Monthly Archives: January 2017
Well, some patterns are pretty clear: there is an ever-growing collection of small time nationalists who are angry and threatening the quality of democracy around the world. Even though the 20th century is characterized as an era of expanding inclusiveness, and a century that witnessed more democratic change than any other, it all seems to be dissipating as citizens interestingly and strangely become more comfortable with authoritarian leadership.
And it gets worse! Foa and Mounk, writing in the Journal of Democracy in both 2016 and 2017, report that American citizens are not only unhappy with their governments but increasingly critical of liberal democracy. 24% of young Americans polled in 2011 stated that democracy was either a “bad” or a “very bad” way to run a country. This is a sharp increase from previous measures and especially associated with the young. And consistent with these findings, there was an increase in the number of Americans expressing approval for “army rule.”
This is a shocking state of affairs and at first glance it seems impossible. But the data on Americans is consistent with the larger global patterns. Continuing to cite from Foa and Mounk in the Journal of Democracy (volume 28, 2017), 72% of those born before World War II thought that democracy was essential. Only 30% of Millennials said the same thing. And across long-standing democracies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Australia, and New Zealand the proportion of young people who believe that democracy is essential has drifted away.
And, of course, the rise of people like Trump, Le Pen in France, Chávez in Venezuela, Brexit, Duterte in the Philippines, Orbán in Hungry, and Putin are all consistent with the decline in democracy because they blame an allegedly politically corrupt establishment (note Trump’s inauguration speech and reference to a nefarious Washington elite) but still want to concentrate power in an executive.
A narrow vision of groups and polities is the essence of the populist appeal and fundamentally antidemocratic because populism foregrounds and privileges the perspective of a particular group. Democracy is pluralistically oriented and committed to solving problems through dialogue and discourse.
What Explains All This?
For starters, it is not explained by isolated geographic aberrations. The decline in the respect for democracy is apparent in Europe as well as South America. But what does seem to be a key issue is the strength or durability of democracy. I would underscore the observation that democracies are a continuum. The country and political system is not either democratic or not in a binary sense. Measurements of the extent to which elections are free and fair, and citizens have rights of speech, movement, and assembly etc. result in a democracy rating but less so the strength or commitment to democracy. When democracies are weak they are more easily overcome. Moreover, the rise of citizen skepticism and disenfranchisement promote populist and antisystem parties.
It’s fair to say that Trump is like no candidate in American history. His victory caused so much pain and angst for large portions of the electorate because he fit no model of presidential preparation or decorum. His blatant political disrespect and sexism were like nothing the American public has seen in a presidential aspirant. Trump’s victory could have only taken place in the context of declining faith in democracy as well as a persistent history of delegitimizing the press, political parties, and the system they represent. It’s no accident that someone like Trump was elected during a historical period where the two political parties are so polarized, and so incapable of engaging each other to solve problems, that citizens look for alternatives, presumably “correct” alternatives, that don’t require them to consider the diversity of opinions democracies are so good at managing.
You have to admit that if you were Daniel Silva or Tom Clancy trying to write another international thriller you could do no better than the opening chapter being devoted to the Russians hacking American political campaigns in order to influence elections and plant their own Manchurian candidate. This opening “staging” chapter could include tensions between the intelligence services and the new president complete with allegations and embarrassing verbal exchanges. To listen to the president elect and the heads of the security agencies trade public accusations and barbs along with charges of incompetence is unprecedented.
And what if rather than treating this as an enjoyable fictional experience we stopped for a moment and considered the implications for the current state of American institutions, political leadership, and security. Corey Robin has begun to make the argument that American institutions are becoming less and less legitimate and this is occurring against the background of political deterioration. Even at the risk of charges of alarmist exaggeration, I believe it’s possible to make the case, at least one worthy of discussion, that there has been a steady decline down a path littered with the remnants of more legitimate institutions and behavior reflective of that legitimacy.
