Vladimir Putin, Tzar of All the Russias, opined recently that liberal democracy has run its course and is now obsolete.
Sadly, he is perfectly correct.
Failure was always going to be the fate of any system of governance that requires no qualification whatsoever from either those standing for election or those doing the voting. In a complex inter-connected world, most people are simply incapable of understanding even the basic realities of life. As we don’t like to feel stupid or confused, we naturally gather around those who tell us there are simple answers to complex problems. The fact that these people are lying doesn’t trouble us because we want to believe them.
Our brains hurt when we try to think and we’re overwhelmed by complexity; ergo the obvious course of action is to let the blustering demagogues take power and save us with their magnificent stable genius.
If we take a quick look around the world we see Orban has turned Hungary into a one-party neofascist state and PiS in Poland is rapidly following the same game plan. Turkey is already a Sultanate under Erdogan, who has locked up hundreds of thousands of people and is torturing thousands daily in order to keep a deathly grip on power. Africa is, and likely always will be a basket case with nearly every country ruled by dictators in all but name; South America isn’t really much better these days with Bolsonaro being the Brazilian Trump and Christina Fernandez de Kirchner waiting to wreck Argentina after she lies her way to power at the next election.
In India Modi is following Trump’s lead and stirring up hatred while ruining the economy; Pakistan has always been and likely always will be a military dictatorship in all but name. In Japan Abe stays in power by appealing to right-wing nationalists even though this strategy is making Japan economically weaker by the hour. Austria meanwhile recently elected a neofascist President. Big cheers for China, where Xi is virtually the new Emperor and his one party state is crushing without remorse anyone who dares even to think about not being entirely happy with that fact.
The USA has already collapsed: Trump has clearly demonstrated that provided the President has more than a third of Senators behind him he is de facto above the law. Meanwhile the Congress is so dysfunctional (largely due to the Republican Party) that it’s a permanent do-nothing institution. In the UK Boris Johnson has just carried out a successful coup d’etat by closing down Parliament so that he can inflict his no-deal Brexit catastrophe on the nation without the inconvenience of the people’s representatives having any say in the matter at all.
If we now look at the countries in which liberal democracy is still hanging on, it’s striking how few there are: New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. Germany isn’t done for yet but the AfD keep making gains by appealing to neo-Nazis. France will likely have a Le Pen as its next President. Spain is in serious trouble, and Italy is already finished though Salvini likely will have to work a behind-the-scenes deal with the mafia in order to seize power in a coup because of the failure of his immediate gamble: bringing down the government in which his own party was a major participant.
Democracy is over because it assumed representatives would be capable and diligent in serving the people rather than merely serving themselves and their paymasters; it also assumed voters would take the trouble to educate themselves about complex issues and consider these carefully and thoughtfully.
OK, stop laughing at the back. And at the front, and in the middle too. We all know representative democracy, when you actually bother to look at it, is a bad joke. No wonder Putin smirks whenever he looks at Trump, Modi, Johnson. The joke is on us, and the dictators are the ones doing the laughing.
The hard truth is that until we demand basic qualifications from voters, we’ll continue to see populism sweep the board and Putin will continue to chuckle in the Kremlin.
In my book Why Democracy Failed I point out that we don’t actually need representatives any more because the tyranny of distance no longer exists. Most people in the developed world and increasingly too in the developing world have access to the Internet. This means we can gather virtually; miles and kilometers mean nothing anymore.
Once we get rid of representatives we reduce our problems considerably. Without politicians, the rich and powerful don’t have anyone to buy. Thus it becomes far more difficult for them to manipulate the system in their own favor. To take a relatively trivial example: in the USA 86% of Republican-voted legislation massively favors the rich at the expense of everyone else. So much for the GoP being “the Party of the hard-working guy.”
Instead of unqualified politicians dreaming up dim-witted policies to appeal to blocs of voters who don’t have a clue about anything, we can take a more rational approach to policy creation.
By requiring that we ourselves demonstrate some competence before we’re allowed to vote, we can use that same demonstration to qualify people to propose (anonymously) new legislation. By removing Parties and personalities, we help remove all the hundred-and-one biases and knee-jerk behaviors that currently make a mockery of democracy. Instead we can focus the attention of qualified voters on the ideas themselves, knowing that those voters have demonstrated enough basic competence to be able to understand and assess the implications of such proposed policies.
Of course we are never going to get there from here. People would riot if you told them they were not going to be able to vote on the traditional basis of stupidity and ignorance. We’ve fetishized democracy just as we used to fetishize the Divine Right of Kings, and before that the Great Powerful Tribal Leader.
So we have to pass through the inevitable horrors to come. Our “stable genius” leaders will make increasingly stupid decisions that will have increasingly awful impacts on our lives. This will make us clamor for even stronger Great Leaders to save us from the mess we’ve got ourselves into, and that will of course only accelerate the rush toward total destruction.
There will be wars, both civil and international. There will be millions of lost jobs, with the resulting violence and breakdown of basic social norms that goes with mass unemployment. There will be a complete degradation of all media so that Kremlin troll farm memes will become most people’s norm, parroted unthinkingly merely because that’s the easiest option. This is already the case with Trump supporters, Le Pen supporters, Brexit supporters, and so on — they are just too ignorant and unthinking to realize their “clever replies” to detractors aren’t actually theirs at all.
Perhaps, just perhaps, at the end of all of this — and the desolation may last fifty years, or fifteen hundred — a few of the survivors will stand in the rubble and say to themselves, “let’s not do that again.”
At that point, just like the American colonists of the eighteenth century, they may look around for much better ideas than our unfit-for-purpose fetish of representative democracy. We need to give our descendants ideas to consider, concepts to develop and adapt to their needs.
We cannot stop our decline into populist madness but perhaps we can send a few important ideas to our descendants, conceptual messages in bottles, that may wash up on the shores of the future and help inspire far more adequate systems of governance far better suited to what will inevitably become once more complex inter-connected world.