UK Politics

Does Trump win mark the end for liberal democracy?

Donald Trump Image copyright AFP
Image caption Donald Trump's election marks a watershed moment in US history and post-war politics

Remember when politics was rather dull?

When across the West the electoral pendulum swung reliably between parties of the centre left and centre right? There was consensus about the benefits of a global market economy. Politicians seemed to talk the same way, wear the same ties, parrot the same stale slogans.

Meanwhile voters got on with shopping, and turning out at elections in ever decreasing numbers. This seemed to be the condition of liberal democracy at the start of 2016. But the seedbed for Brexit and Trump was there.

As politics became the preserve of a professional office-seeking class the old parties shrank. Popular indifference and distrust of politics grew. A few years ago the political scientist Peter Mair argued that Western democracy was being hollowed out.

With one referendum and a presidential election, liberal democracy as we've known it seems finally, dramatically, to have collapsed in on itself.

Too hyperbolic? In response to Donald Trump's victory, the authoritarian, anti-immigration Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, said it was "great news" and claimed his victory marked the end of a period of "liberal non-democracy".

This is the same Viktor Orban who was greeted with a mock-Nazi salute by the president of the European Commission at a summit last year. "The dictator is coming," quipped Jean-Claude Juncker. Now many Western leaders are sweating.

Fear and loathing

Last month the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said the West's political values were in danger of breaking down.

What does he think those values are? "Human rights, civil liberties, including the freedom of speech and religion, free market and a competitive economy based on private property, reasonable and fair redistribution of goods, restrictions on power resulting from rules and tradition, tolerance and political pluralism."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some people have found it hard to reconcile themselves to the election result

Mr Tusk said those who questioned liberal democracy were happy about Brexit, looked up to President Putin and supported Donald Trump.

And it's true that from the coffee shops of Brooklyn to the bistros of Brussels there is a sense of melancholy and foreboding.

For people who have enjoyed the political stability and economic opportunities delivered by decades of liberal democracy these are bewildering, unsettling times.

"How", they ask, "can Britain possibly have voted to leave the EU?" Millions of despairing Americans are grappling with the prospect of President Donald Trump. "Is Le Pen next?" they fret in the cafes of Paris.

The 'left behind'

But for voters who cast ballots for Brexit and Donald Trump it feels like politics has finally listened to them. The "left behind" economic narrative does not account for the full variety of forces behind this new populism.

But in the view of Parag Khanna, an American professor in Singapore and author of the new book Connectography, 2016 will be remembered as the year that "the global underclass revolt crystallised in the form of the Brexit and the Trump election".

"This uncoordinated movement really began with Occupy Wall Street and has now claimed its biggest scalp," he says.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rejection of the status quo has been fuelled by marginalisation and job insecurity

Prof Vernon Bogdanor, at King's College London, agrees. "There is a division between the exam-passing classes who are not hostile to the global elite and the left behind who are nationalist and protectionist," he says.

"It takes different forms in different countries but it's now a fairly common phenomenon in Europe and America."

Prof Bogdanor tells me the new political cleavage is not between left and right but between nationalist populism and those perceived as "elites". And he is worried.

"The election of Donald Trump is the most troubling political event in my lifetime. It's not difficult to arouse nationalist passions. We saw that in the 1930s. We're seeing a pale imitation of what we saw then", he says, while careful to make clear he doesn't consider the president-elect a fascist.

'Elite tantrum'

But Claire Fox, the director of the Institute of Ideas, thinks the vitality of liberal democracy has been proved by the Brexit and Trump results. "We have to be careful of an anti-democratic response to perfectly legitimate democratic votes. Quite a lot of liberals are saying, 'well, democracy is not working so well because people are voting in a way we don't want them to vote', which strikes me as a supreme irony."

Image copyright AP
Image caption Sceptical voices on immigration have been ignored or demonised, it is claimed

A suffocating political and cultural consensus has driven the backlash we are seeing now, she believes. "There has been arguably far less tolerance over the last 10 years for anyone who doesn't agree with what a particular elite outlook is - and a silence or demonising of people who don't go along with the narrative."

Ms Fox cites public concern about immigration as a prime example and she also takes exception to the suggestion liberal democracy is being threatened by an ugly authoritarianism. "The whole of the establishment, from army generals to big business, lined up to say Brexit was a mistake," she argues. "What's authoritarian is employers turning round to their workers and saying jobs would be lost.

"We had an elite who thought they could call a referendum, mobilise everybody who should go and vote as they were told. That's caused a massive tantrum amongst the elite who then have the nerve to say it's the people's fault for threatening democracy."

Destination unknown

Whether or not this political upheaval should be celebrated or feared, it feels like a rupture with the past. We are rumbling over an important set of points with little idea where we are heading.

Brexit and Trump promised political control to people who felt their lives had little of it, who were furious at the gulf between their political rulers and the governed and mourned the social cohesion of the past, and whose voices were not heard much in the media. In the raucous, angry echo chamber of social media a fight back brewed.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Other socio-economic models around the world, notably China, are accepted

The flipside seems to be growing intolerance of pluralism and difference.

That is why people like Donald Tusk anxiously wonder how Western liberal democracy can respond and survive. Because there is nothing inevitable about its continuity.

As author and political philosopher John Gray wrote recently, plenty of authoritarian regimes in the world are doing well.

The middle class in Russia appears wedded to a combination of consumerism and nationalism and in China many want nothing more than rising living standards and freedom in their private lives. "Liberal societies cannot depend on history for their survival," he says in a New Statesman article. "They need to defend themselves."

At the moment however, the winners from globalisation and the political elites have lost and the dissenters have won.

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