The American democracy seems to be turning on itself and in the process weakening institutions and altering our sense of moral political consciousness. In other words, certain democratic values and forms of political communication have begun to decline. Robin cites as one early example the loss of trust in the government and military during the Vietnam War that resulted from lies and misleading information. This would extend to the crude manipulations about Iraq and the deceptions perpetrated on the American people about the presence of weapons of mass destruction, the denigration of an admired military leader (Colin Powell), a “stolen” election (Busch-Gore) decided in accordance with pure party lines by the Supreme Court, the rise of Trump, and a Congress so polarized and entrenched that it cares nothing about governing but plenty about treating the other as an enemy to be conquered rather than a worthy adversary to work with.
There are two trends in contemporary American society that are both causes and consequences of this decline. The first is the rise of American authoritarianism (see Amanda Taub’s work), and the second is the post-truth politics were there are no facts or evidence-driven conclusions that can’t be manipulated. As Nietzsche put it, “there are only interpretations.” And it is important to underscore that the rise of authoritarianism in America is not about strong controlling individuals taking over and leading by authority. No, it is more the rising tendency for people in the country to obey and accept authority, to prefer authoritarian relationships. They accept authority unquestionably and seek it out.
This preference for authority was one of the divides that separated Trump supporters from those who are horrified by him. And a post-truth mentality seems to be attaching itself and boring into the culture ready to deconstruct and disperse the “reality-based community.” These are the conditions for some difficult conversations and the impossibility of communicating. Then again, paradoxically, it is probably only the communication process that can re-challenge these trends.
Sorry my friends who are blindly supportive of Israel but the US failure to veto UN Resolution 2335 was correct and justified. In December the United Nations passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policies including the construction of new housing. The vote was 14-0 in favor of the resolution and the United States abstained.
This caused an outpouring of anger and accusation claiming that the Obama administration initiated the failure to veto, and the whole thing was “shameful,” and “hostile to Israel.” The vote was nonbinding so various sanctions are not on the table. But it does have the possibility of internationalizing the conflict even more than it already is, and simply adding to the list of criticisms Israel must suffer.
Yet the fact remains that no solution, no progress toward end of conflict, is going to include half a million settlers in the West Bank. The key issue, the fundamental principle, is for Israel to remain and continue to be Jewish and Democratic. It simply cannot do this in some sort of binational state or in circumstances in which Israel must oversee a hostile minority. The two state solution is the only answer that safeguards both Israel and begins the process of developing a Palestinian national and political identity along with institutions that protect and bolster Palestinian life.
Obama should have made this point and been more critical of the settlements even earlier in his presidency. In fact, he has talked plenty about Israeli-Palestinian peace along with lofty generalities about our interests, but has really done very little to bring a two state solution into effect. This last minute abstention just before he scoots out of office was actually gutless on Obama’s part and helped the resolution lose some of its impact. So Kerry, in an effort to chastise and influence Israel, delivered a speech trying to appeal to moderate Israelis.
Kerry’s speech was a cogent analysis of the current situation including admissions of deep despair between the two sides accompanied by anger, frustration, and unproductive indifference. More than a few specialists who weighed in on the issue wished the speech had been delivered a few years earlier.
The basic principles of a future solution – there are six of them – are easily agreed upon and they include the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state with the right to exist. Israel also seeks a declaration of the “end of conflict” which provides a foundation for discussion and negotiation.
True enough, the resolution is a rebuff to Israel but if the United States is going to be taken seriously as a negotiation partner, a fair and genuinely engaged partner, then it must be possible to point out disagreements and differences of opinion between the US and Israel. The settlements are described in the resolution as a major obstacle to the two state solution, and primarily responsible for the stagnation and lack of progress toward peace. It is true that the United Nations seems woefully biased and unbalanced when it easily finds ways to criticize Israel while the violence in Syria rages on and they do little or nothing about human rights violations around the world. Still, that should not stop the UN from doing what it must.
But all of this commotion notwithstanding, the world is going to change on January 20 and highly symbolic United Nations votes (in the most vacuous sense of the term) will seem pretty insignificant.