Defenders of democracy need to wake up urgently to the threat posed by another crisis

March 24, 2020   By Adam Lent, Director, NLGN

A deep global slowdown is a gift to the authoritarians. Adam Lent argues democrats need to unite around a vision of politically empowered communities to see them off.


According to the OECD the world is heading for a humdinger of an economic slowdown. And one thing we know about slowdowns is that they are not friendly to democracy. Since the 2009 recession, authoritarians have moved from the fringe to positions of enormous power. They are now far better placed complete their project than they were ten years ago. And they will do this by exploiting an economic crisis that could well be even worse than the last one.

It would not be very surprising to see many of the newer democracies in eastern Europe and elsewhere, already in the hands of hardliners, gone by the end of this decade. But threats also exist in the more established democracies where authoritarian strands are in power or have significant popular support and parliamentary representation.

The lessons of history are very clear. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in their brilliant but alarming book How Democracies Die, if democrats want to stop authoritarians gaining control they need to do two things above all else.

  1. Stop bickering and stick together across party lines to defend democracy.
  2. Marginalise the authoritarians by refusing to do any political deals with them (either within or across parties) that get them into power.

This is precisely the opposite of what most democrats have done across the world over the last decade and the results speak for themselves. As the authors point out, moderate Republicans backing Trump or centrist European parties going into coalitions with hardline parties has only added to their awkward partners’ popular appeal while doing nothing to soften their anti-democratic instincts.

However, there is a vital third element in the current situation which Levitsky and Ziblatt overlook: the need to reform democracy itself.

Democrats must accept that democracy as it is currently structured has lost public trust. It is widely seen as a platform for elites to pursue their self-interest and ignore the wishes of voters. It is viewed too as the hand-maiden to a project of globalisation that delivered growth for 20 years but then collapsed in on itself, generating over a decade of stagnant wages and devastated communities.

The real problem for a lot of democratic politicians is that they fail to acknowledge these truths. Democracy has become politically stagnant and it did usher in an economic project that survives now only by virtue of emergency measures put in place a decade ago.

Democrats are thus in the fortunate position of being able to do both what is morally right and politically expedient. They can embrace a new vision of democracy that rediscovers its roots as the true voice of the people while also fending off the authoritarians.

So what does this new democracy look like? It isn’t rocket science although the wooden-headedness of many democrats would make you think otherwise.

It is fundamentally about reformulating democracy around empowered communities rather than empowered global corporations, multilateral bodies or state institutions. It is about telling people that putting trust in yourself, your friends and neighbours is a sounder route back to pride, security and control than putting trust in some fly-by-night leader. It is about politicians using language and tone that reflects trust in the people and emphasises pride and self-respect.

In policy terms, it means:

  • devolving centralised powers to local areas
  • establishing local systems of decision-making based on genuine engagement and deliberation
  • requiring elected representatives at national and local level to take far more account of their constituents’ views when deciding policy and legislation between elections
  • introducing sweeping legislation to remove the influence of money and patronage in politics.

This agenda will be met with the usual complaints about undermining central government, political parties and the representative nature of liberal democracy. But the harsh truth is hardly anyone outside of the political establishment respects these things anymore.

Democrats who make these arguments need to wake up. The credibility of the liberal democratic, globalised economic system is already very fragile. Another sustained bout of economic turmoil so soon after the last one will destroy it altogether. The choice is not between a radical, localised democracy and the status quo. The choice is between a radical, localised democracy and no democracy at all.

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