Features Australia

Whither withering democracy?

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

23 March 2019

9:00 AM

In June 1995 the New Yorker magazine published a long article by the distinguished American journalist Michael Kelly examining dissatisfaction with the US political system as it was during the early days of the Clinton era (that’s Bill not Hillary). Quoting an American academic, Kelly noted that: ‘Many Americans do not believe they are living in a democracy now…They don’t believe the average citizen even influences, much less rules…They point their fingers at politicians and powerful lobbyists… at people in the media. They see these three groups as a political class, the rulers of an oligarchy which has replaced democracy.’

The malaise in American politics which Kelly identified twenty-five years ago has now spread like a political pandemic and affects, to a greater or lesser extent, almost all Western democracies. Since World War II the world has been divided into three great camps. The democracies of Western Europe along with the Anglosphere and North Asia was the most powerful and influential of the camps. The other two groups were the Eastern tyrannies of Russia, China and their acolytes and finally the Third World.

This threefold divide has existed in one form or another since 1949 with the West having the greatest power and influence. The rise of China and the increasing mobility of people who, until recently, were prepared to live and die in (Trump’s phrase not mine but it serves the purpose) ‘Third World shitholes’, have had a profound impact on global affairs.

Almost without exception, political parties in Western democracies have lost popular support because of their inability to keep manufacturing and office jobs from going offshore. To make matters worse, there is increasing competition from migrants for the jobs that do remain and almost everywhere, citizens of third world countries fed up with the lack of economic opportunities and with corrupt governments are heading to the West in ever increasing numbers. The millions of people from Africa and the Middle East who have moved to Europe and the millions of South Americans now living in the USA are really only the beginning of a global redistribution of humanity.

Thanks to our geographical isolation, and the unyielding determination of the Liberal National coalition, Australia has largely avoided the problems of the USA and the Europeans caused by the massive migrant influx of Third World migrants. But Australia, while avoiding uncontrolled migration, shares with Europe and the US an electorate which is increasingly disillusioned by the main political parties. In his recently published The New Authoritarianism, Speccie columnist Salvatore Babones argues that liberal democracies are now controlled by technocratic elites immune from the disruption faced by the majority. Gabriel Chan in Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up also looks at the way that rural electorates are deserting the parties they have supported since World War II.

Throughout the West political parties are finding that traditionally safe electorates are suddenly up for grabs. The disaffection that voters in Western democracies are experiencing is not because of a decline in the quality of politicians. If anything, today’s pollies are better educated than ever before. They are also, thanks to the relentless scrutiny of a free press, more accountable and, usually, better-behaved. But the challenges they face are unprecedented and, to a large extent, insoluble. One hundred years ago the Ottomans could murder millions of Armenians and get away with it. Today, every time a dead migrant child is washed up on European soil, the media goes into overdrive and politicians are expected to have a solution. The great wall of Trump, like the Coalition’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy, may reduce or prevent the influx of unwanted migrants. But neither will solve the underlying problem, the growing disparity between the quality of life in the West and the Third World.

Every year, the number of people murdered in Brazil alone (approximately 60,000) is greater than the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. South America in general is characterised by high crime rates, unemployment, poverty, weak political institutions and powerful drug cartels. Most of Africa and the Islamic world is, albeit for slightly different reasons, mired in the same swamp of corruption and despair. The pressure at the borders of First World countries is not going to stop in the foreseeable future and the institution which should be addressing this global problem, the UN, is as usual useless. Useless because it is not in the interests of most of its members to help the West find a solution to uncontrolled mass migration.

The rise of China, the industrialisation of North Asia and the corresponding deindustrialisation of the West is the second challenge beyond the control of Western politicians. For the first time in four centuries the people of the Western world are no longer unchallenged masters of the universe. Some have benefitted from the increasing prosperity of Asia but many workers in traditional industries throughout the world have found themselves prematurely on the industrial scrapheap, the human equivalent of typewriters. Babones’ ‘technocratic elites’ roughly correspond to the ‘oligarchy’ outlined a quarter of a century ago by Kelly. These are the people who are increasingly seen as the beneficiaries of labour market changes and political processes which are not in the interests of most workers.

Throughout the Western world, the inability of governments to control mass migration and their failure to protect traditional industries from the impact of the rise of China have led to a right-wing resurgence. In Europe there is a direct correspondence between the number of migrants arriving in a country and the subsequent strength of support for right- wing populist parties. Furthermore, the principles of chain migration mean that those migrants already in the West are going to bring those who were left behind. So while the shift in economic power will eventually sort itself out, the problem of mass migration won’t.

One of the great ironies of Australian politics today is that the success of the Coalition in stopping uncontrolled mass migration has prevented the growth of the sort of right-wing populist parties that are now emerging in Europe. The growing disaffection with, and fragmentation of, traditional political parties is going to get worse. Migration from Third World countries is invariably at the heart of the disaffection. Until someone is able to provide a solution to this problem, the disaffection is going to spread like a concrete cancer to undermine the strength of political institutions. This cannot be good for democracy.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments