CAMPAIGN FOR DEMOCRACY: AN APPEAL TO PRESIDENTS BUSH AND OBAMA

Look carefully. Something is happening in American politics. For the good. Democracy itself is striking back against the onslaught of anti-politics.

In Washington, Congress is doing its job and holding the zeal of an erratic president in check. Out in the country, states and cities are running policies of their own, on health care, climate change, gerrymandering, campaign finance and more.

We are seeing the volatility of the politics of anger. Anger is still involvement. Democracy would be worse off if the grass-roots were in apathy. Involvement can be turned from revenge to engagement.

In unrelated events but on the same day, October 19, George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stepped on to the political stage and spoke in defense of the values and principles of democracy.

Mr. Bush’s message, at a conference he himself convened, was stark. He spoke of fading confidence, a society torn apart by hatreds, the absence of common purpose, challenges to our most basic ideals, and the need to “recover our own identity.” Mr. Obama, for his part, had offered the same analysis in his final State of the Union Address, in January 2016. He called on his fellow Americans that “we fix our politics” to prevent “democracy from grinding to a halt.” A better politics, he said, “doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but it does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. Democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter. Too many Americans feel that way right now.”

Much is at stake. Radical populism is sweeping America and Europe. The core democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom, are in crises of identity, following through to dysfunctional governance. Societies are torn asunder by extremes of inequality and animosity. Internationally, the People’s Republic of China is claiming the mantel of world leadership.

Leaders of authority in America and Europe are seeking to stimulate engagement from below to revitalize democracy. The George W. Bush Institute is launching a “call to action” to affirm democratic values and restore trust in democratic institutions. The recent Obama Foundation “summit” was a celebration of civic engagement trough examples of good practice. In Germany, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is orchestrating a nation-wide deliberation for better understanding of the imperative of democracy. The concern is the same as expressed by Bush and Obama, to fortify the foundations of democratic culture.

The day Bush and Obama spoke for liberal democracy in America was also the second day of the Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. Here, the leader Xi Jinping, who in his first five years has tightened all the screws of dictatorship, was celebrating, with audacious self-confidence, the superiority of autocracy over democracy.

In a comment (in the Süddeutsche Zeitung), the German author Kai Strittmatter called on the liberal democracies to “find their voice” up against the challenges of a threatening new world order under a totalitarian power state. Chinese autocracy promises prosperity on the condition that citizens give up their liberty. Liberal democracy promises both prosperity and liberty. Democracy has the moral high ground. But during his recent trip to Asia, the American president, the leader of the free world, had nothing to say about even basic human rights. The voice of democracy is not heard.

The politics of anger can go both ways, to more revenge or to more engagement. It is not unusual these days to find opinions in the press that democracy has had its day and is finished. But experienced leaders like Bush, Obama and Steinmeier are telling us that there is engagement out there waiting to be mobilized.

The time is right to turn from despondency to action. That requires a catalyst to tilt the balance. Democracy is ready to strike back, but that will not just happen, it must be taken in hand. As always, the democratic world needs American leadership. If America can “recover its identity” it can help the rest of us to “find our voice.”

Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama have committed themselves. Let us ask these two most recently retired Presidents, who, from each side of the political divide, see the same problem and understand the urgency of action in the same way, to join forces. Let us ask them to teach us that our divisions are not irreconcilable. Let us offer to join them with our engagement. Let us ask them to make themselves the catalyst of the democratic revival that is ready to happen. Let us ask them to merge their formidable authority to mobilizing groups and communities into a Campaign for Democracy. Let us ask the Campaign for Democracy to spread through the democratic world.

BREXIT – THE PIANO LESSON QUESTIONS

Thanks to support from the European Social Fund, our local Adult Community College is able to offer beginners’ courses in the piano, allowing some of the good people of our town to enjoy the pleasure of hearing music arise from the work of their hands. If that support were to fall away, the College would have to rearrange its curriculum and the piano courses might fall victim. If Britain exits the European Union, our participation in the European Social Fund would presumably come to an end.

