The Twilight of Democracy
By Alex Yeo
"Things need to change, not go back to the nostalgia-filled dreamland of the recent past."
Earlier this month I, like many people, breathed a sigh of relief when it became clear that Donald Trump would not be serving a second term as President of the United States. I did not, however, celebrate Joe Biden’s victory. While I am very happy that Trump has lost, I am extremely concerned that he managed to get this far in the first place - and returning to the kind of politics that allowed him to do so? That is not the solution.
Those of us who live in liberal democracies, whether they be in the monolithic bloc of “the West,” or anywhere else in the world, should not be celebrating. Things need to change, not go back to the nostalgia-filled dreamland of the recent past. If the only solution we can think of to defeat Authoritarianism is Neoliberalism, then we truly are living in the last days of Democracy.
The Death of “the Dictator”
It may sound somewhat contradictory at first, but if we want to diagnose what exactly is wrong with Democracy, we need to look at the world’s authoritarian regimes.
I want you to think of a dictator - not a specific dictator, but the concept of a dictator. The chances are the person in your head came to power violently, rapidly did away with any pretensions of democracy, governed every aspect of political life personally, wore a military uniform, very visibly and violently repressed his people and so on and so forth. This concept of the dictator may very well have been real during the Cold War and the period immediately afterwards - but it is not relevant anymore.
Instead, Authoritarian leaders worldwide have begun to adopt the trappings of democracy without any of the substance - liberal democracy can, they believe, be gamed. I am, unfortunately, inclined to agree with them. Turn your attention to Belarus - Lukashenko has been power since 1994 and is currently facing the greatest challenge to his regime thus far. But this crisis came about because of an election. There are political parties, opposition candidates and a parliament - and all of these, almost without exception, are nothing more than illusions. This is no longer “Classical Authoritarianism” - this is Competitive Authoritarianism.
The same can be found all over the world - from Venezuela to Uzbekistan, Cambodia to Serbia. Now, where once authoritarian regimes had to adapt to democracy, the same practices that these regimes use to appear democratic are spilling over into our democracies.
No cause for celebration
Trump’s authoritarianism should not have come as a surprise - nor should it be a controversial thing to state. The first signs that Liberal Democracy was being challenged by those within came not from America, but from Europe.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban and Fidesz exploit democratic norms to solidify their hold on power and enact their agenda. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party, with President Andrezj Duda at its head, act in the same manner. Even in Turkey, Erdogan is happily using democracy’s trappings to entrench the AKP - and also was very happy to try and challenge the election results in Istanbul, a move which is all too familiar now.
These actions are not only limited to incumbents - France’s Rassemblement National and Marine le Pen, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, AfD in Germany and Farage and the Brexit Party - all have started to use language which calls into question the worth of Democracy (though Farage stands out as the most vocal). This is extremely worrisome for our democracy. The correct response to parties and individuals espousing doubt in our democracy is not to celebrate their losses but to understand who their audience is, and to strengthen and, most crucially, reform our institutions against their actions and render their actions null and void.
Our notion of democracy has become polluted. What we have is not rule by the people, but a system in which the majority of people and their views are neglected. Democracy is the rule of the people, not the rule of our representatives. Democracy should be more participatory - not a system of elections where the same parties try and battle each other over the same points, not a system of division or factionalism but of cooperation and involvement.
"What we have is not rule by the people, but a system in which the majority of people and their views are neglected."
Donald Trump has lost. In his last year in office, he has made over 50% of Republican voters doubt the integrity of US elections and divided the nation even further. But this is not some outlying trend - a certain part of America’s population was waiting for someone like Trump. They may, in his absence, find someone else more extreme to prop up and represent them.
Let me be clear: we cannot simply go back to liberal democracy, not in the long term, if we want things to be better. For the good of us all, democracy needs to change.
Alex Yeo is a Masters student from Portsmouth, finishing an MRes in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Glasgow. His main areas of interest are the Former Soviet Union, the politics behind COVID-19 Restrictions, and Authoritarianism, among other things. He has also previously worked with the HET.
Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.