Tyrants ride to power on disillusionment

Sales of dystopian novels It Can't Happen Here and Nineteen Eighty-Four spiked after the...
Sales of dystopian novels It Can't Happen Here and Nineteen Eighty-Four spiked after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2016. Photo: Getty Images
As the world loses faith in democracy, leaders of vision are desperately needed, writes Davis Olusoga. 

"Across the globe, democracy is in a state of malaise."

That is the bleak assessment of a report from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University. In the UK, three out of five of us — 60.3% of the voting population — are unhappy with the functioning of our democracy. The last time we saw comparable levels of dissatisfaction with the way we are governed was during the "winter of discontent" in 1978-79.

There is plenty more bad news where that came from — bad news for democracy across the globe.

In the US, for the first time ever, the majority lack faith in the democratic system. That decline has been rapid and recent. Before the financial crisis, more than three-quarters of Americans were satisfied with US democracy; today more than half (55%) are dissatisfied. Worldwide, 57.5% of citizens in the nations studied indicated they were not satisfied. Back in 2005, that was just 38.7%.

Taken together, these figures amount to what the report’s authors call a "global democratic recession". The tipping point, they suggest, took place around 2005 and has led now to the "highest level of democratic discontent on record".

What is critical here is that people are growing increasingly dissatisfied not just with their political leaders but with the democratic systems that put them in place. Democracy itself is in trouble.

As with all reports built on deep analysis of large data sets (in this case, 3500 surveys involving more than 4million respondents), the picture painted by the researchers is complex and there are multiple factors lying behind falls in levels of satisfaction.

What is not in doubt is that we should be worried. It’s harder, however, to conclude that we have any business being surprised.

In 2005, at the end of Tony Blair’s second term, levels of democratic dissatisfaction in the UK stood at 32.8%, despite the Iraq War. A quick recap of the intervening period between then and now helps explain why that figure today is 60.3% — the past 15 years weren’t exactly liberal democracy’s golden age.

Short-term crises, such as the expenses scandal of 2009, rocked voters’ faith in our political system, but far more corrosive were the deeper, systemic failures. Millions stopped believing that democracy was functioning as it should, because the governments it produced were unable or unwilling to address the great disaster of the age.

When the banks crashed the global economy in 2007-08, it was they who received a bailout while the rest of us got austerity. As vast reservoirs of wealth were concentrated in the hands of the 1%, governments in the UK and abroad not only tolerated growing inequality, they accelerated it through tax cuts both for the rich and for the companies they owned. Democratically elected governments meekly requesting giant corporations to pay pitifully low levels of tax on their enormous profits is not a good look.

When liberal democratic governments refuse or are incapable of bringing about change, voters seek out populist parties and charismatic leaders who promise to tear up the rules and bring about real transformation.

Donald Trump did not cause America’s democratic crisis of faith, he rode to power on it. Once in control, he and other populists discovered their room for manoeuvre was expanded by the same disillusionment that helped them into office. The trashing of democratic norms and the abuse of institutions such as the judiciary and the press was made possible by the delegitimisation of democratic systems.

As Dr Roberto Foa, one of the co-authors of the Cambridge report, states: "Without this weakening legitimacy, it would be unthinkable for a US presidential candidate to denounce American democracy as rigged, or for the winning presidential candidate in Latin America’s largest democracy to openly entertain nostalgia for military rule."

Such statements further undermine faith in democracy, creating a feedback loop.

In 2016, after Trump’s election, Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, written in 1935, suddenly surged into the Amazon bestseller list. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four enjoyed a comparable spike in sales. Readers turned to those books — one written just before World War 2, the other just after — to look for points of similarity between the politics of the early 21st century and that of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. One often overlooked commonality is that the political crisis of the interwar years and that of our own times followed periods of complacent overconfidence in the health of democracy.

In the years after World War 1, a conflict from which several new republics emerged, historians and political philosophers trumpeted the seemingly unstoppable rise of liberal democracy. In 1921, the British historian James Bryce claimed that democracy had become the "normal and natural form of government". Seventy years later, at the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama suggested that liberal democracy had become "the final form of human government"; a transition that represented what he called "the end of history". Both claims were overtaken by events; fascism in the 1920s, populism today.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the failure of democratic governments to deal with the suffering caused by another financial crash meant that even before the totalitarian challenge arrived millions had lost faith in democracy.