This link between the European Union and local piano lessons gives rise to some questions:

  1. How deep is Britain’s integration in the European Union? The EU, it turns out, is not only about trade and borders. The Union is a partner in education, cultural life, regional policy and much more, down to the smallest detail. Innumerable Community Colleges and other local organisations up and down the country operate thanks the EU support. The biggest beneficiaries from the Social Fund are the west of Wales and Cornwall. In the decades since Britain joined, EU integration has deepened constantly. Leaving the EU will affect every strand of our social fabric. The national funding of Community Colleges, for example, is premised on part of their funding coming via the EU. If they are to continue their activity, there will have to be a new base of funding.
  2. Will new funding be available to Community Colleges once funding via the European Social Fund falls away? Probably, no one now knows. Do our negotiators in Brussels have the matter on their radar? Are plans being made in Whitehall so that Community Colleges will be able to maintain their range of activity? My guess is that this and many other fallouts from Brexit are in limbo.
  3. If new funding is to be made available, who will pay? It will have to come from government sources somewhere. That means that on this account there will be no saving for the Treasury from Brexit. What Britain now contributes to the Social Fund, will have to be reallocated to the institutions now benefitting from Social Fund support. This is emblematic of one of many Brexit illusions, that there will be massive savings to the taxpayer. If social and economic quality is to be maintained, activities now funded from Brussels will have to be funded from London.
  4. If new funding is not made available, who will suffer? In the case of the piano lessons, it will be the good people of our town who will have to abandon their musical ambitions or pay for more expensive private tuition. There will be a cost in the form of less social quality. Even an interim of confusion will do harm to Community Colleges and similar activities throughout the country.

This example of the link between the most mundane little local activity and European integration is illustrative of a Brexit paradox. In large measure, Brexit will mean that what is now done in partnership between British and European institutions will have to be done by British institutions on their own. That represents a massive reorganisation for little or no purpose. As is seen in our local piano lessons, things now work. Why repair what works?

Of course, what is now done in partnership between British and European institution may not be continued by British institutions on their own. If so, Brexit will result in an erosion of economic and social quality.

THE DESPERATE NEED FOR DEMOCRATIC REFORM

From a previous blog: “The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.”

Here is a short list of pending reform issues:

We need systemic economic reform. Societies that define themselves by security and inclusion cannot live by deprivation and division. Globalization and automation, the targets of the politics of discontent, come with enormous benefits in the form of affluence and quality of work and life. But we have not found a way of combining this progress with inclusiveness. To underwrite democracy under advanced capitalism, we need a new social contract. The shallow individualism and small-government gospel of Reaganism and Thatcherism has shipwrecked. Before inclusiveness in public policy must come inclusiveness in mindsets. It is a matter of nothing less than the reinvention of democratic political culture.

In Europe, the mindset of reform needs to include the European Union. British and European leaders should swallow their pride and sit down to devise a reformed union that can embrace all of Europe. The European Union is already a structure with many different forms of adhesion, from Swiss and Norwegian types of quasi-membership, via various combinations of inside and outside of the Schengen and the euro, to the comprehensive arrangements of the full-membership countries. Flexibility has proved to work and is now needed in respect to Brexit and to pre-empt other possible exits. Brussels may have to sacrifice a battle to win the war, but better that than to lose the war.

In Britain, the time is over-ripe for constitutional reform. It is a misunderstanding that Britain does not have a written constitution just because constitutional provisions are not collected into a single document with “constitution” its heading. But the constitution is poorly protected and open to political manipulation. The Brexit referendum was called by Prime Minister Cameron ahead of the 2015 general election for opportunistic party-political reasons. If they can, politicians of the day will manipulate the constitution for their own advantage. That should not be possible. By coincidence, the week after the vote, the Chilcot report of the inquiry into Britain’s participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath was published, with deep criticism of a dysfunctional system of decision-making which resulted in colossal mistakes both on the entry into war and post-war management. Britain does not have a safe system of political decision-making.

In America, what burst through the surface in 2016 was the pent-up pressure from a long, relentless, step-by-step erosion of political culture in which big business has fortified itself as the power behind the throne. The reason there is gridlock in Washington is that the holders of office, in Congress in particular, are not free to make policies for the public good. When big money is allowed to transgress massively into politics, those who control it gain power to decide who the successful candidates will be—those they wish to fund—and what they can decide once in office—that which is acceptable to those who hold the purse-strings. The representatives, or most of them, may not be personally corrupt, but the system in which they work is one of deep collusion between big politics and big money. It is a misunderstanding that politicians chase money; it is money chasing politicians.

Read the full article in the Cairo Review.

CHINA AND THE EMBARRASSMENT OF WESTERN DEMOCRACY

It is an uncomfortable truth, as we leave 2016, the year of reaction, that democracy is in trouble. But the trouble for democracy does not come from Beijing, or from globalisation, or from abroad, or, in Britain, from Europe. It resides at home. The trouble for democracy, at this time in history, comes from our own poor ability to reform.

