The West’s Growing Democratic Distemper

By Michael A. Genovese

Western democracies are increasingly plagued by a contagion of anger, fear, and political backlash. The middle class, so often seen as the backbone of stability for societies, is threatening to turn against established liberal democracy and embrace a form of illiberal democracy as a solution to their perceived troubles. No democracy seems immune. Increasingly, voters are becoming alienated, turning against established orders and reaching out in search of a savior to lead them out of this malaise. They seem to believe that governments no longer serve their interests, and they are “mad as hell and not going to take it.” Uncertainty and disaffection, resentment and insecurity are spreading in Western democracies as the glue that once bound us together is losing its adhesive qualities.  

This growing anger is largely the result of globalization and rapid-fire change, monumental changes that have left a crisis of governability in their wake as governments grope for appropriate responses. This creates a widening gap between what voters want and what governments are capable of delivering. It is no secret why this gap exists: governments no longer have the have the capacity to direct policy outcomes as they once did. Forces such as “the market” and technology, interdependence and interconnectedness conspire against governmental control, and voters feel their governments no longer serve their needs or interests, fail to deliver on promises, or are incompetent.   

Our leaders are unable to satisfy these demands because a considerable amount of power has slipped through their hands. Decisions no longer rest with the nation-state but must be painstakingly agreed to by multiple actors in government and the private sector. Our leaders are weaker as power has to be shared with new claimants: the force of the market, developing nations, regional powers, religious groups, tribal loyalties, and technological change. Leaders are now deal-makers, negotiators, facilitators, agenda setters, multilateral conveners. Our image of the bold leader courageously charting a new course, who through skill and force of will achieves great results (the “Great Man theory”), has given way to the meeting-caller and the consensus-builder—not a very romantic image of leadership, but one that fits the current reality.  

Who is Threatening the Old Order?

Most of the revolt against the established leaders comes from the middle and working classes. These people tend to be white, male, less educated, blue-collar workers who feel threatened by globalization and changes in their societies. Their angst has spawned a populist movement that tends at times towards the xenophobic, is largely nationalist in sentiment, is anti-government and anti-establishment, is usually anti-immigrant, and often anti-elitist. As The Economist recently noted, “support for xenophobic populism is strongest among those who are older, non-university-educated, working-class, white and male.” They are Donald Trump’s “silent majority,” and Marine Le Pen’s “forgotten people.” The result is a surge in angry voters, a decline in political and social stability, and a move to the political right.   

These voters fear what the future may hold. They are anxious and afraid about losing their social position and status. They feel vulnerable to the rapid-fire changes going on around them. There are forces at work that they neither can understand nor control. Their jobs seem threatened by outsourcing or immigrants. Their wages are stagnant, and they are economically marginalized. They see their societies changing, with people of different origins, colors, and religions “taking over.” They continue to fear the threats posed by terrorism and do not see their governments doing enough to protect them. And they feel powerless to change things.   

The result is a steep decline in trust of government, an anti-government, anti-immigrant surge, a revolt against the establishment and its governing elites. They feel that the world is passing them by, and politicians are too weak or corrupt to fight for their interests. The “lamestream media” is merely a tool of governing elites and does not represent them or speak to their needs. The plutocrats, the donor class, politicians, and the teeming hordes of immigrants are the enemy. They are in a battle for the soul of the nation. It is war. And there is no shortage of would-be saviors who are all too willing to stoke the embers of fear.  

Where is this Seen?

All Western democracies are to varying degrees facing this revolt. In the United States, the symptom is Donald Trump. But the root causes are deeper than merely one affluenza-suffering egotist. In January 2016, over 50 percent of all likely Republican voters supported an outsider or hard-right candidate for president. To be an establishment candidate is a mark of shame, as Jeb Bush quickly found out. Donald Trump’s immigrant-bashing, anti-Muslim statements, and generally derogatory tone, something we would have laughed at 20 years ago, now win applause and adulation. In fact, the more hateful Trump’s message, the more he garners support.

In France, the far right, neo-Nazi National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, did well in early voting in the 2015 elections, but after it was clear that her party might win seats in the legislature, the more mainstream parties worked together to head off the rise of the National Front candidates. Le Pen’s anti-immigrant hostility, made more credible during the Syrian refugee crisis, was represented by the motto “France for the French.”    

In Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a self-consciously illiberal state is developing, with Vladimir Putin as role model. Likewise, in Poland, Jeroslaw Kaczynski, of the Law and Justice Party, is quickly becoming the poster-child of illiberal, Putin-style democracy. Even in Great Britain anti-immigrant and anti-European Union sentiment, at first the key issue for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by the enigmatic Nigel Farage, now finds Conservatives and Prime Minister David Cameron championing their cause, making a “Brexit” from the EU more likely. Russia, of course, is the role model for illiberal government. But even in northern Europe, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark—once firmly established liberal bastions—are swinging more to the right. All these nations are being animated by anti-immigrant, anti-elite, sometimes racist, nativist, and populist sentiments, and all are being threatened to one degree or another by the rise of “strongmen,” and the emergence of illiberal democracy.   

What Do They Want?

They want it to stop—they want to reverse history and go back to a time when they were in control, when it was their country, and “the others” were an annoyance, but not a threat. They want to restore and reinvigorate old national identities against the threat of a watered-down culture. They feel vulnerable and want to feel secure. So they search for a savior to rescue them.   

Is There a Way Out?

Is there a credible reaction to these reactionaries? Effective governance would help, as would a positive message and a new governing coalition. A more equitable spread of wealth from the economic recovery would be a positive step, as would a more coordinated and robust response to terrorism. But mostly we need a reasoned defense of liberal democracy—its ideas and ideals, its benefits and contributions. We must also deal with those complaints and fears that may be legitimate and real. Yes, wages are stagnant; yes, terrorism is an ongoing concern; yes, demographic changes are changing the face of the nation. But if bridge-builders are to reclaim the support of voters, they must offer a better alternative than those offered by wall-builders.  

The rise of illiberal democracy threatens to undermine the governments of the West. In troubled and troubling times, it is understandable that these democracies would be under fire. But sometimes the worst of times brings out the worst in us. The West must offer a better alternative. It must define a new narrative of hope for a disillusioned public. We know what the angry voters are against. Now we need to give them something to be positive for.



Michael A. Genovese is author of over forty books, holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership, and is President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr]  


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