2016 will be remembered as the year when in the name of the people, Liberal Democracy was shaken to its foundations.
On Tuesday night the election of Donald Trump, to President of the United States came as a shock to experts and laymen alike. The former television personality, an open admirer of authoritarian ruler Vladimir Putin is an unlikely character to become the next Leader of the Free World.
However in many ways the election of the Donald was the inevitable, ugly by-product of the last two decades in Western politics. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the proposed ‘end of history’, politicians in liberal democracies have gradually moved towards greater integration in the name of betterment for all.
Although the key tenets of modern liberal democracy: free trade and globalisation have brought prosperity to some, vast swathes of American voters have yet to see any of the improvement promised.
On the contrary, voters across post-industrial America have only seen globalisation contribute to a rise in unemployment and increasing deprivation in their towns. Modelling himself as the outsider, Trump was able to harness the anger and resentment felt by many in the ‘rust belt’ and was then able to convince just under half the electorate that the political elites, through free trade and ecological agreements, were harming the interests of the American people.
Portraying Obama as a lackey of ISIS and Clinton as nothing more than a criminal helped to portray the American political class, long the staunch advocates of free trade and global intervention, as the enemies of the people and the reason for the hard times. Putting all the blame for people’s woes on one thing: the ineffectiveness of his opponents, Trump has not only lied but endangered the future of liberal democracy in America.
Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato examined how the polity could gradually deteriorate into a sequence of societies more imperfect than the last. His book Republic, characterises democracy as a place of liberality. Formed from an unrestrained desire for money that leads to rising material inequality, it bestows equal rights and opportunities on its citizens. This drive for protecting equality and the individual soon becomes synonymous with the purpose of the state, as politicians come to power not from right principles but from an effective currying of the people’s favour.
As democracy begins to fail at appeasing all citizens, Plato sees it as becoming unstable and citizens begin to form groups in order to better serve their private interests. In politics, the establishment becomes the figure of blame for those who have yet to benefit from the new state of affairs. As the civil conflict increases, so do people begin to put their faith in a popular figure claiming to champion their interests and make the state great again.
With the people’s backing as the defender of liberty and equality, the champion enjoys the power to identify the enemies of the people and destroy with his private army. As his power and private army grows, the champion’s own interests, rather than the people’s become the driving force and this heralds the transition to a new form of polity: tyranny. In an ironic twist, Plato concludes that democracy is destroyed in the name of the people.
It might be difficult to see how this process from an ancient Greek political treatise could have any relevance to 2016 America. However, the key theme in Plato: the people appoint a tyrant in order to better protect their interests seems to parallel with what happened this week.
After being promised by elites that globalisation and progressive liberalism would only serve to benefit the individual so the electorate have become disillusioned, as these promises seem unfulfilled. Demagogues like Trump are the natural response to a discontented electorate who feel let down by 20 year-old promises that remain unfulfilled.
Although grandiose promises enable politicians to win the popular support crucial for elections, when they remain unfulfilled they breed resentment and disillusionment in the system. Like Plato in Classical Athens, failure to appease everyone leads to division in democracies and gradually undermines it.
The last ten years has seen the resurgence of authoritarianism both in prosperous China and in aggressive Russia, and slowly the Eastern European democracies are beginning to fall like dominoes to demagogues.
Although a ‘King Trump’ seems a long way off, the preference for the outsider is a disconcerting sign that the people are beginning to loose faith in the liberal democratic regime. In order to preserve democracy before its too late, politicians have to be more realistic with what can be achieved in electoral office.
More by this commentator here.