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Ramesh Thakur
Ramesh Thakur
Ramesh Thakur, a Brownstone Institute Senior Scholar, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General, and emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

The crisis of democracy and the New Right

Democracy opinion

The BBC’s Nick Robinson said that Conservatives think of Reform leader Nigel Farage as ‘a kind of Sunday roast with all the trimmings’ while Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak is ‘a quinoa salad.’

The latest YouGov UK poll on 25 June has Labour leading at 36 percent, followed by Conservatives 18, Reform 17, and Liberal Democrats 15. Based on these, their modeling projects Labour winning 425 of Parliament’s 650 seats (65.4 percent), Conservatives 108 (16.6), Reform 5 (0.8), and Liberal Democrats 67 (10.3). Thus Labour with about one-third of votes would win almost two-thirds of seats; the Conservatives, level-pegging with Reform in votes, would win 22 times as many seats; Reform would win less than one-third of its vote share in seats; and the LibDems, with only four-fifths of the Reform share of votes, would have thirteen times as many seats. The extent of the distortion is shown visually in Figure 1. Another poll from People Polling actually has Reform ahead of Conservatives 24-15.

the crisis of democracy

The UK distortions reflect the quirks of the first-past-the-post electoral system used in elections for the mother of parliaments. The Australian electoral system in combination with the institutionalised practice of preference flows produces its own significant distortions. In the May 2022 elections, Labor won 77 of the 151 seats with 32.6/52.1 percent primary/two-party preferred votes, and the Coalition won 58 seats with 35.7/47.9 percent votes. The last Newspoll on 9 June had the Coalition’s primary vote at 39 and Labor at 33 percent, with the two-party preferred vote tied 50-50. Although one cannot make linear extrapolations, under the UK system the Coalition would have won the last election and would be on track for a landslide victory next year.

Whither representative democracy? With parliamentary representation and government composition going off at tangents from voter preferences, Australia and the UK demonstrate why there’s growing disenchantment with democracy itself. On 18 June, the Pew Research Center published its latest democracy satisfaction ratings in 12 high-income democracies in Europe, North America, and Asia. In 2017, an equal share (49 percent) of people were satisfied and dissatisfied with the way democracy was working in their country. Now, the balance has shifted 64-36 to the dissatisfied group. When the polling was extended to 19 other countries this year, the median dissatisfaction in the 31 countries was 54-45 percent. For Australia it is 60-39.

In the last three years, the satisfaction ratings have fallen by 21 points in the UK, 14 in Canada, 11 in Germany, 10 in the US, and 9 in France. As will be immediately obvious, the last three years were the years of the pandemic when Covid provided the trigger to the unchecked expansion and widespread abuse of state power. Climate- and pandemic-related fear-induced safetyism is being deployed to the same end to tell people which car to buy and command manufacturers and dealers which cars to make and sell; to order people how to heat their homes; and so on.

Yet another reason for the rising dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is the relentless negativity of the noisy activists towards the legacy of Western civilisations, culture, and values. To take but one example, mobs have been out vandalising artistic and statuary symbols of this legacy with respect to racism and slavery. Yet, as the exceptional Michaela Community School principal Katharine Birbalsingh pointed out in an Intelligence Squared debate on 25 September 2019, slavery was common to all major civilisations and races; Arabs enslaved white Europeans as well as black Africans; Africans held African slaves; and American blacks owned African-American slaves. Western civilisation was the only one to develop a moral revulsion against slavery and to lead the fight (often literally) for its worldwide legal abolition.

Where is the logic in agitating for the descendants of the soldiers who died in the US Civil War to free slaves, to pay reparations to the descendants of the slaves who were freed, she asked? This recently posted video clip of her speech on X has garnered 29 million views.

