Freedom…..terms and conditions may apply!
Another thing to worry about regarding Trump or the many other populist leaders across Europe is the threat they pose to the system of democracy itself. Quite apart from the autocratic tendencies that they lean towards (thus, anyone voting for them needs to consider that you might be voting to end democracy as we know it), there is the fact that these candidates undermine the case for democracy itself.
I’ve had debates with people from countries like China about democracy, and as they see it having a democracy would merely mean allowing the uneducated, illiterate and easily manipulated masses to pick the government. And they’d likely pick some reality TV star or some lunatic like Trump or Putin. Indeed, case in point, recently a known vigilante murderer, with authoritarian views was elected president in the Philippines.
Certainly, many from China will happily agree that the Chinese government is far from perfect. And yes there is a lot of corruption (as the Panama papers reveal). But on the other hand, the government is well run and things are improving for the people every year. And there’s no danger of racist nutters taking over. Whether this attitude will prevail when China’s economy stops growing is perhaps a question for debate another time. But certainly it is very difficult, given recent events in the West, to concoct a compelling argument in favour of democracy.
In recent years we’ve seen western governments fail to act decisively over the financial crisis (as in take measures to prevent another crisis), they have imposed austerity measures that are clearly harming many, and the “the war on terror” has seen all sorts of intrusive and anti-democratic legislation passed. And in other parts of Europe, populist parties have brought in all sorts of crazy legislation. The legalised theft from asylum seekers in Denmark for example or fascist vigilante patrols in Hungary.
In essence one is forced to the conclusion that democracy is a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t always work in practice….of course at this point the communist will point out that this is exactly the argument used against them in the cold war. Ya, making everyone equal sounds like a swell idea, the trouble is in practice you end up with governments that are paralysed by their own internal bureaucracy, while the state coffers are looted by pilfering, self serving party officials.
Choose your leaders carefully…if you can!
Another counter to autocratic governments is that the quality of the government you get boils down to the quality of the ruler in charge. If you have a good, wise and just ruler (e.g. Roman Emperor Hadrian) who acts in the long term interest of the country, things can go well. But all it takes is one bad ruler and he can easily undo everything (e.g Nero) and potentially even destroy the country. Furthermore, once you have a “bad king” (or President for life, Comrade general, Dear Leader, etc.) its next to impossible to remove him (short of assassination….and that assumes you’ve a competent and sane alternative waiting in the wings). And with no checks and balances on his power, there is no limit to the damage an authoritarian leader can do. This would seem to offer a good argument in favour of democracy.
Unfortunately, recent experience would question whether this is so. Take G. W. Bush. In his book on Tyrants by the author David Wallechinsky points out that Bush used many of the same tactics and methods we would normally associate with dictators – Torture, kidnap, detention without trial, ignoring human rights (some of his Fox news cheerleaders even went so far as to call the US bill of rights “a suicide pact”), autocratic rule without public or congressional oversight, corruption and financial mismanagement, bizarre behaviour etc.
Yet, the checks and balances that are there precisely to stop this sort of thing were not applied to Bush. Given what we now know, Bush should have been impeached and bundled off to the Hague (along with Tony Blair). Instead, not only did a Republican controlled congress fail to impeach him, but the public re-elected him!
And to stay non-partisan, one of Bush’s most intrusive actions was to create the PRISM surveillance system. Obama was aware of this, yet did nothing to dismantle PRISM, or for that matter ensure the appropriate democratic and public scrutiny was applied to it. One shudders to think what abuses of power would occur under a Trump regime. He might not just prove to be the worst president in American history, but the last one (who is democratically elected anyway!).
In short, democracy only works if the checks and balances built into the system are applied. And the partisan ideologically driven nature of modern politics means they often aren’t implemented. And keep in mind one of those key “emergency brakes” is us the voting public. Voters need to stop treating ballot boxes as a means of venting their personal frustrations. Or treating an election like some celebrity TV talent show. The job of PM or President is a little bit more important than that of high school president or some TV variety show.
Hence we need to vote for someone who can actually do the job, not the guy who has the best winning smile. And it is crucial that certain lunatics are kept from high office. The public are increasingly failing to uphold their role in democracy, which risks bringing down the entire system.
Economic freedom v’s political freedom
Those who watched too many of those 50’s propaganda pieces will probably argue that the key feature of democracy is that it allows people to innovate and set up new companies. The implication being that you can’t set up your own business in a non-democratic country because of interference from the big bad government. Really? Are you telling me that if you have a good idea to make a fortune (and thus employ people and pay more tax) that the Chinese government would stop you?
There’s a difference between economic freedom and personal freedom. While we’d all like this Reaganite myth to be true, that the freer a country is and the smaller the government, the better a place it is to run a business. But recent events (i.e. China and Asia’s economic boom, while the US and West has declined) suggests otherwise.
