The thousands of migrants who have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in recent years show the attraction that the liberal democratic states of Europe still exert over people fleeing war, oppression and political collapse in Africa and Asia. But this influx of migrants heading to the West has occurred at the same time as the continent is presenting a less welcoming face to outsiders.
There has been a steep rise in the popularity of political parties in the West espousing a xenophobic form of nationalism, especially in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the EU model of democratic civil and political rights is being challenged by authoritarian powers that want to change the whole Western global post-war system. Russia has invaded and annexed territory from its neighbours and intervened in Syria to prop up a ruthless dictatorship, while wielding its Security Council veto to effectively stop the United Nations doing anything to stop it. China in some areas has outstripped the US as the biggest global economy, while challenging US power in the region.
Freedom House, the organisation that promotes expansion of freedom and democracy globally, suggests that a reverse in liberty and democracy is becoming a global phenomenon. It reports that last year 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties. So are we wrong to think that the spread of democracy is unstoppable and an irreversible process? Is the world falling out of love with democracy?
In a paper published in Foreign Affairs this month entitled ‘The End of the Democratic Century’, an American and Australian political scientist argue that democracy expanded across the world in the last century partly because it was a successful economic as well as a political model. But this is no longer the case. Free liberal democracies are not longer necessarily richer than countries like China. The paper predicts that in the next five year the share of global income held by “not free” states will outstrip that of Western liberal democracies. Oppressive regimes round the world will welcome the conclusion of this report that “the road to prosperity no longer needs to run through liberal democracy”.
In the same issue of Foreign Affairs, Professor Ronald Inglehart from the University of Michigan warns that Europe itself is facing the most serious challenge to democracy since the days of fascism in the 1930s. Right wing populist parties are exploiting the resentment caused by growing economic inequality and unemployment in the West. These parties focus attention on the influx of immigrants, but the real cause of the shedding of jobs and in the West is the switch from a manufacturing-based to a knowledge-based economy. The unstoppable march of automation wiped out a whopping 85 per cent of manufacturing jobs in the US between 2000 and 2010. This has profound political consequences.
Inglehart sees a polarisation in Western society between people who are “materialists”, those who see economic and physical security as the priority and the “post materialists”, who have steady jobs and income and can turn their attention to civil rights. The 2016 US presidential election showed that materialists were much more likely to vote for Donald Trump, while post materialists supported Hilary Clinton. As jobs become scarcer and the knowledge economy in the US and other advanced democracies grows, the implication is that inequality will grow and populist, right wing parties less wedded to the idea of protecting civil rights will become stronger.
The worry, therefore, is not only that Western societies themselves turn away from the open, liberal democratic model and present a less welcoming face to outsiders. If the West no longer presents the same successful economic paradigm for developing economies, these countries will turn against democracy altogether and opt for a more authoritarian system to bring prosperity.
Inglehart notes that democracy has been in retreat before and has recovered. But this will only happen now if richer countries address the internal problem of inequality and offer their citizens a stake in the automated, knowledge economy. Only this will reduce the attraction of nationalist and xenophobic parties and present an attractive image of liberal democracy to developing countries as the only system that offers liberty as well as prosperity.