Artillery Row

The problem with democracy

Progressive authoritarianism is doing its best to ruin democracy for the rest of us

Global “dissatisfaction” with democracy jumped from less than 48 per cent in 1995 to more than 57 per cent in 2019. In 2020, “democraticness” declined in more than two-thirds of countries, and in every region. Full democracies account for less than 14 per cent of those countries, and only 8 per cent of global population.

All this is true despite increasing political participation. Think about that: more people are engaged, but fewer people are satisfied.

In a word dominated by progressivism, democracies end up being judged by how progressive they are

Moreover, voters have fewer freedoms. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index” measures not just electoral rights but also government functionality and individual liberties, such as freedom of speech, public consultation, and checks and balances on emergency powers. Such things have been declining year on year. They declined particularly badly last year due to lockdowns, Black Lives Matter and social media activism. All credit to the Economist Intelligence Unit for speaking honestly (clearly, the EIU isn’t as progressive as the magazine).

However, most studies of democracy measure “democraticness” not by functionality, liberties, accountability, or satisfaction. Instead, democracy gets conflated with whatever the authors find important. Inevitably, their judgments are politicised. In a word dominated by progressivism, democracies end up being judged by how progressive they are.

Progressives dominate a pseudo-academic field known as “democracy studies”. Its leaders tend to straddle academia, think-tanks, consultancies, and progressive party politics – with a lot of public funding.

Consider the US-government-funded National Endowment for Democracy. The NED publishes the Journal of Democracy. The co-editor is Larry Diamond, a sociologist at Stanford, who wrote a book blaming the Coalition Provision Authority for democracy’s failure in Iraq, even though he was one of its advisors. In 2016, he was one of the experts quoted by The New York Times peddling the myth that Russian interference cost Hillary Clinton the election.

In January 2020, the Journal of Democracy dedicated an anniversary edition to “Democracy Embattled”, featuring Francis Fukuyama and Yascha Mounck, struggling to square their triumphalism about the end of history in the 1990s with the dissatisfaction of the 2010s. Mounck blamed “authoritarian populists”, in which he listed Brexiteers alongside Vladimir Putin. The journal’s prior editions, dedicated to Brexit, featured only pro-EU authors.

As John Fonte (a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute) describes them, “The NED, Freedom House, and their stable of writers are highly partisan, anti-conservative, anti-sovereignty, militantly secular, and more supportive of oligarchical elites than democratic majorities.”

The University of Cambridge is responsible for the finding that most people are dissatisfied with democracy. Nothing is wrong with their data. The problem is in their interpretation. The authors have only one explanation for dissatisfaction: populism. Yes, they actually use populism as cause, rather than symptom.

The five greatest declines in satisfaction occurred in America, Britain, Spain, Cyprus, and Nigeria

Tellingly, they don’t define populism. Nevertheless, they use it promiscuously. For instance, they place “revolutionary populism” alongside military coups, civil wars, and dictatorships as the cause of “cyclical crises” in democracy. “Revolutionary populism” is yet another undefined term. Literally it would include a free and fair election returning an anti-elitist party intent on revolutionizing the constitution to prevent oligarchic abuses of power. What’s wrong with that? The report doesn’t admit the question.

The report’s case studies reveal more ridiculous conflations. For instance, in 2018 Brazil supposedly elected a “right-wing populist candidate … on a platform that included support for vigilantism against petty and organised crime, and nostalgia for the country’s former military dictatorship”. How on earth are vigilantism and militarism features of populism? The report provides no clue.

Since the authors don’t define populism, they are in no position to build any theory around it. Indeed, they don’t bother themselves with any hypotheses. Thus, they don’t actually prove anything, except trends.

The authors have a concluding chapter entitled: “Why are citizens unhappy with democracy?” This reprises the trends, then wonders whether dissatisfaction might “simply be a western malaise” due to rising expectations. “Our analysis suggests that citizens are rational in their view of political institutions, updating their assessment in response to what they observe.”

The five most satisfied citizenries are in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland

Their analysis does no such thing. Rather, the authors had speculated that some of the many peaks and troughs in the global trend might be related to an EU directive here, a national election there. “If confidence in democracy has been slipping, then the most likely explanation is that democratically elected governments have not been seen to succeed in addressing some of the major challenges of our era, including economic co-ordination in the Eurozone.” Yes, the authors really blame global dissatisfaction on the Eurozone’s mismanagement (a brief and accidental episode, as they see it). Once that is corrected, they imply, populism goes away.

They also blame right-wingers for persuading the citizens to become (mistakenly) dissatisfied. Consider the following childish analysis:

The election [in eastern European countries] to high office of populist politicians and parties, often on a platform of nationalism, social welfare, and anti-immigration. The concurrence of populism and democratic satisfaction reminds us, perhaps, that satisfaction with democracy is not the same as a belief in liberal principles or values.

Their allegation is: populism is not liberal.

In fact, such nativism (providing for one’s citizens and nation) is inherently liberal. Liberalism, in its classic sense, is about individual freedom. The rights of foreigners to move where they want, claim residence where they want, claim social welfare where they want, are inherently illiberal – at least to the locals who must unwittingly shoulder the burdens. Why shouldn’t Eastern Europeans vote to protect their own borders and welfare?

The University of Cambridge ignores the fact that Eastern Europeans are more satisfied with their democracies than are Western Europeans. The five greatest declines in satisfaction occurred in America, Britain, Spain, Cyprus, and Nigeria. The five most satisfied citizenries are in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Austria, and Switzerland, all of which have successfully represented “populist” parties after decades of progressive rule.

How does the University of Cambridge explain that Americans are most dissatisfied with democracy? They briefly blame the “populism” borne of Donald Trump. That’s it.

Liberalism has become misappropriated in recent decades as a synonym for progressivism

By contrast, the EIU notes that American “democraticness” declined in 2016 before the election of Trump, primarily due to a collapse in public trust in national institutions. Indeed, the EIU notes, this “helped to propel him to the presidency”. The Democrats had invented the myth that Trump colluded with Russia, then “spent four years, starting in 2017, seeking to delegitimize the Trump administration and impeach the President”.

And in 2020, Democrats won back the Presidency. Time magazine’s progressive political editor reports admiringly of a “conspiracy” by the US Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO, and a “well-funded cabal of powerful people … to suppress unwanted elements of US political conversation before and after election day” and “to influence perceptions, change rules and law, steer media coverage, and control the flow of information”.

But, the EIU warns, Joe Biden’s succession in 2021 offers no solutions. Indeed, Biden is investing in progressivism’s worst instincts: “culture wars … increasing threats to freedom of expression; and a degree of societal polarisation that makes consensus on any issue almost impossible to achieve”.

Liberalism has become misappropriated in recent decades as a synonym for progressivism. But progressivism encroaches on individual liberties in the name of social justice. Progressivism today is authoritarian, not liberal.

Progressives have adopted the label “liberal” rather than face up to the illiberal trade-offs from asserting one person’s rights over another person’s freedoms. Most people end up being hurt. They express themselves accordingly, in elections, polls, and surveys. Then progressives slap the label “populism” on anything popular they don’t like. Progressives have become anti-democrats pretending to be democrats.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover