic inequality. In Capital in the Twenty First Century, Thomas Piketty presents a vast amount of evidence in support of his account of the economic processes fuelling inequality, and argues that social and economic instability is likely to worsen further, eventually threatening the democratic order. Internationally, as austerity remains the chief remedy for government budget deficits, the poorest are most affected, so inequality increases further. Piketty’s warnings are supported by extensive international data presented in books such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality, showing a strong relationship between inequality and various measures of mental and physical health, personal and social wellbeing, and (most relevant here) trust, social cohesion and political stability. More widely, economic hardship has historically been thought to prompt the rise of the far right; and the effective humiliation of Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 is surely a major reason for the actions and popularity of a nationalist president now bestriding the world and claiming influence and territory.

We turn next to the mechanisms through which these social changes result in dangers to democracy.


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threatening peace, truth and equality...

By abruptly revoking the special, constitutionally protected status of Jammu and Kashmir, India has become the latest major democracy to act against a minority community for short-term political popularity. Kashmir will henceforth be ruled more directly from the government in New Delhi, and Hindu nationalists are thrilled. Carefully maintained constitutional arrangements are in tatters.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has committed to leaving the European Union with or without a ‘backstop’ protecting the border arrangements between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. His hardline position ignores the concerns of Northern Irish constituents entirely. It is geared toward rallying his pro-Brexit English base, even if that means threatening the fragile peace and prosperity in Ireland.

In another of the world’s great democracies, President Donald Trump has upendedAmerica’s relationship with Mexico and other Central American neighbours and rallied his base by repeatedly demonising Hispanics. The US Hispanic community is now paying a harsh price for such rhetoric, as evidenced by the massacre in El Paso, Texas, this month.

The shredding of longstanding protections for minority communities is part of a wider trend in democracies around the world. Three worrying features stand out. First, politicians are imperilling the ‘public square’, and the ability of citizens to argue, demonstrate and debate without the threat of violence. Political leaders are deepening social divisions by pitting an ‘us’ against a ‘them’ that includes foreigners, neighbours, immigrants, minorities, the press, ‘experts’, and ‘the elite’.

In India, rights groups have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party of creating a ‘climate of impunity’ for angry mobs. In America, many believe Trump is doing the same, pointing, for example, to his racist tweets targeting four Democratic congresswomen of colour. During the Brexit referendum campaign in the UK, Facebook users were targeted with posts suggesting that staying in the EU would leave Britain vulnerable to receiving 76 million Turkish immigrants. One leave campaign ad showed a surly foreign man elbowing a tearful elderly white woman out of a hospital queue. A recent survey suggests that there has been a disturbing increase in racially motivated abuse, discrimination and attacks against ethnic-minority Britons.

Second, having won power through democratic elections, these leaders are seeking to weaken independent institutions and checks on executive power. For example, Trump invoked national-emergency powers to secure funding for his wall on the US border with Mexico. Johnson refuses to rule out suspending parliament in order to deliver Brexit, while his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, describes Britain’s permanent civil service as an ‘idea for the history books’. In India, a fellow BJP member has accused Modi’s government of ‘decimating’ India’s constitutional institutions, including the supreme court, the national investigative agency, the central bank and the electoral commission.

Abusing emergency powers or executive orders, sidelining parliament and government agencies, and weakening judicial independence and the ‘referees’ that ensure political leaders play by the rules make it more likely that government decisions will not balance the interests of all citizens. These attacks on the independence of institutions leave minorities particularly vulnerable.

Finally, there is a risk that political power in the world’s democracies is becoming more personalised. Patronage, personal influence and favours are being used to create loyalty to the leader, and those who fall out of favour are being bullied from office or arbitrarily fired. Political leaders are also making ever-bolder attempts to cow the media and business community into silence, or to co-opt them by offering special privileges.


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... "into silence, or to co-opt them by offering special privileges." — OR BLACKMAIL through SEX



the united states of niccolò machiavelli: sub realismi cuiusdam politici…



Toon at top by David Rowe, the best amongst the best cartoonists...


Australia has become the complacent country. Complacent about its future economic competitiveness. Complacent about climate change. Complacent about how to navigate our future in the region given China’s rise, America’s response and a neighbourhood increasingly torn between the two. Complacent too about the gradual erosion of our democracy itself through a growing “pay for play” culture from financial donations to political parties, an increasing assault on the independence of the public service and the abuse of monopolistic media power.


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