Has democracy had its day?

The worst kind of government – apart from all the others – faces increasingly tough challenges. Four leading historians consider its future.

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.

Democracy in the Athenian sense has not yet been realised

Edith Hall, Professor of Classics at King’s College London and author of Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life (Bodley Head, 2018)

Democracy as we understand it is creaking. Under our system of government, the people’s role consists of little more than being allowed to vote every few years for individuals organised into political parties to represent them. The principle that a parliamentarian is not obliged to represent his electors’ views was lent respectability by Edmund Burke when he told the voters of Bristol in 1774, ‘You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.’

The people (demos) in our election-centred versions of democracy wield no executive power (kratos), which is how the ancient Greeks understood democracy. We do not vote directly in the national executive Assembly on whether to go to war, while being expected, if we are under 60, to fight ourselves. We are not all sufficiently educated to sit for a year on our Council of State to gather information and deliberate on issues to be put to the Assembly. We do not select our magistrates annually and subject them to severe accountability procedures. On the other hand, we do not prevent women and a large enslaved population from voting.

Our etiolated democracies are in varying forms of crisis. Sinister targeted propaganda on social media interferes with electoral results to an unknown degree. Voters are alienated from the political class to an unprecedented extent.

Some electorates choose leaders who are systematically reducing their citizens’ already limited rights. Britain is in a groundhog daymare because one prime minister disrupted the tired status quo of representative democracy to declare a referendum because he couldn’t control his own party; his successor can’t control her own Cabinet.

This means that democracy as we currently practise it needs reform and invigoration. But the ideal of democracy as defined by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, ‘Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people’, has emphatically not ‘had its day’. The ancient Athenian experience is an idea that has never yet been realised in world history.

Democracy is under strain, but there remain solid grounds for hope

Philip Cunliffe, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent

Democracy has not had its day, but it is certainly under grave strain throughout the world. Authoritarianism remains entrenched in major countries, such as Russia and China, but more telling, perhaps, is how democratic mass politics is struggling in the world’s long-established liberal democracies. In the US, an 18th-century constitutional system scaled up into a global imperial state continues to strain under the burden of 21st-century politics, with the Trump administration and Republican Party increasingly relying on, and ruling from, the non-representative redoubts of the US system: the electoral college, the Senate, the Supreme Court. The Democratic opposition, on the other hand, has also vested its hopes in non-representative power, by hoping for subversion of the president by the security agencies of the deep state and in hoping for legal challenges and investigations to bring the president low.

In France, Emmanuel Macron has maintained his rule by deploying riot police on the streets of Paris for six months to crush protests catalysed by supranational restrictions on the government’s social spending. Last but certainly not least, democracy is facing grave challenges in Britain, as exemplified by the incapacity of the Westminster system to deliver on the will of the majority in the Brexit referendum of 2016 and in the increasingly open hostility of Britain’s liberal professional classes to democracy itself.

Despite all this, there are solid grounds for hope. The most dramatic example of this is in the ongoing popular protests in Algeria and Sudan, where demonstrators have not only braved the security forces of militaristic regimes to impose the will of the populace on the state, but are also alert to the ways in which popular will may be thwarted. In both countries, protestors carry signs warning of the ‘Egyptian scenario’, in which one autocrat, Hosni Mubarak, was replaced by another, the current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Yet the very fact that mass democracy is under strain shows that it continues to exist, and that it may even emerge invigorated as a result of these challenges.

We will not suddenly awake from what feels like a bad dream

Michael Burleigh, Engelsberg Chair of International Relations, LSE IDEAS

Some very unpleasant people are stirring again, not just in Germany, Hungary, Italy and Spain, but in an organised way across international borders. I don’t just mean the attempt to coordinate them, through Steve Bannon’s Movement – which has established a right-wing training academy in a former Italian monastery – or Lega leader Matteo Salvini’s efforts to forge a national populist and neo-fascist voting bloc in the EU parliament. Websites whose funding is opaque feed generically lurid conspiracy theories and Putinesque lies into national online silos in which voters are already polarised. Images of people demonstrating against the Bouteflika regime in Algeria this April, ‘become’ a riot in a ‘Muslim neighbourhood in France’. These images then reappeared in Vox party propaganda in the Spanish elections. Worse, as in the US, opaque foreign funding can be piped into national elections by supporting ‘values based’ advertising. That those ‘values’ include attacks on feminism, Islam, gay marriage and so forth means that it implicitly aids parties which espouse such views.

Many democracies are witnessing revolts by national populists against the corruption and inequality that a universal technocratic liberalism licensed. Many of the populists are aristocrats (like Germany’s AfD leader, the Duchess of Oldenburg) or renegade plutocrats (notably Trump) but they have mastered the angry, moralising discourse of a mass of (ill-educated) people who feel humiliated and left-behind in a world where 43 per cent of the bottom fifth income bracket will remain there all their lives, regardless of how hard they work.

We will not suddenly awake from what feels like a bad dream. Rather, as the populists fail to deliver on their promises, voters are likely to turn to more extreme versions, clutching at comedians and celebrities like Grillo, Zelensky and Trump. Prime Minister Piers Morgan anyone? Meanwhile, more sophisticated critics of sclerotic democratic institutions, with their 24/7 media-driven short-termism, will sell another illusion, namely how an authoritarian (capitalist) China successfully plans five or 10 years ahead. Those are the challenges I am not sure democracy will overcome.

Democracy in Britain has barely even begun

Charlotte Riley, Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British History at the University of Southampton

The history of Britain and its Empire is the history of democracy denied. One of the great British myths is of the nation – not Westminster, but the entire country – as the Mother of all Parliaments. The British Empire was built on the myth of bringing British values, perhaps above all that of democracy, to those people around the globe lucky enough to fall under Britannia’s dominion. The British like to think of themselves as tolerant, humanitarian, liberal and fundamentally democratic.

Orwell spoke for more than himself when he argued, in The Lion and the Unicorn, that the British were inherently resistant to the lure of fascism; the British have clung, since the Second World War, to a sense of inherent democracy within their national soul that allows them to repel totalitarianism, revolution, violence in the streets.

In 2018, Britain commemorated the centenary of the granting of female suffrage and Prime Minister Theresa May made a speech celebrating women’s ability in politics to listen and learn from others. But all of this really is a national myth. In the same essay, Orwell argued forcefully that Britain was not a democracy; that England was ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun’. The British Empire was run on the principle of limiting democracy as much as possible: of denying democracy to colonial subjects, and doling it out in tiny portions when these subjects became too fractious and looked like they might make the break away from British rule. The commemoration of female suffrage often ignored the fact that the vote was granted only to some women, who met property qualifications and who were old enough not to be considered dangerous, silly ‘flappers’. And, of course, 2018 was also only the centenary of working-class men being granted the vote; there has only been universal suffrage in Britain for 91 years.

British governments have rarely willingly expanded democracy: it has hardly been granted without being fought for, often hard and bitterly. And even today, too many communities feel excluded and alienated from Westminster, ignored or belittled by their apparent representatives. Is British democracy over? It has barely even got started.