Jeffrey Tucker, founder-president of Brownstone Institute, splits the deep state of popular imagination into three layers:

  1. The deep state of security, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies that operate mostly in the world of shadows with legal protections for classified information;
  2. The middle layer of the administrative state to which legislatures and executives have delegated powers and courts have deferred to their expertise in the exercise of these powers. Even US Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell recently complained about the growing ‘rejection of democratic accountability in favor of the administrative state;’ and
  3. The mostly consumer-facing shallow state that complies with but also, through extensive lobbying, shapes the edicts of the administrative state.

Matt Ridley, who retired from the House of Lords in 2021, drew on his parliamentary experience to write recently in the Spectator that no matter who the citizens vote for, the blob – the network of mighty quangocrats, technocrats, activist NGOs, and unelected and unaccountable judges – always wins. The three principal characters in the 1980s hit TV series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister were Jim Hacker as the PM, Sir Humphrey Appleby as his departmental and then cabinet secretary, and Bernard Woolley as his Private Secretary. Referencing that ever-popular and still-relevant series, Ridley writes:

Today, when Hacker suggests a policy, Humphrey reminds him that he has devolved responsibility to the National Paperclips Authority, or it’s not within his power, or judicial review will stop it, or it’s against human rights law, or he’s bullying Bernard by asking him to turn up to work.

In the US, even Andrew Cuomo, the disgraced former Governor of New York who was a fierce and popular Trump critic, said recently that ‘if his name was not Donald Trump, and if he wasn’t running for president,’ the sex case in which he was convicted ‘would have never been brought.’ Cuomo explained that he was speaking as a former Attorney General of New York.

On 16 June, a long, glossy spread in the New York Times described several progressive groups that are apprehensive of the threat to democracy from a potential second Trump administration, including the American Civil Liberties Union, National Immigration Law Center, Reproductive Freedom Alliance, and Democracy Forward. ‘A sprawling network of Democratic officials, progressive activists, watchdog groups and ex-Republicans’ is gearing up to neuter the anticipated agenda by deploying lawfare as the weapon of choice and drafting several lawsuits that could be filed early in his second term.

The vortex of the above developments explains why there is a spectre haunting the West today, the spectre of a New Right challenging and displacing the left-liberal consensus on migration, Net Zero, and identity politics. Described variously as far-right, hard-right, and radical0right, the protest movements (for example by farmers) are morphing into nascent political parties and alignments. They are better understood as the New Right that is on the march across the West en route to becoming mainstream.

What began as a drift to the right is threatening to turn into a stampede. In another extraordinary poll, 46 percent of all UK voters, including 24 percent of Conservative voters from 2019, believe the party deserves to lose every seat. The Tories have lost ground since 2019 among every voting group by gender, class, and age.

Similarly, in Canada, Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberal Party lost one of its safest seats in a by-election in Toronto on 24 June. The extent of the swing to the Conservatives was on a scale to suggest that after the next general election, due by next year, the Liberals could be reduced from 155 to just 15 seats, according to Ginny Roth, a partner at Crestview Strategy. Don Braid, a weekly columnist with the Calgary Herald, went even further: ‘Liberal defeat is now possible in every single riding across Canada.’

This is white hot rage territory. The recent European elections represent a political earthquake. The European Parliament itself has limited powers. The elections’ real significance is that, as proxy referendums on national politics, they will shape national policies in Europe’s most consequential countries (France, Germany, Italy). The aftershocks could rattle the UK next week, the US in November, and even Australia next year. In these places, too, citizens have had enough of the uniparty’s progressive-green-globalist agenda to dissolve their rich civilisation into a relativist and mushy quinoa salad.

All ‘right-thinking’ people are assumed to subscribe to the consensus and be on ‘the right side of history.’ The prospect of the ‘wrong-thinking’ people from the ‘wrong side of history’ emerging victorious at the ballot box is provoking an epidemic of conniptions. For they are viewed as not just wrong, but positively evil. Thus all who opposed the Voice referendum in Australia last year were bigoted racists. Critics of mass immigration from countries with cultures deeply hostile to Western values, who want to domesticate the Israel-Palestine conflict in local politics, are Islamophobes. Opponents of the jobs and growth-destroying Net Zero are climate-denialist Neanderthals. Advocacy for gender realism is hate speech.

