I sometimes wonder if Francis Fukuyama regrets his 1992 book ‘The End of History’, written in the heady aftermath of the Cold War. It is commonly believed to have argued that mankind’s ideological evolution had ended, and the universalisation of liberal democracy was its endpoint. In truth, this does him a disservice: he framed his original essay as a question, not a statement, and was careful to say that totalitarian “events” could still happen in future but democracy would become more prevalent as time went on. He has since updated his thesis with a warning that the failure to provide the substance of what people want could undermine democracy, as well as “political decay” within Western nations with corruption and crony capitalism.
So, how bulletproof is our democratic system, and how wedded are people to it?
Well, back in 1995 the World Values Survey, which studies representative samples of citizens in almost 100 countries, asked Americans for the first time whether they approved of the idea of “having the army rule”. They found that only one in 15 agreed. When they asked that same question in 2015 the number was one in six. A little over half of American baby-boomers in 2015 gave maximum importance to living in a democracy. Worryingly, amongst Americans born since the 1980s, less than 30% did.
Just as for free speech we have a “yeah, but” attitude to democracy. We largely agree it’s a good way of governing a country – YouGov found in February this year that support for it varies between 69% to 90% in Western countries – but there were significant minorities of between 14% in Sweden to 50% in Italy (yes, really) who prioritised a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliaments and elections.
In other words, a dictator.
And that’s before we get to those who don’t think a country is something we should be worried about governing at all: 29% of Britons surveyed this year felt that being British was unimportant to their identity and 23% didn’t think nationality is important at all.
These are concerning numbers. However, what has perhaps concerned me most recently is hearing some people I know, people I respect, speculate in private conversation that perhaps a benign dictator might be the best form of government – for stability and good governance, of course – and others argue that centuries long-established institutions are obstacles to the people, and we need a strong leader to override them. We are getting stuck in internecine debates as we vie for tactical advantage, which risks making our democratic system collateral damage.
We are tempted to argue that the problem is because our favoured policy has not been implemented, or because our (very obvious, natch) values-based view of the world has been challenged. Some even seem to think that if we just ignore difficult issues we don’t like, or make them really hard to do something about, then people will ultimately get bored of them, and the problem will go away. But people will not abandon politics if democracy does not deliver – they will abandon democracy.
It’s worth pausing for a minute on why democracy matters: it matters because it allows everyone in society to express themselves and their concerns without fear of censure, and gives them the ability to choose those in power to give effect to them. Without that ability governments become oligarchic, corrupt, and lose touch and legitimacy with the people, who grow frustrated and disillusioned in turn.
With no mechanism to get the government to listen the people have no choice but to resort to mass protest and civil disorder. Even then, there is no guarantee the government will listen: if they will not, then the government ultimately must resort to repression and violence, or popular insurrection will bring them down. All sorts of things come off the back of this including suppression of basic freedoms and arbitrary justice. It leads to constant stress, crippling fear, wasted talent, social instability, gross injustices, economic underperformance, lower living standards, and needless deaths.
Academics spend their whole lives studying the causes of state failure in classical civilisation, and are still debating it today, but even a superficial glance can tell you that a mixture of external weakness and internal decay were key drivers. If you get economic stagnation, successive financial crises, bad governance, poorly secured borders, unpopular wars, and unfair treatment of some groups within those borders, you will eventually get a fragmenting polity with, ultimately, successor rump states emerging from the chaos – usually, after many have died and the standard of living has collapsed. These successor states are often unstable themselves. It is not a future any of us should really wish for.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the rise of Western democracy between c.1750 to 2000 took place at a time when real incomes were consistently rising decade after decade, and the West bestrode the world like a colossus. In this century, we will face challenges of slower economic growth, climate change, the relative eclipse of western power, and mass migration. These are all big challenges, and we need to respond to them by delivering social stability, fairness, and a better quality of life throughout.
We also need to demonstrate our democratic system can manage crises better than everywhere else. Therefore, it is concerning that the West has struggled to escape the cycle of lockdowns over Covid, whilst life in Asia has largely gone back to normal. Things like this further undermine confidence in the system and weaken our ability to provide global leadership to deliver a democratic future.
We are at risk of getting high on our own supply: it may be that our fundamental attachment to individual liberty and democracy isn’t a function of how enlightened we are but a consequence of living in a system that has always, ultimately, delivered the goods. We need to shake ourselves out of our self-satisfied complacency that takes this for granted and remind ourselves why it really matters. We do not choose democracy because it guarantees nirvana; we choose democracy because it is the best way of managing our collective differences and challenges peacefully.
Like Doctor Emmett Brown said, whilst staring at the half-finished writing on the tombstone in Back to the Future Part III, what we are seeing is ‘what events will look like if allowed to run unchecked into tomorrow’. Western nations are likely to stagnate, ossify and then split. New undemocratic powers will then offer us or our successors bailouts and security, with heavy strings attached. Before we know it our ability to choose, to speak and to live will be greatly constrained. We will slip into a new dark age, with nothing to politically bet on at all. This may happen slowly, over decades, but, unchecked, happen it will. And our children and grandchildren will pay the price.
So, is there hope? Fortunately, yes. People are exhausted by the division in politics (there is good consensus on this across all groups) – and a very clear majority believe we need to learn to disagree with each other better. All the issues we face are valid: concerns over climate change, generational and racial inequality, personal identity, national identity, sovereignty, mass migration, border control, and global stability. We need solutions for all of them, and to treat one another with respect. We must strive for good governance, without corrupt financing and gerrymandering.
We must stop fierce rhetorical attacks on our press, courts, rule of law, national institutions, and the history and values of the nation. We need to recognise the legitimacy of views and opinions that perhaps we vehemently disagree with and look to find accommodations with them. And how we talk and listen to each other is at least as important as what we do in response. Social media often doesn’t help here.
We must recognise that nations are the basic building blocks of stability that allow an internationalist system to have effect, and give people the luxury of being able to express a global identity, rather than being an obstacle to it. Nation-ists need to be more comfortable with people having multiple identities, and internation-ists need to stop rejecting on principle the notion of nation. Both need to stop refusing to accept the practical consequences of adopting ideological or dogmatic positions. We all need to always strive for a shared understanding of our past, and a shared sense of a better vision for the future.
Democracy needs to be based on respect for those with whom you disagree, and with an effort to accommodate their point of view. Winners need to govern magnanimously for all parts of society, regardless of the platform on which they won, so that the vast majority of the population can buy into its legitimacy all the time. We need to remind ourselves that democracy is a mechanism for managing disagreements and competing priorities peacefully so that the government addresses the most pressing concerns of most of the people most of the time – and understands the rest – and is not a tool for achieving total victory.
There are no final victories in politics, just as there are no final defeats, as someone famous once said. Sorry Francis.
It could happen here. It is up to all of us to make sure it doesn’t.