I’m beginning to think that democracy may not be such a great idea.
Not just because I’m a whinging Remainian, still sore about losing the referendum, but also because of what is happening many thousands of miles away: in Turkey to our east, and in the US to our west.
Turkey is a member of NATO, and boasts the alliance’s second largest army after the US. After last weekend’s attempted military coup – which would have been the country’s fifth since 1960 if it had succeeded -- its ever more autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has begun a purge of supposedly suspect state employees. So far, 60,000 people are reported to have been either arrested or dismissed, clearly as part of a programme that had been planned long before the events of last weekend.
In the US, Donald Trump has made clear that he is prepared to tear up NATO’s most fundamental principle, mutual self-defence. Asked if the Baltic states could be confident that under his presidency the US would come to their assistance if they were threatened by Russia, he replied in the conditional: ‘If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.’ As the New York Times commented drily: ‘Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies.’
His proposal to ban all Muslims from visiting the US has now been subtly reworded -- in his speech on Thursday night accepting the Republican party’s presidential nomination, he promised to ‘suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place.’ The words may have been more carefully chosen, but the underlying idea remains exactly the same: people who come from Muslim countries are our enemies until they are proved otherwise.
Trump’s appeal precisely echoes Erdoğan’s: both portray themselves as national saviours, uniquely placed to rescue their countries from both internal and external enemies. As populists always do, they offer simple answers to complex problems: strength, single-mindedness, and confrontation with entrenched interests that are threatening the national fabric.
Three of the world’s most powerful democracies – the US, Turkey and India – either are, or may soon be, ruled by democratically-elected populist demagogues. Add Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is often called a ‘managed democracy’, and you can make it four. (If a democracy is defined as a political system in which governments organise elections, a managed democracy is one in which they organise both the elections and the results.)
And it just so happens that these four countries are all in the top 10 of the world’s biggest military powers. (The others, if you include paramilitaries and reservists, are China, North Korea, Pakistan, South Korea, Iran and Vietnam.) It’s all a bit worrying. More than a bit, in fact.
There is nothing in the rule book that says democracies always produce good governments, even if non-democracies invariably produce bad governments. And if one of the principal tasks of any government is to help create conditions in which its citizens feel secure, both financially and physically, then over the past decade, the democratically elected governments in the world’s most developed economies have patently failed.
According to a new report from the McKinsey Global Institute, real incomes in 25 of the world’s most advanced economies were either flat or fell for more than two-thirds of households between 2005 and 2014. The highest proportion of households in which incomes failed to rise were in Italy, the US, the UK, the Netherlands and France.
And guess what? Those just happen to be five of the countries in which anti-elite, populist politics are making most headway. As Martin Wolf pointed out in the Financial Times this week, people will accept far-reaching social and economic change (high levels of immigration, for example, or globalisation) if they believe that the changes are making them better off. If, on the other hand, the changes do not result in greater prosperity for the majority of people, they will be far less likely to be accepted.
In the words of the McKinsey report, ‘A significant number of those whose incomes have not been advancing are losing faith in aspects of the global economic system. Nearly one-third of those who are not advancing … expressed negative opinions about free trade and immigration.’
In a piece I wrote last May, I quoted the British-born American commentator Andrew Sullivan: ‘Late-stage capitalism is creating a righteous, revolutionary anger that late-stage democracy has precious little ability to moderate or constrain.’ Since then, we’ve had the EU referendum, the Erdoğan crackdown in Turkey, and the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican party’s presidential candidate.
It’s not exactly democracy’s finest hour. President Erdoğan once described democracy as like a train: you get off when you reach your destination. (Erdoğan and his Justice and Development party, by the way, have won four successive elections in the past 15 years.) So what happens when democracies elect demagogues? Or when a referendum produces a result that is regarded by a clear majority of MPs as damaging to national prosperity? What use is representative democracy if elected representatives can be over-ruled by a plebiscite?
Come to that, what happens when the members of a political party elect a leader who does not command the confidence of the party’s own MPs? Yes, Mr Corbyn, I’m looking at you.
Democracy can often fall far short of what a genuinely effective, representative political system should be. The trouble is that so far, no one has come up with anything better. I just hope that someone, somewhere, is working on it …