Liberal Democracy--at the Precipice?

Could we be at the end of one historical era, facing the murky dawn of another?


It was Winston Churchill who observed “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” With the defeat of Fascism in World War II, and the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1990,  Churchill’s famous dictum seemed born out.

No longer.


Across the Western world, liberal democracies, battered by revolutionary new forces, are teetering precariously. On the brink of what? No one knows.


In France, a two-day manhunt just ended when police finally caught up with and killed a French-born jihadist who murdered four people and wounded eleven others at Strasbourg’s Christmas Market.


Despite that traumatic attack, thousands of gilets jaunes-- the movement that surged out of nowhere to gain national prominence over the past four weeks, protesting high taxes and grinding living conditions--have called for another round of demonstrations this Saturday in Paris. This, despite the fact that, as everyone realizes, anarchists will make use of those demonstrations to attack the police and smash, burn and destroy for their own nihilist purposes.


The gilets jaunes insist on further protests even after French President Macron announced important concessions in his economic policies to defuse their anger, including cancelling the increase in diesel fuel taxes that provoked the current unrest. But such is the foul mood in this country that some of the gilets jaunes charge that Macron engineered the bloody Strasbourg attack as a Machiavellian tactic to force the gilets jaunes to end their protests. 


Where does France go from here? As the endless cacophony of TV talk shows makes clear, no one knows.


Similar to Donald Trump’s American “base”, the gilets jaunes flatly reject their country’s traditional leaders and parties. But they have no precise demands of their own, no program, no formal spokesmen.


The result is absurd, Kafkaesque.  Overnight, people who were political unknowns in their own communities, are suddenly invited to participate in nationally televised talk shows or waylaid by breathless reporters in the street and asked to interpret their inchoate movement to the world. What do they think of the government’s latest proposals? Will they head again to Paris this weekend? Will they agree to face-to- face negotiations with Macron or his Prime Minister? 


And the gilets jaunes love it. Why not?  Their demands for a better life and less taxes are certainly justified, but no one, except perhaps their spouses, ever paid much attention to their complaints before.  Now, France’s political pundits hang on their every word. But the problem is the government has no one in this faceless movement to negotiate with. Individual gilets jaunes who indicate they might take part in some sort of delegation, receive death threats for daring to transgress the movement’s anonymity. It’s a formless, leaderless, creature of social media, its ideas and membership constantly morphing. Which is why no one can tell you where they or this country is heading.


But it’s not just France teetering on the edge. Across the Channel, Theresa May just won a vote of confidence in the British Parliament, but her proposal for Brexit still seems doomed to defeat. And then what? It’s anyone’s guess.


The vote by the UK to leave the European Union was the result of irresponsible political leaders who used viral images of distant Middle Eastern refugees and blatantly false economic figures and promises to convince their fellow citizens to vote for Brexit. Most of those reckless demagogues are now sitting on the sidelines, content to criticize Theresa May, but with no solutions of their own.


Where does the UK go from here? All options are bad.


Similarly, no one can tell you where a Germany, minus Angela Merkel, is heading. Nor, in an era of rising populism, what will happen to Italy, to Hungary, to Poland, to Finland, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland!  Nor what will be the shape of the chaotic European Community itself six months from now with Emanuel Macron, its most articulate champion, seriously challenged by his own people.


Which brings us the tumultuous situation of the country that was supposed to be the beacon, the ultimate bulwark, of liberal democracy—the United States. But there also, normally sober, cautious observers wring their hands and write dire op-eds about the terrifying erosion of democratic norms and the battering of America’s most cherished institutions. under the onslaught of a feckless would-be despot.


Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, there is Communist China, a new-ancient power that rattles the West’s complacent sense of superiority. China startles with its massive infrastructure programs, sprawling tech companies, trillion-dollar international investment plans: the fact that It is on the verge of becoming the world’s most powerful economy.


The irony is that thirty or forty years ago, Western leaders were confident that as China developed and raised the living standards of its people, it would be obliged to transform into a more democratic system. Otherwise, it would never be able to cope with the needs of a modern economy.


Only that’s not how things turned out. It’s true that, as China introduced economic reforms in the 1970’s and 80’s, a pro-democracy movement surged in the country, culminating with massive protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. But then, instead of backing down, after bitter, internal debate, the Communist Party decided to clamp down. The reform movement was brutally crushed by the Chinese Army. Thousands were killed. Thousands more were imprisoned.


Compare this with the situation In Paris for the past three weekends: despite the presence of thousands of police and security forces, a few hundred extremist “casseurs” were able to infiltrate the ranks of a few thousand peaceful gilets jaunes, and then rampage along the thoroughfares of the French capital. And today, fearful again of what could take place this Saturday (tomorrow), merchants across much of Paris have no choice but to (once more) board up their windows and close shop during the peak buying season.


In the same way, French authorities look on passively as the gilets jaunes use the Internet and social media to grow, to debate, to plan new political actions. Just as opposition movements of all stripes use social media to expand their influence and power in liberal democracies just about everywhere. In China those movements would never get off the ground.


Again, that’s not what Western observers thought would happen. When the Internet first appeared on the horizon, Jimmy Carter, for instance, confidently predicted that China’s leaders would be compelled to embrace an uncensored Internet in order to remain competitive with the West. And, buffeted by such a free exchange of ideas, Chinese leaders would ultimately be obliged to bend ideology to the will of their people.


Today, in fact, largely thanks to the Internet, nine of the 20 largest tech companies in the world are Chinese. More than 800 million Chinese use the Internet for all kinds of purposes. But not to foment political opposition. A huge army of government censors makes sure of that.


The Communist Party in China has made a deal with the people: You leave governing to us. We’ll continue to make sure it pays off for you and your kids. We will make your country the world’s greatest power.


So, is China’s form of government the answer? Hopefully not. The country has thousands of political prisoners, ruthlessly suppresses ethnic minorities, is riddled with corruption, and its leader Xi Jinping has essentially been declared President for Life.


But listing the faults of China’s regime is no excuse for accepting the calamitous state of what we call “liberal democracies” today. Nor, I would argue, can those democracies’ parlous situations be resolved by a few new leaders, campaign finance laws, rejiggering of electoral systems, or forgiveness of debts.


It’s the height of blind arrogance to look at the chaos in the West today and blandly maintain that liberal democracy has the solution to how humans should govern themselves. 


Indeed, that chaos is only getting worse. It is buffeted by new, unpredictable forces: by the Internet, by social media, by climate change, already creating massive disruptions across the planet, yet willfully ignored by many of our leaders. That chaos is lashed by revolutionary developments in Medicine, Biology, Deep Learning and Robotics, developments which seem to come every day now; which very few of us comprehend, except to vaguely sense they are already radically changing our world.


Those dramatic changes raise issues never confronted before. What will happen when—because of robotics-- there are no jobs for most human beings? What will happen if –as seems likely--climate change continues unchecked? How will the developed countries absorb billions of refugees from famine and war and drought? How will we maintain individual liberties when governments already have the ability to follow our every move and utterance?


            Another question: With Artificial Intelligence already able to analyze many of our most sophisticated problems, for how long will we be able to claim the right to continue governing ourselves?  Particularly as the decisions and actions of our peoples and our leaders become ever more absurd—if not to say suicidal.