Democracy on Steroids

For years I have argued that the world was changing, that leaders were generally becoming weaker and followers, others, generally stronger. Since the 2016 presidential election, consequences of this shift have continued to crystallize.

I wrote in this space before about the dangers of those ostensible exemplars of democratic governance – referendums. As former Prime Minister David Cameron would be the first to testify, the results of recent referendums have become impossible for leaders to foretell or control. What’s now clear is that voting patterns more generally have become similarly impossible to foretell or control. What was so striking about the events of last week was less the outcome itself, than the shock of coming to understand, viscerally, intellectually, what the outcome was.

Perhaps the single most important lesson of this election is that people are refusing to be tamed. Refusing to play ball. Refusing to do what they are expected to do. Refusing to do what the leadership class would want them do. Refusing to conform to the patterns of the past. Refusing to be quiet and behave well. Refusing to be polite and well mannered. Refusing to refuse leaders who are impolite and ill mannered. Refusing to be politically correct. Refusing to adhere to traditional values.

Not all people, of course. I refer to many and sometimes most who feel that the liberal world order that dominated the international system for the last forty years slighted and shortchanged them. This group or these groups, usually described, occasionally decried, as working class populists and nationalists, have not until now had an outlet for their furies and frustrations. But, in Donald Trump they did. Americans in stunningly large numbers latched on to a bad-boy leader into whom they could pour all their anti-establishment angers. Why Trump in particular? Because he was anti-establishment himself. Because he was able, precisely because he was remarkably course and regularly obstreperous, to harness democratic means toward, what some strongly suspect, are antidemocratic ends.

This of course is the great fear – that democracy will lead to autocracy not only in the US but elsewhere in the world. The leader of the French right wing, Marie Le Pen, was quick to tweet a few days ago that some of Trump’s representatives had invited her to “work together.” And the principal architect of Britain’s Brexit vote, Nigel Farage, was similarly quick to be glimpsed in the corridors of New York’s Trump Tower.

Francis Fukuyama writes that the greatest challenge to liberal democracy comes not from the outside, from overtly authoritarian powers such as Russia and China, but from the inside. “In the US, Britain, Europe, and a host of other countries, the democratic part of the political system is rising up against the liberal part, and threatening to use its apparent legitimacy to rip apart the rules that have heretofore constrained behavior, anchoring an open and tolerant world.” *

Put in language that I use, excess follower-power is every bit as dangerous to democracy as excess leader-power.


*”US Against the World,” Financial Times, November 12/13 2016.

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