Western democracy: failure of system

Jan 15, 2024
Word cloud for democracy

Western nations are always ready to proclaim their system of governance as superior, particularly in regards to China, dismissed as being authoritarian. Increasingly however, ‘western liberal democracy’ finds itself under scrutiny with trust in government falling.

Growing numbers feel alienated, believing that the democratic system has been taken over by elites with little or no interest in their plight, with government viewed more and more to be under the sway of big media, business, lobbyists and moneyed interests. Political parties, understood to have been entirely captured by such interests, attract diminishing members, further enabling concentrated control by the few. Parliaments increasingly are seen as places of theatre, where often nothing substantive is discussed never mind achieved, while political action through protest movements, is ever more falling upon deaf ears. At the edge growing numbers believe a range of conspiracy theories.

Disillusioned and alienated, many have turned to a right wing popularism, which, often using nationalism or race, promises simplistic solutions, to the ‘ordinary’ voter as an alternative to a ‘failed’ political establishment. Extremist parties have gained, or threaten to gain power in Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Argentina, Brazil and of course in the United States.

There is good reason for disillusionment. The wealth gap between rich and poor continues to grow, rapidly even, in some of these countries. Ordinary people have experienced a depreciation in their economic status, housing having become less affordable, employment insecure, while prices of staples such as food have escalated, as wages have been stagnant.

Simon Bienstman, citing numerous studies, details the connection between social inequality and the erosion of trust in government.

After surveying trust in public institutions across member countries, the OECD concluded, ‘Public confidence is now evenly split between people who say they trust their national government and those who do not. Historical data show that it takes a long time to rebuild trust when it is diminished…Many people in OECD countries see equal access to policy-making processes as falling short of their expectations.’

The OECD average trust in government was 41.4% with 41.1% not having trust. For Australia the respective figures are 38%/43.8%. Trust levels fall further among disadvantaged groups, younger people, women, those feeling financially insecure, and people with low levels of income and education.

Political polarisation is related to trust, with those not voting for the incumbent government much less likely to trust it.

In Australia the slide in trust has been precipitous. As recently as 2014, 72% had trust in government. Now, fewer than 41 per cent of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia down from 86 per cent in 2007.

If government is not working for people they hold little hope that it can be made to work for them. Across the OECD only 32.9% believed government would adopt opinions expressed in public consultation. While ordinary people believe they have little input into government, such is not the case with major interests. On average across 28 OECD countries, only 38% of standard regulatory safeguards on lobbying are in place, with only 33% implemented in practice.

Media is also seen as problematical, ‘Scepticism towards the news media suggests that a key component of democracy, access to reliable information, is today a factor of distrust.’ OECD 2021 Survey on Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions.

We have entered what the Pew Research Centre has termed a global ‘democratic recession’ (Pew Research Center, 2017).

Loss of trust has been strongest in the leading Western democracy, the United States.

The U.S. is marked by a massive polarisation as well as distrust. Thus during the Trump presidency 36% of Republicans trusted government while conversely only 12% of Democrats did, with the election of Biden the figures reversed, Democrat trust rising to 36% (before falling to a current 25%), while the Republican trust figure plummeted to just 8%. Most obvious and ominous are the low numbers even with their own man in the White House.

Kishore Mahbubani asserts, Democracy needs be guided by two principles. The first principle emphasises that each person should have ‘an equal right to the most extensive liberty’, while the second says that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to ‘everyone’s advantage’.

Under the neo-liberalism of small government the second of these principles has been absent.

This rising inequality and financial hardship has led to a ‘sea of despair.’ In such a sea lies great risk.

What makes this worse for the West, especially for the U.S. with loss of assumed hegemonic dominance, is that it stands, as it sees it, confronted by a highly virile counterpart, China, where a populace, celebrating a meteoric economic rise, holds trust at a level of around 90% in their government.

While Western rule has increasingly become a plutocracy, power in China, as Mahbubani points out is by meritocracy, with the latter form certain to beat the former.

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