Liberal democracy stands for a fine set of values – so why is it failing so badly?

There has been a failure to fight for the conventions that should lead to a decent and humane society, such as societal cohesion, kindness and civility

A picture shows a placard reading in French "Violent police = sick democracy" hanging from a pole Place de la Republique in Paris on February 3, 2019, a day after "Yellow Vest" (Gilets Jaunes) protesters took to the streets for the 12th consecutive Saturday. The "Yellow Vest" movement in France originally started as a protest about planned fuel hikes but has morphed into a mass protest against President's policies and top-down style of governing. / AFP / JOEL SAGET
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To say that liberal democracy is under threat has become commonplace. The world has witnessed the rise of populism across continents and borders, from Brazil to the Philippines and India to Italy. China has never looked less likely to go down the path of democratic reforms. At Davos last month, the former Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen – now a vice president of the European Commission – warned that countries choosing what he called “Russian-style democracy” over liberal democracy was the greatest challenge to the European Union today. “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades,” concluded the NGO Freedom House in a report last year. “Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”

The democratic election of illiberal authoritarians seems to taunt a system of government that was so triumphant and sure of itself after the end of the Cold War that the unipolar world that followed seemed destined to be dominated by the Washington consensus. Today many wring their hands over the numbers who are rejecting their prized model. Yet never have the established liberal democracies provided such a poor advertisement for their own wares.

In France and Portugal recently, there have been instances of outrageously heavy-handed policing: in the former, gilets jaunes protesters have lost eyes and even hands to police rubber bullets and stun grenades, while in the latter, riots erupted in Lisbon after footage of police officers beating anyone who crossed their path in Bairro da Jamaica, a neighbourhood largely made up of African migrants, went viral. The chaos over Brexit and the deep divisions it has laid bare in Britain (quite apart from the staggering ineptitude of Theresa May's government), means that it will be years, if not decades, before anyone considers the "mother of parliaments" as an example to follow again.

In Italy, the deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini faces possible prosecution over his inhumane attempt to prevent 177 desperate migrants on board a rescue ship from entering the country last year. And in America, as if the government shutdown and the replacement of civilised debate by tweeted insults and fake news were not enough, the shocking levels of gerrymandering and efforts to suppress voting led a columnist from The National Interest to call them attempts "to convert temporary power into permanent power by corrupting democratic procedures".


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If liberal democracy is seen to be faltering, it is at least partly because too many countries that purport to represent that system are failing to stand up for and defend their own values. State violence against ordinary men and women, to take one example, is surely unacceptable – and indefensible. Yet in the US in 2017, there were 458 fatal shootings by police (compared with zero in Japan). They sometimes cause an outcry, especially when an innocent person is killed – yet they continue. Liberal democracies claim to cherish free speech but it is in those countries that the trend for “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and “no platforming” has been allowed to grow like a foul weed, with far too few people prepared to argue for the value of vigorous debate and freedom of speech.

Similarly, a culture of vicious and intolerant judgmentalism renders any sin against contemporary mores a mortal one. I am no defender of Ralph Northam, the Virginia governor who might have to resign over pictures which have surfaced, and which may or may not be of him wearing either blackface or a Ku Klux Klan gown. But the photos were from his medical school yearbook. Mr Northam qualified as a doctor in 1984. That is 34 years ago. The boundaries of humour were different then and although either costume would still have been considered in very poor taste by some, it is worth remembering that in one of the best-loved comedies of the decade, Trading Places, Dan Aykroyd blackened his face and wore an Afro wig to pretend to be a Jamaican junkie. I don't remember hearing any calls for the film to be banned. But no one seems prepared to say that Mr Northam's subsequent record should more than compensate for a youthful transgression. Do we really expect everyone in public life to lead lives of utter blamelessness – and to be prepared to be judged by the standards of the future – before they take office?

Then there has been the failure to fight for the other greater values that render a liberal democracy something more than a system of government built on an array of checks and balances, such as societal cohesion, kindness and civility. The unravelling of all three began a long time ago, aided by the attitudes of right-wing governments in the 1980s, exemplified by that of Britain’s Mrs Thatcher. Her ministers treated the newly unemployed with contempt, undermined that great unifier, the welfare state, and preached an individualism that I would call feral, were it not for the fact that most wild animals show a far greater sense of community than did some of the leading lights of her conservative government.

In short, the virtues of liberal democracy are self-evidently apparent to its cheerleaders. But they are not currently so overwhelmingly visible in many liberal democracies. Where was the compassion when the EU – the liberal democratic institution par excellence – impoverished Greece? Where were the standards of decency and decorum when the Republican Party kept Donald Trump as their presidential candidate, even after the Access Hollywood tape?

At its best, liberal democracy stands for a fine set of values and a carefully calibrated set of rules and conventions that should work to preserve a decent and humane society. How could such a model be failing? Perhaps when the great liberal democracies stop to reflect on their own recent records, they will find the answer. If they do not even attempt to live up to their own high ideals, it is no wonder they will be rejected – with anyone who promises to give the status quo a good kicking preferred.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum