The fading light of liberal democracy

“For the first time this century, among countries with over a million inhabitants, there are now fewer democracies than undemocratic regimes.” This sobering sentence is by Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash in an essay on “The future of liberalism”. The observation reflects what Stanford University Larry Diamond describes the “democratic recession”. The election of Joe Biden as President of the United States is a relief. But this story is not yet over.

To understand what is going on, you have to link politics to economics. Branko Milanovic, an expert on inequalities, did so by Capitalism alone, published last year. Capitalism has triumphed, he argues. He is right: the market economy is indeed triumphant. But, he adds, capitalist economies go hand in hand with two distinct political systems in dominant economies: the “liberal” model of the United States and its allies, which preoccupies MM. Garton Ash and Diamond, and China’s “political” model.

Mr Milanovic rightly argues that liberal democracy is a good in itself and also allows for peaceful self-correction. People want freedom and American voters got rid of Donald Trump. The Chinese cannot do the same with President Xi Jinping. The “political capitalism” argument is instrumental: it works. The rise of China has indeed been extraordinary. Many have noticed it too. A recent survey of the Pew Research Center shows that many more Europeans now think China is the main economy than the United States think, although the Japanese and South Koreans disagree.

Mr. Milanovic’s dichotomy is useful but simplistic. A third political version of capitalism exists: demagogic authoritarian capitalism. It can come from a collapsed communism, as in today’s Russia, or from a weakened democracy, as in Brazil or Turkey. Demagogic authoritarian capitalism is a hybrid. As in the Chinese system of bureaucratic authoritarian capitalism, the ruler is above the law and democratically irresponsible – the elections are a sham. But power is personal, not institutionalized. This is the politics of corrupt gangsters. It relies on the personal loyalty of sycophants and cronies. Often, the core consists of family members who are considered the most trustworthy of all. This is the political system that Mr. Trump wanted to install in the United States.

Such leaders are like wasp larvae that eat the spider from within. They manage to win an election and then erode the institutional and political ramparts against an undefined personal regime. Mr. Trump has all the relevant characteristics: truth is what he says it is; a fair election is one he wins; and a good public servant is one who is loyal. He wants to be an autocrat. It’s different from saying he wants to rule. Nero was also not very interested in ruling. But he was definitely tyrannical.

The vast majority of citizens of allied countries view the way the United States has handled Covid-19 negatively.  Graph showing the percentage of respondents who say the United States has done a very bad, somewhat bad, or very / fairly good job in the face of the coronavirus outbreak

The events in the United States have shown two crucial things. First, major American institutions, including the courts, resisted his efforts to overturn the elections. Second, a huge proportion of the Republican Party encouraged its lie that the election was rigged. It underscored another reality of the past four years: the Republican leadership has shown absolute obedience to its leader, almost to the last breath.

It is not a coincidence. It is the logical outcome of the political and economic strategy of the “pluto-populist”. Mr. Trump is a natural result of the strategic goal of the donor class – tax cuts and deregulation. To achieve this, they must convince a large part of the population to vote against their economic interests with an emphasis on culture and identity. This strategy has worked and will continue to work: Mr. Trump may be gone; Trumpism did not. Not quite different patterns can be seen in Brexit in Britain. The emphasis placed by the left-wing university graduate on her form of identity politics plays into the hands of her right-wing counterpart.

Citizens of close allies have become more skeptical of the United States.  Graph showing the percentage of people with a favorable opinion of the United States

Mr. Biden is an honest man. What he wants to do nationally and internationally makes perfect sense. But he will face an opposition determined to make him fail. Indeed, defeating the government is at the heart of right-wing politics – it and stoking grassroots rage. You have to be blind not to see where this is leading. Donors would not be the first rich and powerful to believe, mistakenly, that they can control the demagogic demons they have helped to create.

The United States is seen less and less as a bastion of freedom.  Graph showing the percentage of people who report that the United States respects the personal freedoms of its people

As the Pew Inquiry shows, the reality of Mr. Trump’s United States has eroded the world’s confidence in his competence and decency. Mr. Biden will have a hard time regaining that trust, not because people don’t believe in him, but because they don’t believe in his country. And, with the future of the United States as a liberal democracy still uncertain, the cause remains in grave trouble around the world.

Liberal democracy has one big advantage: its main opponent. As Samantha Power of Harvard notes, China’s approval rating in Gallup polls is a median of 32% among more than 130 countries. He has hardly moved in 10 years. People respect China, but don’t like it. China also faces the challenge of sustaining economic dynamism without a credible rule of law.

Under Trump, right-wing foreigners view the United States more favorably.  Graph showing the percentage of respondents who have a favorable opinion of the United States

None of today’s dominant systems work well. Capitalism is innovative, but creates enormous social, political and environmental challenges. Liberal democracy is eaten away, to its very essence. But the authoritarian policies that challenge him are much worse. The unwarranted rule of brutal gangsters or bureaucrats is deeply depressing, even if the latter are far less incompetent. Those of us who continue to believe in freedom and democracy hope Mr. Trump was the warning we all needed. But I doubt it. There is no one as blind as the selfish rich who will not see.

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Letters in response to this column:

Am I spying on a convert to neo-Marxist liberalism? / By Geoffrey Roberts Emeritus, Professor of History, University College Cork, Ireland

Brexit may be stupid but it was not wasted/By Sir Anthony Brenton, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK

Nero’s reign must not be reduced to its tyranny / By John Gerson, Visiting Professor, The Policy Institute, King’s College, London WC2, United Kingdom



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