You get the picture.

‘Reactionary’ views are firming on fossil fuels, gender wars, immigration, and, in an increasingly darkling world, national security. The scorn-spewing elites own the outcome of the European elections. History is full of examples where, when the elites lost touch with the people, they were pitchforked into oblivion. That’s the fate of elites who end up on the wrong side of history. But of course, like all who are liberal until mugged by reality, liberals support revolutions in every place and time except their own.

The old left-right divide has become obsolete. Instead, the new divide is between the international technocratic elite in alliance with national elites against the interests, values, and policy preferences of national populations. This came to a head during the pandemic years that pitted the laptop Zoom class against the working class, enriching the former and immiserating the latter. The fear porn used to impose Covid-era restrictions broke the citizen-state social compact and peoples’ trust in almost all public institutions.

‘We the people’ are fighting back. ‘Populist’ is commonly used by commentators pejoratively. Yet the word comes from the notion of the popular will to describe policies that are popular with large numbers of voters who have come to believe that their concerns are derided and disregarded by the established policy, cultural, corporate, intellectual, and media elites.

Hence the revolt of the masses against the homogeneous political establishment and against the scolds and sneers who are their cheerleaders in the commentariat. Their lack of humility is matched by a surfeit of arrogance. The ‘deplorables’ find nothing to apologise for in cherishing their own culture, practising and defending the values they have inculcated to live by in a cohesive and closely knit community. They reject the concerted effort to deny space to anyone who gives voice to the fear that to import the third world is to risk becoming the third world.

If a minor or new party strikes a chord with the base of one of the major parties with respect to the central organising principle, economic philosophy, constitutional values, energy security and affordability, and individual rights, from which the major parties are seen to have departed, then votes will hemorrhage from the major to the ‘populist’ party. But all this means is that the party, not the voters, has deserted core values.

The message from the European voters can be summarised thus: Europeans don’t want to become African, Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Muslim. They don’t want to import the third world’s pathologies of slums, sectarian conflicts, violent street crimes, rapes, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of affordable high-quality public education and health care. They do wish to preserve their own heritage, culture, lifestyles, peaceful communities, public safety, and good governance.

Their tolerance has been tested to breaking point. They have had enough and they are not going to take it anymore. They would like their countries, stolen from them in fits of absentmindedness, back, thank you very much.

Ironically, the prestige of democracy and commitment to liberal democracy as a political project has plummeted also in the global South as a result of the obvious grave dysfunctionality of Western democracies. Westerners are bankrupting themselves with green policies and tearing themselves apart with identity politics, much to the bemusement of people in the global South despite their own multitude of serious problems.

Political parties need to forge a new consensus on climate, immigration, and gender and racial identity policies, and find the sweet spot between the excesses of the left (for example climate extremism and anti-Semitism) and the right (e.g. Islamophobia), and between inward-looking nationalism and sovereignty-destroying globalism.

One of the great strengths of democracies is the self-correcting mechanisms against excesses. This is how I interpret the results of India’s recent general election in which PM Narendra Modi was reduced to a minority government reliant for survival on a group of regional allies. The results amount to an all-round win-win outcome:

  • Modi gets to lead a third consecutive government to consolidate his party’s transformative agenda.
  • Coalition allies will have more say in governance.
  • Congress and other opposition parties have given a respectable showing and will form a credible opposition and be better positioned to hold the government accountable.
  • The return of regional parties means the prospect of over-centralisation, which would constitute an existential threat to India’s unity, has receded.
  • The potential for mining anti-Muslim sentiment to mobilise the Hindu vote has been exhausted.

The long overdue correction of Western democracies is now in train. The slow and painful process of restoring trust in public institutions might just have begun. If not, troubles could intensify and multiply.

Marking the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress on 13 March 1962, President John F. Kennedy said: ‘Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.’ If voter preferences continue to be disrespected instead of implemented as policy, how long before violent explosions erupt and civil wars return?

Image credit: Unsplash+

 

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