One mystery of the first decade of the 21st century is the decline of democracy. It’s not that nations with democratic systems have dwindled in number but that democracy has lost its lustre. It’s an idea without a glow. And that’s worrying.
I said “mystery”. Those who saw something of the blood expended through the 20th century to secure liberal societies must inevitably find democracy’s diminished appeal puzzling. But there are reasons.
While the democratic West fought, a non democratic China grew. It emerged onto the world stage prizing stability, avoiding military adventure and delivering 10 per cent annual growth of which Western democracies could only dream.
China’s “surge” was domestic. It was unencumbered by the paralysing debate of democratic process. When the West’s financial system imploded in 2008, the Chinese response was vigorous. A “Beijing consensus” gained traction.
The borderline between democracy and authoritarianism grew more opaque. The dichotomy between freedom and tyranny suddenly seemed oh-so 20th century. The new authoritarianism of China or Russia was harder to define and therefore harder to confront.
All good things, at the Cold War’s end, were shoveled into the democratic basket: prosperity, growth, peace. When democracy stopped delivering, it suffered. Too little was said about democratic values, including freedom.
Democracies seemed blocked, as in Belgium, or corrupted, as in Israel, or parodies, as in Italy, or paralysed, as in the Netherlands.
There were exceptions, particularly the heady mass movement that brought Barack Obama to power in 2008. But he soon found himself caught in the gridlock of the very partisan shrieking he had vowed to overcome. Less than halfway through his presidency the prospect of legislative paralysis looked overwhelming. The world’s most powerful democracy, its promise so recently renewed, seemed mired once more in its frustrations and divisions.
So what? So what if money trumped democracy and stability trumped open societies for hundreds of millions of people? So what if the rule of law or individual freedom was compromised, the press muzzled, and media-controlling presidents thought they could use “democracy” to rule for life with occasional four-year breaks.
So what if people no longer thought their vote would change anything because politics was for sale? Perhaps liberal democracy, along with its Western cradle, had passed its zenith.
Wrong. It’s important to stanch the anti-democratic tide. Thugs and oppression ride on it.
So I’m grateful to Timothy Garton Ash, in his tribute to Judt in The New York Review of Books, for finding in the words of a 17th-century Englishman, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, a quintessential expression of the democratic idea: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he: and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”
From that utterance in 1647 to Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863 — “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” — is a natural progression. And democracy is still an idea worth the fight.