Jan 31st 2018

In Defense of Democracy

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

SYDNEY – Imagine that you, like me, are a typical product of Western liberal democracy, and are invited to give a lecture to a group of Chinese students in Beijing or Shanghai on its benefits. Ignoring the fact that, in reality, the Chinese government would never allow such a lecture, ask yourself: What would you say?

First and foremost, it would be advisable to acknowledge that you do not speak from a position of moral superiority. Western civilization in the first half of the twentieth century was not very civilized. Human rights were trampled. Class war destroyed entire political systems. There were large-scale violent conflicts and much ethnic cleansing. Given this history, Westerners are in no position to lecture on civil liberties or humane values.

It is also worth noting that the global march toward democracy, which seemed nearly inexorable after the fall of the Berlin Wall, now seems to be reversing. According to Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, several countries that were democracies at the beginning of this century have since shifted to different systems.

Of course, elections alone do not a democracy make. Consider those cases when elections empower a majority ethnic or religious group, which then rides roughshod over minorities – an outcome that has been seen all too often in the Balkans, for example.

Then there are the cases when the election of a leader is treated as if it somehow legitimizes the subsequent emergence of dictatorship. This has been the case in Russia, which, since President Vladimir Putin’s first electoral victory in 2000, has become a Potemkin democracy. This year, another election, neither free nor fair, will give Putin another term in office.

In a real democracy, free and fair elections are complemented more broadly by the rule of law, due process, an independent judiciary, an active civil society, and freedom of the press, worship, assembly, and association. In fact, it is theoretically possible – though unlikely – for political systems to have all these elements without elections at all. (The political scientist Samuel Finer, in his comprehensive study of different sorts of government, found just one society that was liberal but not democratic: colonial Hong Kong.)

Democracies depend on institutional software, not just hardware. The people who make them work accept a set of norms that often do not have to be codified. The problem comes when the people – or, worse, their leaders – refuse to adhere to democratic norms. That is what is happening today in the United States, as US President Donald Trump challenges some of the foundational rules, norms, and principles of American democracy.

Trump threatens (as President Richard Nixon once did) to use his power to pervert the rule of law to target his opponents – most notably Hillary Clinton, whom he wants “locked up.” He assaults the freedom of the press, implicitly encouraging supporters to attack journalists, say, by tweeting a (since-deleted) parody video of himself body-slamming a man with a CNN logo on his head. He attempts to subvert America’s system of checks and balances. And he seems to place a higher priority on advancing his family’s own commercial interests than the interests of the American people.

While some parts of America’s democratic political system – for example, the judicial check on executive authority – have proved resilient, others are breaking down. But Trump is a consequence of this breakdown, not its cause.

The real problem is that the Republican Party has, over the years, become a hollow instrument of lobbyists and extremists, and both Democrats and Republicans seem to have abandoned their commitment to governing by consensus. As a result, the constitutional brakes that America’s founders created to prevent the election of a huckster like Trump have failed. Propelled by popular discontent with rising inequality and seemingly self-dealing elites, the political system is spinning out of control.

Economic challenges, together with fears about migration, have created similar pressures in Europe, reflected in sizable support for right-wing populist parties in elections in Germany and France in the last year, as well as the rise of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary and Poland.

Countering such assaults on democracy will require political leaders to show courage and vision – as French President Emmanuel Macron has so far – in defending the values that underpin democratic governance. In the European Union, this means that leaders must not turn a blind eye to elected governments’ assault on the institutions that safeguard freedom. After all, the EU not just a customs union; it is a union of shared values. If it fails to act accordingly, it will crumble.

The bad few years that democracies have had is no reason to tout the virtues of dictatorship and authoritarianism. History shows that, when it comes to prosperity and human wellbeing, societies that defend economic and political freedom come out on top. In the 1930s, some admired Adolf Hitler’s autobahns and Benito Mussolini’s success in getting the trains to run on time. But it was clearly not worth the cost.

The same is true of China today. Yes, the country has become an economic powerhouse in recent decades. But if a system cannot survive basic dissent – from legal challenges to television parodies – can it really be as strong as its leaders claim? And if a crackdown on corruption is carried out by a corrupt dictatorship, can it really be considered legitimate?

Contrast this with India, which may have lost the economic race in the last few years, but has held together since independence, despite vast ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences – without needing to create a Bamboo Gulag. This does not mean that there is no dissent or disagreement. But, no matter how much Indians argue, they are not locking up or “disappearing” dissidents, thanks to the safety valves afforded by their democracy. No society can manage indefinitely without such mechanisms. Even Karl Marx, I think, would not have disagreed.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 19th 2019
Last week, a far-right extremist killed at least 50 people – including a three-year-old child – worshiping at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch. Neither white supremacy, nor racially motivated terrorist attacks carried out in its name, are new phenomena. Yet the response to far-right terrorism remains thoroughly insufficient.
Mar 12th 2019
Allegations of Russian meddling in the affairs of Western countries have been a persistent feature of Western politics since the Cold War. Claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election are only the most recent in a long series of suspected conspiracies across the past century or so. But Russian political discourse is also riddled with conspiracy theories. Everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by some to one or another anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
Mar 10th 2019
My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish US President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school. The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers, and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked, and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.” Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things.
Mar 8th 2019

 

WASHINGTON, DC – It seems that every time I write about Donald Trump’s presidency, I pronounce it to be in more trouble than ever. This time is no different: he and his presidency are indeed in more trouble than ever. And yet that may not prevent him from winning again in 2020.

Mar 7th 2019
The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution................polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit.......... At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Mar 6th 2019
Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else. Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.”
Feb 27th 2019
Extracts: "Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table....." ".......Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks."
Feb 25th 2019
US President Donald Trump’s administration has underestimated China’s resilience and strategic resolve. With the Chinese economy slowing, the US believes that China is hurting and desperate for an end to the trade war. But with ample policy space to address the current slowdown, China’s leadership has no need to abandon its longer-term strategy. While a cosmetic deal focused on bilateral trade appears to be in the offing, the sharp contrast between the two economies’ fundamental underpinnings points to a very different verdict regarding who has the upper hand.
Feb 21st 2019
Extracts: "......after three years of referendum-induced turmoil, there is finally a new move, a brave move, by the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs (and counting)......There are no policy announcements, no real statement of principles, and there is no leader or political platform. And yet, this policy-free political movement is of incredible political importance........this is an act of direct action, based on the concept of prefiguration. That is, the actual policy statement at the heart of the formation of this movement is the formation of the movement itself. There is no need for grand policy statements right now."
Feb 21st 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.
Feb 20th 2019
From Trump’s very inauguration day speech, written for him by the fascist gadfly Steve Bannon and man still without a prom date Stephen Miller, it was apparent that the 45th president was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. And now, without our realizing it for the most part, the constitutional crisis is here.
Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.