Is Democracy under threat

On the 9 November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and many saw this as the end of history. That Democracy was the winner and would inevitably become the default norm of all modern nations in the world.

4 years of Donald Trump have brought any such optimism up against a far more difficult reality. A constant diet of lies spread by an open social media has brought freedom of speech into some question and put the old dictatorial playbook onto steroids. American leadership’s abdication from the cause of Democracy has weakened it globally, as well as giving comfort to dangerous regimes in China, Turkey, India, Philippines or Russia, Saudi Arabia et al.

The Big Lie

At the heart of any dictatorship is The Big Lie. This is both the enabler of dictatorship and the reason for the damage it causes.

  • For Hitler, the big lie was that the Jews were the enemy within that were responsible for Germany’s loss in the 1st world war. This took about 15 years to grow from outrageous nonsense, to part of the Nazi national creed.
  • For Stalin the lie was the marvellous success of their industrial and agricultural programmes under the wonders of state Communist control, and that any deviation could only be explained by sabotage from the class enemy.
  • For Trump it has been that the ‘election was stolen’ and that ‘COVID is a Democrat conspiracy’.
  • Etc etc

How to Build it

The trouble with the Big Lie is that while you can fool most of the people for a short period of time, it leads down a very destructive path.

  1. First you need to have a lie that people want to believe. Take your pick. National exceptionalism is normally a good component and a bit of ‘othering’ of any convenient minority – Jews, Blacks, intellectuals, Muslims, the Uyghurs in China etc is always good for building a following.
  2. Then you need some enablers. People of power that know that it is a lie, but find it convenient to back you as a useful front man to achieve their own goals. That helps the lie gain momentum.
  3. But to make The Lie really work you also need to discredit any group of truth sayers. The media, experts of any sort, the liberal elite who might be well educated.
  4. But in undermining public trust in all these groups, the potential dictator must also undermine all the institutions of state that might provide good governance in the process of actually running the country. The judiciary, the police, the civil service, and in the UK – the NHS and the BBC, even Parliament
  5. Any other element of democratic legitimacy also has to be challenged. Local government needs to be eviscerated, supra national forums of collaboration – like NATO or WHO or the G7 become a challenge to national sovereignty and National greatness. Everything has to be managed by a smaller and smaller clique

This slippery slope does not happen all at once. It takes years. It might start with amusing little lies about bananas, but as it gains momentum it become more difficult to stop.

We all know in our hearts that success is much more likely if we all collaborate, but the short-term benefits of a beggar-my-neighbour policy, is very difficult to resist, especially when there are few short-term costs. (See ‘The Prisoners Dilemma’ in Games theory for more details)

In some ways COVID 19 has been a wake-up call that reminds us that the rhetoric that wins elections/ referenda is not the same as the job of management where results actually matter and cannot be wished away with a pleasing bit of prose. Actions really do have consequences and if we cannot work together we will surely suffer separately.

What do we need to do to stop the rot

As a starting point:

  • Let’s hold to the idea that a person’s word should be their bond and that blatant lying is repugnant and should disqualify you from public office.
  • Accept that no group has a monopoly on wisdom and a plurality of ideas will generally help avoid the most egregious mistakes.
  • Understand that centralising of power in a tiny clique of like-minded zealots is dangerous and prone to failure (whether they be in No 10 or in the Chinese polit bureau.)
  • And always remember that people have a natural sense of fairness, and if the level of inequality in society becomes too blatant, they will eventually rebel against it. Sensible governments will respond to the pressure before it boils over into revolution.

We collectively have serious problems such as global warming that need to be addressed. We also have serious opportunities such as those delivered by the next industrial revolution which is already upon us. It will take serious governments, pulling together, for us to manage the strains and changes to the status quo that these things will bring.

Sway version