Certainly the corruption and cronyism in many non-democracies creates problems for business. But even so, we still see corporations beating a path to the door of such regimes and they won’t be doing that if the felt such regimes were anti-business. And in the west many populist leaders (such as Trump or Farage) want to restrict or even end free trade . So its difficult to argue that Western democracies are a lone bastion of free trade.
That said, while many companies might want to set up shop in places like China, Dubai or Singapore, few have actually moved their headquarters out of western countries, even thought this often means being subject to western laws and regulations…and perhaps paying some taxes too. This is largely because business leaders understand what happens when you get on the wrong side of the government (or the wealthy and well connected locals) in non-democratic countries. Hence why they want to keep a suitcase packed by the door (as it were) and are ready to bolt if things turn ugly. So perhaps the real benefit of democracy we should try to sell is freedom from prosecution.
Unfortunately, recent events again contradict the notion that democracies are better at protecting people from oppression. Western countries under Bush and Blair not only engaged in acts such as kidnap and detention without trial and torture, but they co-operated with regimes such as Syria and Libya too. And part of what’s driving the rise in far right parties in the US and Europe is a demand for institutionalised racism towards certain minority groups.
And this lurch towards casual racism and authoritarianism, isn’t something on the fringes, but very much mainstream politics. A recent survey found that 50% of UK adults hold authoritarian views. Cameron’s big idea is that he should be allowed to discriminate against one set of people when it comes to benefits. And for quite a while the Tories were insisting that they need to repeal the European convention on human rights…until it was pointed out to them that this would make the UK members of a very small club of European countries who aren’t subject to the convention (you know places like Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan….). So it would be difficult to argue that the west is (or will remain) less likely to persecute people than other nations.
Certainly the recent rise in “populism” both sides of the Atlantic is driven by frustrations with established governments. But are the populist leaders benefiting from these frustrations really the best people to tackle these problems? One could scarcely think of a worse person to take on “the elites” than a crony, lying, billionaire draft dodger member of the elite club….just one who the others don’t trust, largely because of his mob connections.
And one of the arguments for voting for populist leaders is that, oh regular politicians lie and flip flop all the time. Have you been listening to Trump recently? He flip flop’s within the same sentence!….and he’s still not released his tax returns, despite promising to do so as early as 2011.
And on the left (again, let’s try to stay bi-partisan), while I do have to confess I like some of the things I hear from Bernie Sanders, but I have to ask if a 71 year old congressman, who has spend 44 of those years in one political job or another is really the best person to bring about such changes. And in the UK, while there’s a lot of things I hear from Corybn I agree with, but I question whether a 69 year old labour party rebel is really a good choice for a future PM. If he can’t control his own party how is he going to run a country? As the Syriza party in Greece showed, its very easy to make extravagant promises, but living up to them is a lot harder. And don’t even get me started on Europe’s growing list of far right leaders!
The fact is that many populist politicians are far worse than mainstream politicians. Its equivalent to someone frustrated with the lies of mainstream auto dealers, instead going to some back alley dealer who only deals in cash and is out on probation for running a cut and shut operation. Populist’s will promise the most ridiculous and extreme policies, which they then fail to deliver on, largely because those policies were unenforceable from the beginning, at least without destroying democracy first. And of course the danger is, sooner or later one of them will go to this extreme, as events in Venezuela prove….and I suspect events in the Philippines will further prove in a few years time.
The end of democracy?
And let us not doubt that what’s at stake here is indeed democracy itself. Keep in mind that historically speaking, democracy (at least the kind with a popular, one person one vote system) is a very new idea. And not all the countries of the world are democracies (many in the developing world just pretend to be democracies so they can trade with the west).
It is interesting that many futurists or sci-fi authors do not think it is a given that future societies will be democratic. In the “Starship Troopers” universe of Robert A. Heinlein democracy is remembered as a failed experiment that brought the world to the brink of collapse. In Frank Herbert Dune universe democracy has been superseded by an imperial regime of various ultra-powerful squabbling families. In the Multiplayer game Eve-online, none of the regime within the gaming universe resemble anything we’d consider a democracy.
We need to start teaching people that democracy isn’t so much a right, but instead see it as a responsibility. And that means applying equal scrutiny to politicians on a factual basis. If “flip-flopping”, lying and failing to fulfil promises made are reasons to dismiss mainstream politicians, then the same rule has to apply for populist ones.
And its all too easy to stand on a platform, make stuff up and promise the sun the moon and the stars. It is essential that voters pause for a while and think, is this actually possible. And even if it is, voters need to pause for three seconds and considering the consequences (e.g. throw out all the Mexicans in the US, you’ll have crops rotting in the fields, rising labour costs, rising taxes to pay for all the security, companies relocating overseas, etc.).
Good politics is about trying to achieve the possible not the imaginable fantasy.