With the recent EU referendum in the UK, a wave of extreme right wing xenophobic parties across Europe and the rise of Donald Trump in America, serious questions have to be asked and addressed regarding the state of the political system and model known as Western Democracy as a viable, efficient guarantor of egalitarian economic progress, human betterment and social harmony and stability. Western politicians, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom are quick to fetishize democracy as the ultimate and perfect political system alongside a free market economy with multi-party elections. They are even quicker to denounce other political systems which do not conform to the so-called norms of Western democratic precepts. The former US State Department intellectual Francis Fukuyama even went so far as to say at the end of the Cold War that Western democracy represented human beings final stage of evolution and the most superior form of governance mankind will ever achieve. Yet is this really the case or is democracy a recipe for chaos and ineffective government alongside an ever increasing socially and economically polarised populace? The word «democracy» from the ancient Greek in its purest most literal form means the will of the people. However, in this increasingly complex, interdependent, internet and media driven world can democracy really deliver the will of the people? Indeed, with societies becoming more diverse and polarized, what is the actual meaning of the «will of people»? Which people? Is the Western conception of democracy fit for purpose? Does the Western model of democracy deliver the best results and are the Western democracies truly what they claim to be?
I’ll never forget the irony of sitting in a conference listening to the British Liberal Democrat spokesperson for foreign affairs, a certain Baroness Falkner, condescendingly regaling the audience with her tales of a trip by a British parliamentary delegation to China and how she lectured her Chinese political hosts on the superiority of British democracy and the Westminster parliamentary system compared with the one party socialist state political system of the People’s Republic. It occurred to me Baroness Falkner was hardly the best person to espouse the virtues of democracy to the Chinese. After all, here was a British politician who was unelected and unaccountable to the voting British people. The Baroness owed her position in the unelected, undemocratic House of Lords to the cronyism of party political patronage. She had not been elected democratically and sat in an institution which represents the apex of the English class system and is thoroughly undemocratic. I’m sure the irony was not lost on her Chinese hosts as well, who probably had a good chuckle and took it all in their stride.
The democratic political system places elections at the heart of its model. Multiple political parties, some with radically different world views, policies and ideologies – have to appeal to a myriad of different interest groups and constituents in order to get elected. They have to adopt positions, espouse rhetoric and vote for legislation in line with their constituents wishes. If they don’t, then they won’t get elected and if they break with the platform they stood on, once in Parliament, they probably will be chucked out at the next election. Very few Western democratic politicians actually demonstrate real leadership. Instead they spend a great deal of time and money with focus groups and pollsters trying to figure out what it is that people want their politicians to do – what will get them elected – and then tailor a marketing strategy to reflect back upon the public the voters’ wishes and desires. Once elected they spend most of their time preparing for the next election, especially in America, with its two year terms in the House of Representatives. A permanent election campaign exists revolving around the single objective of getting oneself continually re-elected and keeping favour with their local voters and special interests rather than doing right in the wider and much bigger national and global interest.
Then there is also the huge amount of money one has to raise to pay for the ever increasing eye watering sums that political campaigns in democracies cost. Therein lies a problem for democracy as well. Who do democratic politicians really represent? The regular voter or the big moneyed donor? What do donors get in return for the fat cheques they write? Cash for access? Cash for influence? The nexus that exists between donations whether from wealthy individuals, large corporations, lobbyists, outside organisations et al., raises serious questions regarding whether democratic institutions adhere to a single standard of representation or whether the democratic system is based on layer upon layer of double standards. The US Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United in 2010 removed any limit on the amount individuals or other groups can donate to political campaigns leading to the flourishing of Super PACs. Tickets at Political fundraisers in America are now sold for as high as $35,000 far more than the average years’ salary for most Americans. The amount of money the British Conservative Party raises from bankers and hedge funders in the City and the opposing Labour Party raises from Trade Unions leaves many wondering who actually makes policy in both main parties?
Then there is the power of interest lobby groups who distort the democratic political process through massive war chests. There is no better example of this than the National Rifle Association in America. It is clear for any rational and sensible thinking person that there is a massive gun problem in America and that the gun laws need significant tightening up. But despite gun massacre after massacre in the US heartbreakingly underscored by the tragedy of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in December 2012, the Obama administration’s push for common sense gun safety regulations fell flat on its face in the US Congress. Not even in the Senate, which the President’s own party controlled at the time, was there any movement towards enacting stringent new legislation such as back ground checks. This was due to the might of the NRA which is a major funder of many politicians’ campaigns in America – Democrats as well as Republicans. The NRA puts the fear of god into many American politicos due to its ability to make and break aspiring and incumbent Congressmen and Senators. The only politician to seriously challenge the NRA in recent memory, Mrs Clinton, can do so because of the counter weight of her own prodigious fundraising machine. These powerful interest lobbies have row upon row of offices in and around democratic legislatures such as Capitol Hill. It has been well documented the outsized power and influence on the American democratic process of such groups such as AIPAC and Noraid, lobby groups that exists to champion the political issues of foreign groups which have nothing to do with direct, sovereign American interests.
The UK referendum on the EU is a classic example of the deep flaws that exist in democracy. When asked by Christiane Amapour of CNN on the morning of the Brexit result, why this referendum was held in the first place as to much of the outside world it looked like a needless, self-inflicted wound, the then Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond responded as if it was a no-brained: «But we are a democracy.» What appeared out of Hammond’s intellectual capacity was the fact that if Britain truly were a democracy then the referendum result would have been discarded due to the closeness of an almost split decision of 52% vs. 48%. On the basis of a 4% majority the entire country, including the significant 48% of Brits who opposed Brexit, will now be ripped out of the EU and plunged into an extremely uncertain and precarious campaign. And it was a horrible campaign with the Leave camp tapping into and exploiting the politics of ignorance, intolerance, xenophobia and latent racism much the same way as Donald Trump has been doing in America. Thanks to democracy, the United Kingdom is the most un-united it has ever been, for all the world, both friend and foe alike to see. What Hammond failed to grasp is that of all the Western democracies, the UK is the most undemocratic. There are more unelected members of the British Parliament than there are elected with the House of Lords now the largest Upper Chamber of any supposed democratic legislature in the world. Furthermore, the democratically elected MPs are not full time MPs. Incredibly, they are allowed to hold multiple outside jobs. When I worked for the Conservative MP – who at the time was the Shadow Chancellor, the Tories chief economic and financial policy maker – he was also employed by Rothschild bank as a part-time employee. Think of it: the chief financial affairs policy maker and spokesman for a major political party and aspiring Government in waiting working simultaneously for a major international investment bank and drawing a salary! Conflict of interest?
Democracy itself is no bulwark or guardian against totalitarian dictatorship. Some zealots of democracy like those in the Henry Jackson Society always point out that no two democracies have ever gone to war against each other. This is too simplistic an analysis and overlooks the fact that it was democracy – in one of the most democratic states ever designed – Weimar Germany that facilitated the growth and eventually rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. People often forget or overlook the fact that Hitler was brought to power through a democratic election. Just as a majority of British voters rejected the post-WWII project of European unity and integration with Brexit, so too decades ago, the German people embraced the promises of Nazism, in many ways just as so many alienated and feverish voters in America are embracing Donald Trump. Perhaps it is time to stop worshipping and fetishizing Western electoral parliamentary democracy and start to learn from other political systems that do contain democratic elements but are not beholden to multiple political parties with their basis of support derived from identity and grievance politics trapped within the media and elite manipulated perpetual cycle of election after election which only serves to undermine stability, cohesion, efficiency and wise public policy making.