Ed West

Is democracy in danger?

Is democracy in danger?
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Is democracy in danger? This is the belief of a Harvard lecturer called Yascha Mounk whose thesis was profiled in an interesting New York Times piece this week. Mounk began studying the subject after writing a memoir about growing up Jewish in Germany which 'became a broader investigation of how contemporary European nations were struggling to construct new, multicultural national identities'.

As the article points out:

He concluded that the effort was not going very well. A populist backlash was rising. But was that just a new kind of politics, or a symptom of something deeper?

To answer that question, Mr. Mounk teamed up with Roberto Stefan Foa, a political scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. They have since gathered and crunched data on the strength of liberal democracies.

Their conclusion, to be published in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, is that democracies are not as secure as people may think. Right now, Mr. Mounk said in an interview, “the warning signs are flashing red.”

Mr. Mounk and Mr. Foa developed a three-factor formula to answer that question. Mr. Mounk thinks of it as an early-warning system, and it works something like a medical test: a way to detect that a democracy is ill before it develops full-blown symptoms.

The first factor was public support: How important do citizens think it is for their country to remain democratic? The second was public openness to nondemocratic forms of government, such as military rule. And the third factor was whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.

That trend is particularly strong among young people. For instance, in a previously published paper, the researchers calculated that 43 percent of older Americans believed it was illegitimate for the military to take over if the government were incompetent or failing to do its job, but only 19 percent of millennials agreed. The same generational divide showed up in Europe, where 53 percent of older people thought a military takeover would be illegitimate, while only 36 percent of millennials agreed.

In fairness, some people have disagreed with the interpretation here, which apparently only shows declining support for the idea that democracy is the most important thing; otherwise most people still support it.


That doesn't explain all of Mounk's findings, however, and I would say his case is broadly true - that support for democracy is waning in the West, although not yet at critical levels.

One of the reasons many people are sceptical about democracy is because they're right to be. There is a fair amount of research suggesting that people power is not necessarily the best system of government. For example, one paper suggests that 'hereditary monarchs with lots of legal power choose better policy than other systems do, including democracies, non-hereditary dictators, and weak hereditary monarchs, and this is reflected in higher growth.' On top of this there is evidence that democracy does not help economic growth. Most important is the finding 'that institutions and the rule of law matter but democracy doesn't,' a conclusion found in numerous papers.

People tend to credit democracy with lots of good things that preceded it, such as the rule of law, political stability and economic freedom. These are all prerequisites for universal suffrage, rather than products of it; indeed when these things are not present the introduction of a ballot box tends to be tragic.

So if there is declining support for the system, a huge part of it must be down to the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, and the reckless assumption of so many otherwise clever people that democracy would be a good idea in religiously diverse countries with weak if not non-existent civil institutions, low economic development and very strong clan and tribal loyalties.

There is also the problem that democracy requires a demos, and that once countries start to become more diverse, and their university-educated more outward looking (those 'citizens of nowhere'), then people find it harder to accept defeat in democratic elections. Democracy developed in fairly homogenous societies and its record in diverse ones is mixed to say the best; in almost all cases it tends to lead to voting along ethnic lines, as seen last month in America. Trump supporters seemed especially concerned by the message - put about more by the left-wing press - that whites would soon become a minority in America.

There are two recent examples of areas where for reasons of migration and fertility the comfortable majority found itself sliding towards minority status: Lebanon and Northern Ireland. America won't turn out that bad, for a number of reasons, but they aren't exactly happy precedents.

The right has always been somewhat sceptical about democracy, since ingrained in conservatism is the idea of human inequality, but I've noticed in the culture generally there has been a move towards a sort of Ottomanism on the left. This is a belief in multicultural autocracy ruled from above, the explicit aim of which is to oppose the urges of nationalistic majorities, even if this is at the expense of equality, the middle classes and what Americans used to call Republican virtue. The European Union is a case in point.

Ottomanism is a move away from the middle-class nationalism of the 19th century, and a return to the days when the ruling class was far more colour-blind and where women habitually held power in court; where there was a vast gulf between the rulers and the ruled, and bourgeois concerns with corruption and cronyism were of less interest than the monarch's primary function of keeping order among her various peoples. Minority belief systems were also tolerated and even celebrated, as long as they knew their place. Hillary Clinton epitomises this sort Ottomanism while her adversary Donald Trump is the face of its antithesis, populist nationalism.

But I also imagine democracy would be more popular if policy-makers accepted that it was not in itself a good thing, when in so many cases monarchy is a much better system. As Stephen Pollard writes in the latest issue of The Spectator in a rather terrifying piece, Europe faces its next problem when Algeria's dictator dies and the country enters a dangerous vacuum. Are Europe's leaders going to once again insist that yet another country is sacrificed for this principle?

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

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