• The Threat to Democracy

    It should have come as no surprise that President Joe Biden recently hosted an online gathering of world leaders to consider the present state of democracy worldwide; our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, made a significant contribution to the discussion, proclaiming that democracy was an essential element in New Zealand’s identity.

    President Biden’s initiative came at a time when it cannot be denied that democracy across the globe is under threat – a threat that is most obvious, not just in those countries where it has never really existed, but also where it has been long established.

    It was Winston Churchill who said “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” Like so many of Churchill’s aphorisms, it encapsulates an important truth; democracy is not, and cannot be, perfect, but – with all its failings and imperfections – it still offers us the best option available. The most persuasive witnesses to that truth are those who are denied democracy.

    But why did President Biden choose this moment to ask his question? What did he see that gave him grounds for concern?

    The most obvious answer to that question is that his own country is arguably the leading example of one whose democracy has suffered, and continues to suffer, a significant challenge to both its efficacy and legitimacy. President Donald Trump’s term of office witnessed many instances of the undemocratic exercise of power, culminating in what (as has now become obvious) was a serious attempt to negate the outcome of a democratic election and to retain power by means of a coup.

    The worrying aspect of this sad episode is not the monomania of an elected President but the emergence of a large body of American voters who saw and continue to see nothing wrong in his attempt to subvert the constitution and to defy the popular will.

    Even more worrying is the readiness of voters in other democratic countries (including New Zealand) to be similarly cavalier in their disregard of democratic norms. The origins of this malaise can be readily located in Trump’s America, but its manifestations in other countries – while owing much to the American model – are undoubtedly home-grown.

    The worldwide growth in undemocratic and anti-democratic sentiment is characterised by a number of shared features. There is a sense of outrage that power can be exercised by those with whom the objectors disagree; there is an emphasis on the rights (some say “sovereignty”) of the individual and a distrust of public “authority”, whatever form it takes; there is a denial (echoing Margaret Thatcher), that “there is any such thing as society”; there is a claim to the priority of one’s own rights over those of others, and a hostility to those whose views, values, characteristics allow them to be identified as “different”; there is the appropriation of terms like “libertarian” so that what would otherwise be seen as anti-minority prejudice can be cast in a more favourable light; at its simplest, it is merely a power grab by one group which feels itself to have been wrongly disempowered by another body of opinion.

    It is relatively easy to characterise these attitudes as “right-wing” (and, in their most extreme form, as “fascist); the justification for doing so is that they are marked by an attachment to traditional right-wing values like authority, discipline, order, “knowing one’s place” and status, all enhanced by the typically fascist sense of victimisation and loss of power.

    What President Biden was presumably trying to do was to alert other democratic leaders to the challenges that democracy now faces, even in countries where democracy has been well and long established. He was right to do so.

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