Thursday 16 May 2013

Don’t blame democracy for rise of populists

By Philip Stephens, Published TODAY, 15 May 2013

Democracy is in trouble.

Barack Obama has become an “if only” President — he would love to fix America’s finances, tighten controls on gun ownership and close Guantanamo, but disobliging Republicans keep saying No.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Europe’s leaders are enfeebled by economic failure. A populist insurgency has exposed deep flaws in the democratic system. What’s needed is a bracing dose of authoritarian efficiency.

I hear this story almost everywhere. It is told by Chinese officials eager to contrast decisive decision-making in autocratic Beijing with debilitating drift in liberal democracies.

Elsewhere, the sorry condition of rich nations gives the lie to neocolonialist claims for the universality of Western values.

The narrative is more than misleading. It classifies the pressures faced by states everywhere as a challenge unique to democracies. Even so, echoing notes of despair have crept into the discourse of elected politicians.

Leaders lament their powerlessness. They are living, they complain, in an age of anti-politics. Doing the “right thing” is an invitation to voters to turn them out. Whether it is Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy or the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, the wind is behind populists dressed up as patriots.

Mr Nigel Farage’s UKIP is the latest to jump on the bandwagon. A party once derided by Mr David Cameron as “loonies, fruit cakes and closet racists” picked up more than 20 per cent of the vote in local elections through its anti-immigrant, anti-Europe populism. The British Prime Minister now feels obliged to legislate to shut out more foreigners.

Elsewhere, the Five Star Movement has all but paralysed Italian politics — oxymoronic though that idea may sound. In Greece and Hungary, there is a thin line between right-wing populism and fascism. France’s anti-Islamic National Front is thriving. Finland has its True Finns. Mr Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, tilts towards the xenophobic extremism of that country’s Jobbik party with an agenda uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1930s.

Beyond tapping into grievances stirred by falling living standards, what unites these movements is deep hostility to “the world outside” — to the European Union, to the forces of globalisation and/or to immigration.

The British don’t want to be bossed about by “Brussels”; the French don’t want to surrender a civilised social model to low-wage competition from China. Immigrants, always a scapegoat during times of stress, are accused of stealing jobs and undermining social and cultural cohesion.


Democracy sometimes does demand short-term trade-offs between legitimacy and efficiency.

Constituency gerrymandering, as in the United States, and the geographical fragmentation of party allegiances, as in the United Kingdom, have also taken a toll on effective government. The Republican leadership runs scared of Tea Party populism, while Mr Cameron fears UKIP’s appeal to an ageing and shrinking Conservative base.

Watching events in Europe these past few years, it is also not hard to imagine that a benign autocrat might have done a better job than 27 elected governments to end the protracted agony of the euro zone. We should not be surprised.

The oft-heard description of democracy as the worst form of government except for all the alternatives has it about right. Not many Europeans would exchange the right to vote for a quick fix in the euro zone.

The mistake is to conclude that because democracies are troubled by nationalism, the fault lies with the democratic system. There are more prosaic explanations.

Some would start with the original design flaws in the euro; others would put the blame on a lemming-like faith in the economics of austerity, which has turned a post-crash recession into prolonged depression.

Anyone with a passing interest in history might look to the quality, or otherwise, of leadership. Those with grey hairs should be careful about lamenting the passing of the big beasts of yesteryear. Yet, comparing today’s leaders with Europe’s post-war giants provides more than half an explanation for the mess.


In one respect, the populists are on to something. The anxiety and anger of Europe’s electorates does reflect a failure of governments.

Presidents and prime ministers are discovering that the old levers of power no longer work. Promises are broken not through malign intent but because the capacity of individual nations to act has been constrained.

The connection here is not with the weakness of democracy; nor with the EU or immigrants. The culprit, if you can call it that, is globalisation. The political mega-trend of recent decades has been the diffusion of power — from states to other actors and from old elites to citizens.

Economic interdependence and borderless communications leave governments to compete with multinationals, with a proliferation of non-state organisations, and with religious and ethnic identities that have no respect for national borders. Closer to home, the digital revolution gives a louder voice to those once shut out of political debate.

This is fertile ground for the politics of grievance. It explains the paradox of the rise of nationalism in a world where nations are weaker. The appeal of the populists lies in their dishonest promise to stop the world and jump off.

The pressures, economic and political, are not only felt by democracies — ask the Chinese about the upsurge of street demonstrations, or the Middle East despots praying they will escape the Arab uprisings.

As for the future of democracy, I do not see Russians clamouring for Mr Vladimir Putin to tighten further his repression, or Egyptians demanding the return of Hosni Mubarak.

Philip Stephens is associate editor and chief political commentator of the Financial Times.

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