democrats, demagogues and despots

Martin Wolf has a must-read column in today’s Financial Times. As a public service, I am posting an edited version as a TdJ. Bear in mind that this condensed column is only half as long as the original.

Martin is worried about the future of democracy in the UK and the US. We all should be. I encourage you to read the full column.

In 2016, fear and anger became dominant political emotions in the UK and the US — two of the most important, stable and enduring democracies. ….

For democrats, the outburst of such primal emotions is disturbing because they are so hard to contain. Democracy is at bottom a civilised form of civil war. It is a struggle for power contained by understandings and institutions.

The understandings are that winners never take all. …. Ultimately, democracy, or a democratic republic, provides a way for people with different views and even cultures to live side by side in reasonable harmony.

Yet institutions matter, too …. The US electoral college has failed doubly. Its selection of Mr Trump neither accords with the votes cast in the election nor reflects judgment of the candidate’s merits, as desired by Alexander Hamilton. This founding father argued that the college would both guard against “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils” and ensure “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications”. ….

Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence party, has not advanced so far because it has proved harder to capture the UK’s party-based institutions than it is the US presidency.

Yet there are similarities between the demagogic elements of the Brexit campaign and the rise of Mr Trump. For both, opponents are enemies rather than fellow citizens who think differently. Both claim to represent the people against foreigners and traitors.

The demagogue’s campaign leads naturally to despotism …. A host of examples of the demagogic route to power exists, in both past and present. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler are case studies of demagogues turned into despots. It is not hard to think of recent examples, from Hugo Chávez to Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin.

Might this be the path some of the most important western democracies are now on — above all the US, standard bearer of democracy in the 20th century? The answer is yes. It could happen even there. The core institutions of democracy do not protect themselves. They are protected by people who understand and cherish the values they embody. ….

The presidency, particularly if supported by Congress and the Supreme Court, as might happen, is powerful enough to do much damage at home. Virtually on his own, the president may also start devastating wars. A rightwing demagogue in charge of the world’s most influential repository of democratic values is a devastating fact. The question still to be answered is whether the world we have known will survive it.

Martin Wolf, “Democrats, demagogues and despots“, Financial Times, 21 December 2016 (metered paywall).

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