“Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise.” That is the bleak assessment of a report from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University. Here in the UK, three out of five of us – 60.3% of the voting population – are unhappy with the functioning of our democracy. The last time we saw comparable levels of dissatisfaction with the way we are governed was during the “winter of discontent” in 1978-79.
And there is plenty more bad news where that came from – bad news for democracy across the globe.
In the US, for the first time ever, the majority lack faith in the democratic system. That decline has been rapid and recent. Before the financial crisis, more than three-quarters of Americans were satisfied with US democracy; today more than half (55%) are dissatisfied. Worldwide, 57.5% of citizens in the nations studied indicated they were not satisfied. Back in 2005, that was just 38.7%.
Taken together, these figures amount to what the report’s authors call a “global democratic recession”. The tipping point, they suggest, took place around 2005 and has led now to the “highest level of democratic discontent on record”. What is critical here is that people are growing increasingly dissatisfied not just with their political leaders but with the democratic systems that put them in place. Democracy itself is in trouble.
As with all reports built on deep analysis of large data sets (in this case, 3,500 surveys involving more than 4 million respondents), the picture painted by the researchers is complex and there are multiple factors lying behind falls in levels of satisfaction. But what is not in doubt is that we should be worried. It’s harder, however, to conclude that we have any business being surprised.
In 2005, at the end of Tony Blair’s second term, levels of democratic dissatisfaction in the UK stood at 32.8%, despite the Iraq war. A quick recap of the intervening period between then and now helps explain why that figure today is 60.3% – the past 15 years weren’t exactly liberal democracy’s golden age.
Short-term crises, such as the expenses scandal of 2009, rocked voters’ faith in our political system, but far more corrosive were the deeper, systemic failures. Millions stopped believing that democracy was functioning as it should, because the governments it produced were unable or unwilling to address the great disaster of the age.
When the banks crashed the global economy in 2007-08, it was they who received a bailout while the rest of us got austerity. As vast reservoirs of wealth were concentrated in the hands of the 1%, governments here and abroad not only tolerated growing inequality, they accelerated it through tax cuts both for the rich and for the companies they owned. Democratically elected governments meekly requesting giant corporations to pay pitifully low levels of tax on their enormous profits is not a good look.
When liberal democratic governments refuse or are incapable of bringing about change, voters seek out populist parties and charismatic leaders who promise to tear up the rules and bring about real transformation.
Donald Trump did not cause America’s democratic crisis of faith, he rode to power on it. Once in control, he and other populists discovered their room for manoeuvre was expanded by the same disillusionment that helped them into office. The trashing of democratic norms and the abuse of institutions such as the judiciary and the press was made possible by the delegitimisation of democratic systems.
As Dr Roberto Foa, one of the co-authors of the Cambridge report, states: “Without this weakening legitimacy, it would be unthinkable for a US presidential candidate to denounce American democracy as rigged, or for the winning presidential candidate in Latin America’s largest democracy to openly entertain nostalgia for military rule.” Such statements further undermine faith in democracy, creating a feedback loop.
In 2016, after Trump’s election, Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, suddenly surged into the Amazon bestseller list. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four enjoyed a comparable spike in sales. Readers turned to those books – one written just before the Second World War, the other just after – to look for points of similarity between the politics of the early 21st century and that of Europe in the 1920s and 30s. One often overlooked commonality is that the political crisis of the interwar years and that of our own times followed periods of complacent overconfidence in the health of democracy.
In the years after the First World War, a conflict from which several new republics emerged, historians and political philosophers trumpeted the seemingly unstoppable rise of liberal democracy. In 1921, the British historian James Bryce claimed that democracy had become the “normal and natural form of government”. Seventy years later, at the end of the cold war, Francis Fukuyama suggested that liberal democracy had become “the final form of human government”; a transition that represented what he called “the end of history”. Both claims were overtaken by events; fascism in the 1920s, populism today.
In the 1920s and 30s, the failure of democratic governments to deal with the suffering caused by another financial crash meant that even before the totalitarian challenge arrived millions had lost faith in democracy.
History suggests that the disillusioned and the disaffected do not readily take to the streets nor man the barricades to defend a system that failed to defend them.
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster.