The wisest words I have seen this year about the world’s advanced democracies came from a spook. Alex Younger, the departing head of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, warned against overreaction to the efforts of Russia and others to subvert western societies. Of course, agencies such as his must counter such operations. But the problems do not begin or end in Moscow.
Democracy’s retreat is a favoured narrative of our times. You can see why. Wherever one looks, self-styled “strongman” leaders are scorning liberal values. The forward march of democracy of the early post-cold war era has become a retreat. Unabashed authoritarians such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping have been joined by illiberal nationalists in the mould of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India’s Narendra Modi.
The EU has its own, albeit pocket-sized, autocrat in Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has faced investigation by EU authorities for undermining the independence of judges. Populist parties have shaken establishment elites across Europe. Worst of all, the world’s most powerful democracy has, in President Donald Trump, an authoritarian manqué, unapologetic in his disdain for the rule of law.
Unsurprisingly, the efforts of Mr Putin’s regime to fuel division by spreading misinformation and backing extremists of the far-right and far-left provoke serious indignation. So too does Beijing’s apparent determination to combine brutal political repression at home with constant cyber attacks on western business and public institutions. It is not always obvious that the democratic centre will hold.
After a lifetime fighting such incursions, Sir Alex is attuned to the dangers. But, as he said in a valedictory interview with the Financial Times, we should not conflate domestic problems with external threats. Take Mr Putin: “I think it is really important that we avoid two mistakes here: the first is to do Russia’s job for them by bigging it up; I haven’t seen in the UK any occasion where this stuff has made a strategic difference. Second, and related, I think we should keep this stuff in proportion. The Russians did not create the things that divide us — we did that.”
“We did that” is a thought to hold on to in any discussion of how democracies can recover the confidence of their citizens. The world, it is often said, is passing through a Thucydidean moment, with power flowing from the US to a rising China, increasing tensions such as those between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.
This unsettling shift has given autocrats such as Mr Putin an opportunity to disrupt and defy post-cold war assumptions about liberal politics and open markets. All this is true. But, as Sir Alex suggests, those looking for the root cause of democracy’s ills should begin the search closer to home.
The financial crash of 2008 is the place to start. To my mind, historians will record the collapse of the banking system and subsequent recession as the most important geopolitical event of the opening decades of the century. On one level, it stripped the west of much of its standing among the world’s rising states. More important was the damage done at home. The inequalities and grievances since exploited by Mr Trump and fellow demagogues did not appear overnight. But the crash crystallised accumulated unfairnesses thrown up by laissez-faire capitalism, technological upheaval and globalisation.
The political stability of the postwar era rested on a bargain. In the US, it was called the American dream; in Europe, the social market system. The market economy would deliver a broad spread of rising living standards and opportunity. The system was breaking down before the crash. Political and business elites delivered the final blow with post-crash austerity programmes that made the victims pick up the bill for the bankers. Along the way, they destroyed the aura of inevitability once bestowed on the free-market economics of the Washington consensus.
Rebuilding trust requires a politics that values the public realm and rebalances government policies on spending, tax, competition, education and welfare to widen opportunity. This will be the measure by which disenchanted citizens assess the medium-term economic responses to the pandemic. To the extent that Covid-19 has discriminated against its victims beyond the obvious divide of young and old, the costs have fallen on the less prosperous and most insecure.
The strange thing is that, for all their bravado, the autocrats and despots are acutely conscious of the inherent strength of democracy. They also appreciate the brittleness of authoritarian regimes. If the west is condemned as decadent, the strongmen do not see westerners waving placards calling for fewer freedoms. Mr Putin lives in fear of “colour revolutions”. Mr Xi insists that all rising party officials are taught that if they give an inch to democracy they will invite an irresistible clamour for liberty.
Of course it is vital that the west acts to stop Mr Putin and, more important still, that it shows resolve in countering Mr Xi’s strategies of repression and coercion. But saving democracy? The way to do that is to fix the economic and social policies that have been stripping liberal societies of legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens.