Populism: democratic part of liberal democracy ‘taking revenge’ on liberal part


British Prime Minister Theresa May today blamed complacent mainstream politicians, unscrupulous business people, social media and globalization for a breakdown in 21st century society and the rise of populist parties, The Financial Times reports:

She said extremist parties were exploiting “divisions and despair” and committed herself to helping families who were “getting by but not necessarily getting on”, saying their concerns had been ignored for too long. Referring to the rise in populist parties, she said: “They stand on the shoulders of mainstream politicians who have allowed unfairness and division to grow by ignoring the legitimate concerns of ordinary people for too long.”

But she also said the public had become disenchanted by business leaders who appeared to “game the system” and said the rise of social media and the “cult of individualism” had broken traditional community bonds.

Since 1989 elites in the west have come to believe in the “end of history” narrative, according to which liberal democracy and free market capitalism have won over all rival social systems, and the world is therefore bound to become a global community managed through free markets and democratic politics, notes Yuval Noah Harari, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’. Pockets of heresy may endure — but, because they will suffer from poverty and violence, they will eventually see the light, open their borders, and liberalise their markets and politics, he writes for The FT:

However, since the global financial crisis of 2008 people all over the world have lost faith in the liberal recipe, and in 2016 even voters in the UK and the US rejected it. No wonder western elites feel disorientated. A bit like the Soviet elite in the 1980s, they do not understand how history deviated from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism to interpret reality.

A global shift toward populist nationalism, encompassing Brexit and the rise of right-wing anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties across Europe, are a delayed popular reaction to globalisation, and the economic and cultural dislocations that it has wrought in the name of a freedom that doesn’t stop at the border, notes Stanford University’s Francis Fukuyama, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “If this trend continues elsewhere in the world we will be in for a very rough time of competing and angry nationalisms,” he writes for Prospect (UK).

In 2017 we enter a period of geopolitical recession, Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan argue in Top Risks 2017: The Geopolitical Recession:

This year marks the most volatile political risk environment in the postwar period, at least as important to global markets as the economic recession of 2008. It needn’t develop into a geopolitical depression that triggers major interstate military conflict and/or the breakdown of major central government institutions. But such an outcome is now thinkable, a tail risk from the weakening of international security and economic architecture and deepening mistrust among the world’s most powerful governments.

“The shift is greatest on values,” they contend, as the US “renounces exceptionalism, the notion that the US actively promotes democracy, civil rights, and rule of law.”

America may be the first great power in history to deliberately share its wealth and nurture more open and stronger democratic partners, the first ever to turn the core Enlightenment idea of a non-zero-sum order into a grand strategy, notes Henry R. Nau, professor of political science at George Washington University.

“It is an internationalist form of nationalism that is hard to understand in traditional terms. Can anyone imagine today’s open global order under the auspices of German, French, Japanese, Russian, or even British nationalism?”he writes for The American Interest:

Our allies today are much stronger than they were in early Cold War times; they can pay more for their own defense and invest more in their own prosperity, and their successes in democracy and security attest to the long-term success of an American nationalism of internationalism. So imagine a world by the end of this century that includes a somewhat more liberalized, pluralist Russia, China, and Iran. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but remember how far-fetched today’s world seemed in 1916, or even in 1966.

“If we stick to our still-revolutionary liberal republican ideals, America will continue to shape the world, not with military power, but as always with the power of its ideas,” Nau contends. RTWT

The big threat facing western societies today is not so much the emergence of illiberal democracy abroad as the persistence of immature democracy at home, argues Evgeny Morozov, the author of the Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. This immaturity, exhibited almost daily by the elites, manifests itself in two types of denial: the denial of the economic origins of most of today’s problems; and the denial of the profound corruption of professional expertise, he writes for The Guardian:

  • The first type manifests itself whenever phenomena like Brexit or Donald Trump’s electoral success are ascribed primarily to cultural factors such as racism or voter ignorance.
  • The second type denies that the immense frustration many people feel towards existing institutions stems not from their not knowing the whole truth about how they operate but, rather, from knowing it all too well.

“For years, the liberal order has been under strain. Perhaps most obvious, there has been a lack of progress in the development of institutions and legal instruments,” argues Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank. “In short, we have been trying to fit the round pegs of twenty-first-century global power into the square holes of post-World War II institutions.”

“A better approach would aim to boost the representation of emerging economies in existing institutions,” she writes for Project Syndicate. “It would also seek to incorporate more non-state actors, both civil-society organizations and business representatives, into international decision-making processes.”

Technocracy vs. democracy?

The combination of Brexit and Trump has made 2016 the year when the hegemony of Western political thought finally crumbled, argues Parag Khanna, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Every country is now in the same race, not to emulate America but to deliver security and welfare to its population by whatever means necessary, he writes for The South China Morning Post.

In this new competition, rigorous technocratic approaches will prove superior to haphazard democratic cycles. Winners and losers in the 21st century will be determined not by hewing to a Western political arc but through rigorous technocratic learning and adaptation, adds Khanna, the author of Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization and Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State, from which this article is adapted:

Because Asian societies are modernising, they will evolve towards better governance that balances political openness with goal-oriented technocracy. But there’s no way they want to wind up as the divided societies they once were and that Western nations have become. As far as Asians are concerned, for democracy to be taken seriously, it has to deliver.

Can liberalism reinvent itself?

Whereas in previous crises in the 1930s and 1960s liberal beliefs were challenged by the rival ideologies of fascism and communism, today there are no real challengers, Harari adds:

For all the disillusionment with liberal democracy and free markets, nobody has yet formulated an alternative vision that enjoys any kind of global appeal. Russian president Vladimir Putin is not Stalin — he has no ideology that might attract unemployed Greeks, disgruntled Mexicans or starry-eyed students in Cambridge. Isis has even less appeal to anyone outside the lunatic fringes. In the absence of alternative global ideologies, then, there is less chance of global ideological warfare. Instead, the coming years might well be characterised by intense soul-searching and by attempts to formulate new social and political visions.

“Indeed, liberalism might yet reinvent itself, just as it did in the wake of the crises of the 1930s and 1960s, emerging more attractive than ever before,” he suggests. RTWT

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