I have been arguing for some time that liberalism, and with it democracy, are under stress. I see the stressors coming from two directions:
- From autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping; and
- From populists ~ Donald J Trump being their frontman.
But Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in Foreign Affairs, says that “What the world is witnessing is less a crisis of democracy than a broader crisis of governance. The likely result is increased political flux across all types of political systems. Regardless of what kind of regime they lead, only those leaders who get serious about responsiveness and accountability will survive; those who don’t will see their grasps falter.“
I believe, maybe I just hope, that we are seeing the first signs of this all around the world. The Brexit, for example, it seems to me, is a quite natural, human response to what ordinary British people saw as an increasingly unresponsive and unaccountable European superstructure. I suspect there are, already, similar, but much weaker, stirrings, in China, too. We can see them, at full volume, in America as the election seasons gets into high gear: almost half of Americans want a change in direction ~ and another large faction wants to change, too, but in the opposite, more nationalist and isolationist direction.
Thomas Carothers argues that “Just like their peers in free countries, many citizens in nondemocracies are deeply frustrated with their political systems and have in the last several years been acting on that unhappiness by challenging those in power. The central political dynamic of the current moment is thus not the gradual eclipsing of democracy by authoritarianism. It is, rather, the growing difficulty of political elites in all types of regimes to satisfy the demands of their citizens.” I think that applies, equally to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin and others on the authoritarian end of the spectrum …
… and, equally, to democratic leaders, of varying stripes, on the more or less liberal end …
… they, and aspiring leaders, too …
… all face the same problems: how to balance what the peoples (the plural matters, as always) need and want with what they believe is right and proper to promise.
The information age has given people unprecedented access to opinions, and not even the “great firewall of China” can totally deny that access. One can, and I would argue that radio and TV had as much to do with tearing down the Berlin wall as did communist mismanagement of the socio-economic systems. People in Eastern Europe took risks (as did millions of people in communist China) to listen to the BBC World Service and Voice of America and son on and to watch West German and Swedish TV and they could see and hear that things were better in the free (liberal and democratic) and capitalist West than they were in their own homelands under Soviet Russian domination. The internet is making things even more exciting … if not, always, more informative.
Leaders, even Donald J Trump, Justin Trudeau and Peter MacKay, cannot rely solely on tired political bromides like “Make America Great Again” or “Sunny Ways” to gain or retain popular support. They need to address the real, Main Street, pocketbook issues that bedevil the lower-middle and working classes and, especially, the ever-expanding precariat which is ripe for the populist picking. But the same applies to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. The world, but especially America, Asia, Canada and Europe, needs new, moderate leaders who are not driven by envy or anger. It needs leaders who can unite rather than to divide and then further sub-divide. It needs leaders who can and will tell the people the often difficult truth rather peddle easy solutions to problems that sometimes don’t even exist.