A cottage industry of books proclaiming that the end of western-style democracy is nye proliferated over the past years. Russia’s war against Ukraine, the revival of an authoritarian rival, could have been the nail in the coffin. Yet the opposite has happened. When confronted with the realities of a tyranny, embracing one’s democratic institutions isn’t hard to do. But ultimately people’s confidence in democracy comes from domestic, not foreign policy, and its ability to deliver a materially superior way of life, argues Philip Collins.
If you pile up the books of recent years that mount a gloomy case about the prospects of democratic politics they now stand pretty high. I have them here with me, in my study as I write, a leaning tower of Diamond, Runciman, Levitsky and Ziblatt, Synder, Muller and Mounk, with titles like How Democracies Die, How Democracy Ends, The People vs Democracy and Collapse. They do not make a single case but they have a common mood. Populism is an attractive and frightening adversary and democratic populations are losing confidence in the political apparatus which has served us well for a century. But, perhaps, they all imply, not for much longer.
Indeed, the data is persuasive. The spread of democracies that took place in two waves – the first after the second world war and the second after the collapse of the Soviet Union – has been subject since then, to use Larry Diamond’s phrase, a recession. Democracies of relatively recent vintage, such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey, were taken over by populists with an ambition to become autocrats. Even before the adventure in Ukraine, Putin’s Presidency made it obvious that Russia’s brief flirtation with democratic politics was over. Even in the established democracies, in the United States and the United Kingdom, the politicians of the mainstream yielded to populists who showed scant regard for the rules, both implicit and explicit, by which politics is usually conducted. In France, a self-avowed racist came second in the Presidential election. It wasn’t hard to find voices of doom; I have a tower of them before me.
It doesn’t feel difficult to say in these circumstances that a self-governing democratic polity with a vibrant press and civil society is a superior model to tyranny.
Yet the war in Ukraine has prompted the suspicion that these works might come to a collective exaggeration. It may be that, as we observe from a safe distance the egregious acts of the Russian army under Putin’s command, a subtle recuperation of our confidence is taking place. The standard left-wing analysis of this conflict locates responsibility in the eastward expansion of the boundaries of NATO, but every atrocity – offending any sense of civility or proportion – is exposing the implausibility of that thin argument as a pretext for such violence. It doesn’t feel difficult – in fact it feels almost banal – to say in these circumstances that a self-governing democratic polity with a vibrant press and civil society is a superior model to tyranny.
It is easier to feel confident about governments that have the capacity to act. The West’s rhetorical anger has been accompanied by practical response.
This change of mood has been encouraged by an expeditious response by the Western nations. Arms have been supplied quickly and sanctions imposed which will, in time, make it difficult for Putin to finance his action. It is easier to feel confident about governments that have the capacity to act. The rhetorical anger has been accompanied by practical response.
This raises a point which is critical to the confidence in which democracy as a system is held. In The Confidence Trap, David Runciman points out that the high reputation of democracy rests on its historic ability to redeem two linked promises. The first is popular sovereignty, by which the people are given agency and a sense of control. The second is results; democracies promise to give material benefits to their populations. The standard of living rises one generation to the next, an argument that was crucial to the ideological victory of the West in the Cold War. Democracy produced the goods, literally, and communism didn’t.
We need therefore to attend to the domestic politics of the democracies because that, rather than in their foreign policy, is where confidence in their procedures is either replenished or diminished. And while it is early in all cases to see hard results, it is reasonable to say that the established democracies are responding to the populist challenge. In the United States, President Biden, the man who led the middle-class task force under President Obama, has been arguing about growth “from the middle out”. In other words, spreading prosperity to the formerly industrial parts of America that were attracted by the false prospectus offered by Donald Trump. In Britain, the levelling up White Paper, written by an active minister, Michael Gove, and Andy Haldane, a former head of research at the Bank of England, is a series of promissory notes about ending regional inequality. Nobody’s life has yet been improved and no doubt even when legislation has been implemented, the policy will largely fail.
Yet, another way of describing a policy that will largely fail is that it will slightly succeed. And a slight success, although by no means dramatic, is some evidence that democracies are forced to respond to the events that gave rise to the populist surge. It isn’t much yet, but this is how democracies always fight back, as Runciman argues. The democratic societies are still full of flaws and defects. Lots of people within them are neglected and some even worse. I do not wish to knock over the tower of books and come on like Dr Pangloss.
Putin’s war in Ukraine offers no plausible alternative model for achieving any benefits for his citizens.
However, at the bottom of my tower of books I like to place, ceremoniously, the famous work that is mocked by the rest. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History has not worn well, partly because of a confusion about the use of the word “end”. Fukuyama means a Hegelian purpose rather than a conclusion. But, though Fukuyama was nevertheless much too credulous about the immediate prospects for democracy, he has an intriguing passage in his preface. Fukuyama commends the capacity of liberal democratic capitalism to grant recognition to arrogant people who are not satisfied by political and public acclaim. The man he mentions, way back in 1987, as an example of the sort who would be satisfied with material abundance was Donald Trump. Fukuyama was wildly wrong about Trump’s ambitions in particular, but perhaps right in general. The capacity of liberal democracies to generate material benefits for their populations is indeed critical to their continuing appeal.
Putin’s war in Ukraine offers no plausible alternative model for achieving any benefits for his citizens. Indeed he is prepared to impoverish his country in pursuit of an idealised conception of the Russet an nation. Putin’s collected prose is not an edifying read but it contains a recent essay in which he argued that the borders of the Russian nation should coincide with where Russian language s spoken. It is recognition of a lore primitive kind that he wants; a chapter to himself in the history of our times.