History suggests that the disillusioned and the disaffected do not readily take to the streets nor man the barricades to defend a system that failed to defend them. — Guardian News

 -  David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster



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That survey in the UK was based on 1,200 people and taken over a year ago. At the time many people were greatly disturbed by many MPs moving in a different direction to their manifesto pledges. In the same survey 60% of that small sample said they wanted a strong leader. I can imagine today it would be a happier bunch of people.

Another academic who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The US is not a democracy it’s a constitutional republic. Its laws are made by the representatives chosen by the people. The elected officials must comply with the constitution and protect the rights of the people. That isn’t happening in the States. It’s a two-tiered system where the laws don’t apply to people like the Clintons, The Bidders, the Obamas and other political elites. They are above the law. The law only applies to the “little people” who don’t know one of the elites. The author is right, the lack of faith in democracy in America is because of Trump. Trump has proven again and again that the professional politicians have corrupted the democratic system. The ”little people” are sick of it and want accountability. Trump did ride into power on this disillusionment and has trashed many of the corrupt US intuitions. The delegitimization hasn’t occurred because of Trump, he only woke the people to the corrupt American system and the bastardization of its democracy. Olusoga isn't a very good historian. He's another liberal with Trump derangement syndrome. Trump is operating within the powers of the constitution.

Well, that's alright, then, your leader right or wrong. Your kind of ideological polemic doesn't hold much hope for a free America. Are you in America?

Too funny. Another illinformed "expert" bloviating about the damagers Trump poses to a free America. Trump was aquited of the bogus charges brought against him. Freedom isn't an ideology for people like Trump who have actually done something in life. Thank God he wasn't a community organizer or president of the comunist coloring club. He actually knows how to plan, organize and make a payroll. Ideology is what the "sheepeopple" here in NZ embrace. We don't manufacture anything, have limited exports and the bulk of the population live paycheck to paycheck. Why focus on perceived issues with the US and Trump when we have real problems here? You think we have freedom here,? Ask the lawabiding kiwi's who were forced to sell their guns back to the government. Bet they don't think so! You think DCC represents the people? You don't like Trump and that's fine, unfortunately the American people do & that's why he president. To funny...you really think the ODT makes it to the US? Another kiwi with an overinflated view of our standing in the world! Most of the world doesn't know where we are letalone who Ardern is. That said..
Yes I'm sure he's in America lol!

The disillusionment began when Liberal Democracy headed down the Social Democracy path. This process started when Postmodernism infected our education system contaminating the minds of academia, politics and media.
Populism is the label they slam on the people when they exercise their rights under Liberal Democracy to make the government change its course.
This article could have been shortened to a single sentence.
We elites know what is best, the deplorables are upsetting our narrative, our power base.
Orwell's, Road to Wigan Pier, gives a good insight to the socialists mindset and Solzhenitsyn's, Gulag Archipelago, the consequences of going down that path.
A health government supports, encourages, empowers, provides faith in the future, to the people. It does not install fear, intrepidation, selflothing nor contempt of our society, which are the all to common messages from our education / media / ruling class.

While I'm happy to see these comments showing NZers 'get it', I have to ask, why does the ODT persistently print articles written by Guardian leftists?

Why do most ODT online commenters think any anti Trump opinion is 'Left'?


Probably has something to do with the fact that Leftists are at the forefront of movements to shut down debates on college campuses and to restrict freedom of speech. They are eager to cut corners, bend the Constitution, make up laws through questionable court rulings, and generally abuse the rules and the Constitution in order to get their way. They establish “zero tolerance” regimes in schools where young boys are suspended for nibbling breakfast pastries into the shape of a gun. They are supposedly great haters of bigotry but sometimes speak of Christians in the most bigoted manner imaginable, as if Christians were no better than fascists. They rely on the threat of force in some measure to maintain power, and they are invariably anti-democratic and anti-liberal. Think of communism, fascism, and all the various hybrids of authoritarian regimes, from Putin’s Russia to Islamist states that support terrorism. Deflection? Don't think so; pretty much describes anybody who is anti Trump and the means they use to attack him.

Unfortunately, some will never get it. ODT only prints "Orange Man" bad propaganda. Durham investigation could put Obama and his cronies in prison. ODT print that story? Uranium 1? Benghazi? Fast and Furious? Lois Lerner? Iran money transfer? Wasserman Schultz scandal? No. But "Orange Man" bad! If you get your news from the ODT your woefully uniformed about Trump and the revolution taking place in America.

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