The Chinese regime has had a good 2016 because it was a bad year for democracy. Official Chinese media and various commentators have made fun of the Brexit referendum in Britain and the Trump victory in the United States as being what you get if you are careless enough to let the people decide. The Chinese system is being held up as a model of stability. The leader, Xi Jinping, has exploited uncertainty and vacuum in the West, first at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Peru in November 2016 and then at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, to brazenly offer China up to the world as the guarantor of economic openness and free trade.

The awkward thing for the democracy side is that the Chinese dictators have been given a godsend of democratic weakness, so much so that Western democracy is widely seen to be in “crisis.” Both the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory were perverse. In Britain, there is a majority in the population and in Parliament in favour of continued membership in the European Union, but because of low voter participation among the young, that majority did not prevail in the referendum. In America, the losing candidate won the majority of the popular vote. In both countries, ugly campaigns embraced and encouraged sundry voices of xenophobia, fear of the other, racism and divisiveness which we until the fateful year of 2016 had thought had been marginalised to the dark and dusty corners of the house of modernity.

The turmoils of democracy in the West represent a shift in the balance of soft power in the world. Europe and America, in confusion and uncertainty, today look unimpressive. It is easy for Beijing to present the Chinese model as safe, stable and predictable. It is this shift in the power of esteem that Xi Jinping has been able to play on, successfully, in his travels to the West.

But there is more to Beijing’s interpretation of the misfortunes of democracy. The Chinese leaders have perfected a model which has proved itself functional for the perpetuation of their own regime. It is for that purpose above all that they are determined to retain dictatorial control and not risk democratic reforms. However, there is also a view, both among regime insiders and some commentators, such as the political scientist Daniel A. Bell in his The China Model, that the Chinese political system is genuinely superior to any democratic system, both in delivering effective governance and also morally.

We cannot know if the Chinese leaders really believe that their model is superior, or if their claim to superiority is only window dressing for the maintenance of the dictatorship they depend on. But if there is a temptation on their part to believe their own propaganda, that temptation will now have been stimulated. In my own analysis of the Chinese system, in my book The Perfect Dictatorship, I see the Chinese regime as a dangerous one in the world, or at least potentially dangerous. Its propensity to aggression is most visible in the South China Sea. The Chinese state is powerful. What may make it dangerous is a conviction in the minds of the leaders in Beijing that they are the custodians of a unique virtue. That conviction they are themselves cultivating with the revival of ideology in the form of the nationalistic and chauvinistic rhetoric of “the China Dream.” It has now been given the additional stimulus that their model has suddenly come to look better compared to the alternative. When democracy performs poorly, it is logical that those who have advocated autocracy feel that history is proving them right. It is logical that the leaders of a powerful state, who believe to be seeing that history is on their side, will make their state a more assertive one vis-à-vis neighbours and others.

There is a competition in the world between Western democracy and Chinese-style autocracy. For the West to stand tall in that competition, democratic governments must see to it that their democratic systems perform, deliver and command respect. The way to do that is through constant reform. Democracies are imperfect. They are strong not by being perfect – only dictatorships can be perfect – but by imperfections being recognised and worked on.

The systems the Chinese leaders and others are now able to make fun of, have neglected the imperative of constant reform. In America, the main problem is that the power of money has been allowed to prevail so that ordinary citizens rightly feel that the system is rigged in favour of the rich and that they themselves have no say. In Britain, the main problem is an excessively centralised system of political power with a wide gulf of distance between the rulers in London and the people throughout the land. In both countries, income and wealth has been redistributed to the rich and ultra-rich, leaving the middle class, not to mention the poor, behind in neglect and humiliation. The foundations of the democratic architecture has been allowed to crumble.

(First published in openDemocracy)

THE STATE OF DEMOCRACY AFTER 2016 – YEAR OF REACTION

Brexit. Trump. In Britain, the country’s membership in the European Union is rejected in a referendum. In America, a maverick anti-establishment political outsider wins the presidency. These results are monumental political upheavals in the two countries, with consequences that reach beyond their shores and throughout the world.

Britain and America are the world’s core democracies. These countries have been bearers of a political-economic venture that has come to define the meaning of modern democracy. In 2016, to the surprise of winners and losers alike, the idea that the future is liberal and that history is moving in that direction, has suffered a defeat from which it may not soon recover. What was lost in these tests was finally a set of ideas.

Read the article in the Cairo Review.