The state of modern democracy is an increasingly fragmented entity.
By Matthew Parkes: Political Columnist
On January 6th, 2021, a violent mob stormed the US Capitol building, with many pointing the finger at President Donald Trump for inciting the attack.
Newspapers around the world the next morning reacted to the momentous crisis in US history with horror and dismay. The Independent ran with ‘Assault on democracy’, Germany’s Der Spiegel explored the president’s involvement with ‘Trump’s Army’, and France’s Le Figaro lamented the ‘Fractured Democracy’.
Tensions in the United States have been decidedly strained in recent years, patently the disputed November election has escalated the situation. Lawmakers and the security services are now concerned about the forthcoming Presidential Inauguration on the 20th January. Controversially, the outgoing president will not be attending the ceremony – the first time since Andrew Johnson in 1869. But how significant is this violent and perilous episode? Is it a symbol of a world where our democracies are becoming precariously fragile?
The Global Picture
Freedom House, an NGO which advocates for greater civil liberties and democratic rights, has reported that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year that global freedoms have decreased. They have cited Russia and China’s increasing global influence and the rise of far-right and nationalistic movements.
In 2020, the world was a witness to several threats to democracy. The most notable was the ‘National Security Law’ being introduced in Hong Kong. It prohibits a series of acts including ‘subversion’ which can be punishable with a life-sentence in prison. It effectively criminalised the pro-democracy protests and many elements of Hong Kongers’ freedom of expression. Last week, 55 pro-democracy protestors were arrested by the authorities in Hong Kong, an act which received condemnation from Western Countries such as the UK, Canada, USA and Australia.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, many fear Narendra Modi’s push towards Hindu nationalism will decrease civil liberties for its Muslim population.
Most recently, on Sunday 10th January, Kyrgyzstan elected a new president, Saydr Japarov, following a highly disputed election in October 2020 which saw widespread protest and the result annulled. Yet some question the credibility of even this latest election with only a 39% turnout and opposition parties severely lacking funding.
It is difficult to ascertain why democratic governments across the world are encountering turbulence and in some cases disaster. This is largely due to the intricate details of each country and the complex set of religious, social, ethnic, and cultural factors that have adorned their history.
Some commentators have pointed to an increased polarisation of political discourse as one of the reasons for the fracturing of democracies. Thomas Carothers, Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argued that political leaders have begun blaming societal divisions for their country’s problems which has then enabled them to command large electoral support.
It is easier to call your political opponent names and rile up political support than to try and engage the electorate in a debate about your 5-year policy direction.
To intentionally misquote Tolstoy “Happy democracies are all alike; every unhappy democracy is unhappy in its own way”. However, it may be possible to identify some common themes.
In the United Kingdom, a significant amount of division has arisen from the Brexit vote in 2016. Many column inches have been dedicated to interrogating the reasons behind the fervent opinions that either side of the debate hold, but there has been little consensus. In the years since the vote a division has been created purely based on how they voted. ‘Brexiteers’ and ‘Remainers’ feel they possess diametrically opposed views, not just on the membership of a powerful trading bloc but on education, immigration, and cultural values.
The division has undoubtedly been the source of violence in the UK, in September 2019 pro-Brexit protestors clashed with and attacked the police outside of the Houses of Parliament. Additionally, the debate has led to the undermining of the country’s sacred institutions. The now infamous headline by the Daily Mail; “Enemies of the People”, following the decision by three judges to prohibit the government from invoking Article 50 without asking parliament, illustrates the level of anger that permeated the nation.
This divide may have been widened by the increased relevance of social media. Incendiary and clear political opinions are more likely to get traction on platforms which encourage snappy status updates, rather than nuanced perspectives. It is easier to call your political opponent names and rile up political support than to try and engage the electorate in a debate about your 5-year policy direction.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that abstract political gestures are a recent phenomenon. Tony Blair’s 1997 campaign was accompanied by the backing track; “Things Can Only Get Better”, and David Cameron’s partially successful 2010 election bid was entitled “Vote for Change”. However, social media promotes the 24/7 desire for ‘engagement’ which may have reduced our political discourse to 280-character fights on Twitter. Whereas banal campaign slogans may have once been evidence of a slightly out-of-touch political class trying to communicate with the people, they are now one of the primary forms of communication used by the ruling class to stoke division and political engagement.
As the world starts another orbit around the Sun, one is left to wonder what the state of the globe’s democracies will be in a year’s time.
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