Autocrats in China, Russia and Iran, and doubtless in other places too, look at what has been going on in the USA with Donald Trump, and declare through their state controlled media that there is something rotten about Western democracy. And they have a point. They draw attention, with a sense of smug satisfaction, to other events too, not least in the UK, which offer further opportunities for criticism. The response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals, they say, weaknesses in countries that put a high value on democracy and personal freedom, and therefore struggle to act effectively. The confusion and uncertainty over Brexit provides them with another example.
Parliamentary democracies with competitive elections every four or five years are by their very nature ill equipped to tackle global emergencies that demand decisive and united action. Such emergencies are likely to multiply in the future. The most dangerous threat is climate change. Other recent events have demonstrated the inadequacy of merely national solutions, including the financial crash of 2008, large scale movements of refugees and, of course, the 2020 pandemic.
Globalization is not the only present challenge to democracy, but it is a major one. As the inability of individual States to control the life experiences of their citizens has become more apparent, anxiety has increased and confidence in democratically elected politicians and previously respected institutions has fallen. Disgruntled electors look for someone to take back control. Arguably, both Brexit and the Trump phenomenon are at least partly a consequence of this.
Global interconnectedness is here to stay. So what should be done? Can democratic government survive? Essentially, it is a question of political priorities. Solutions, if they are to be found at all, depend on recognizing that significant changes, not least in political culture, need to be made. To regain confidence in our ability to make collective decisions peacefully, we need to look at what democracy means with fresh eyes. If the greatest challenges we face are global, so any effective response must also be global. Politics, and with it democracy, if the latter is to survive at all, must have a global dimension.
This is not to say that politics at a more local level is no longer important. Quite the opposite in fact. In an increasingly interconnected world, participation and a sense of belonging at a local level are more crucial than ever. But the global dimension of political activity must also be recognized as vital, and its democratic credentials strengthened.
In the years following the First World War, the League of Nations failed to prevent the second one, largely because it was ignored, or at least inadequately supported, by several of the world’s most powerful nations. They preferred to pursue their own national interests.
The United Nations has taken up the baton of the League of Nations. The UN and its related organizations are not perfect, but if another disaster, even more destructive than the Second World War, is to be averted, countries like the UK must show their support for it. We need to strengthen its democratic credentials, even to the extent of sometimes foregoing our own limited national interests.
The future health of democratic government depends on reliable information being freely available to its electorate. With the arrival of the world wide web this is now as much a global issue as a national one. Anyone seeking to control the information people receive, or to shape public opinion, now has an immensely powerful tool at their disposal, and one not limited by national boundaries.
Freedom of information, opinion and belief has always been a mainstay of democratic government, but this has never been an unlimited right. Regulation is necessary to prevent the publication of material that is misleading, untrue or dangerous. There is now an urgent need to find ways of regulating the new media, so that serious harm to freedom and democracy, whether the result of malice or ignorance, can be prevented.
Inequality of wealth and income, and therefore of opportunity, is another threat. Genuine democracy cannot exist if large numbers of people are excluded from having any influence over decisions that profoundly affect their lives. This too is an international as well as a national problem. National governments can and should take steps, primarily through the tax system, to alleviate inequality. They also have a responsibility to address global exclusion.
No-one, wherever they live and work, should be the victim of decisions being made by others who do not care about their welfare, and who have no interest in meeting their needs. Where this is widespread, democracy cannot thrive, or even survive at all, because less affluent nations, like poorer communities within nations, will quickly lose faith in it. If trust in democracy is lost, in the end, everyone suffers.
The peoples and nations of the world are now inseparably bound together. We need to address the challenges to which this gives rise. Those who we elect to represent us and who exercise political leadership have an urgent responsibility to do so. Otherwise, the leaders of undemocratic countries will continue to rub their hands together, their influence will continue to grow and the principle of democratic government will seem more and more irrelevant.