“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.”*

* Robert Kennedy, Jnr.

The general tone of blogs published through LinkedIn tends to be optimistic, providing aspirational or uplifting stories to motivate and engage.  Therefore, it is slightly worrying to put pen to paper to discuss a trend caused by widespread disappointment.   But, according to Martin Wolf and Anne Applebaum in a recent podcast in the FT,[i]Saving democratic capitalism: resisting autocracy”, disappointment lies at the heart of the worrying trend of the growth of autocratic leaders and diminishment of democracy. 

As someone increasingly disillusioned with politics and politicians, I wondered what was behind the podcast.  While I can thoroughly recommend it, the authors’ sombre message gave a worrying outlook (link in the endnote).  They discussed the simultaneous movements of increased rise in autocracies and the degradation of established democracies.   They cited countries such as Turkey, India, Hungary, and Poland regarding expanded autocratic rule. They focused on UK and US as countries where traditional democratic ideologies are being eroded.   A wish for strong leadership, irrespective of philosophical creed or an unchallenged disregard for the rule of law, is symptomatic of the two camps’ trends.

But if these trends do exist, then what is behind them?  Wolf discussed three reasons he saw:  power-hungry individuals jumping on the populist bandwagon, the vast social and economic upheavals of the past century and the downward economic mobility of the middle class.  Applebaum believes it is a sense of disappointment that unifies these three reasons.  She spoke of rapid economic and social changes in countries such as Poland, erasing intergenerational memory.  And how this rapid change forces a powerful nostalgia for revisiting prior times, but the absence of intergenerational connection means there is little understanding or empathy for the ‘good old days’.   Exacerbated by constant and often inconsistent news flow, there is a sense of chaos and contradiction where we want silence and simplicity.   It becomes all too easy to latch onto someone or something that resonates with the nostalgic message, even if that means accepting other unagreeable policies or undermining previously sacrosanct democratic norms.

As if to cement the point, yesterday I read a piece by William Hague in the Times [ii] in which he said of Donald Trump’s campaign, which I thought summed up the result nicely: “And the effect of that, whether or not he wins again, will be to weaken the prosecutors who uphold the rule of law, shatter faith in the fairness of elections and make the cherished institutions and habits of American democracy — its electoral college or judiciary — brittle and in danger.”

So, what is the answer? Perhaps most worryingly, neither of the authors offered too much optimism.  Wolf suggested that the way forward must be decoupling from those autocratic nations – whether physically, as we saw nations disconnect from the Russian gas pipelines, as well as economically, socially, and politically.  A better understanding of the rationale for the need to separate legal and political systems would also be beneficial, so when we see that being flouted, we can be quicker to act.

[i] https://www.ft.com/content/dc289293-c6b6-464e-852f-79e7c0d1b13d?shareType=nongift

[ii] As with Trump, the Johnson ‘witch-hunt’ is nothing of the sort, Times 13th June 2023

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