The fading light of liberal democracy – Του Martin Wolf

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“For the first time in this century, countries with a population of over one million have less democracy than undemocratic regimes.” This cool essay was written by Oxford University historian Timothy Garton Ash, “Liberalism.” This is an essay about “the future”. This observation reflects what Stanford University’s Larry Diamond called the “democratic recession.” I am relieved that Joe Biden has been elected President of the United States. But this story is not over yet.

To understand what is happening, we need to connect politics and the economy. Branko Milanovic, an expert on inequality, Only capitalism, It was released last year. He argues that capitalism has won. He is right: the market economy is certainly winning. However, he adds, the capitalist economy employs two different political systems in the major economies. It is the “liberal” model of the United States and its allies, which is of concern to Garton Ash and Mrs. Diamond, and the “political” model of China.

Milanovich correctly argues that liberal democracy is good in itself and that peaceful self-correction is possible. People want freedom, and US voters have disposed of Donald Trump. The Chinese can not be the same thing as Xi Jinping Prime Minister. The “political capitalism” argument is informative: it works. The rise of China was certainly extraordinary. Many people are also aware. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, Japanese and Koreans disagree, but far more Europeans now consider China to be a major economy than the United States.

Milanovic’s dichotomy is useful, but simplified. There is a third political version of capitalism: demagogy authoritative capitalism. This can result from collapsed communism like Russia today, or from weakened democracy like Brazil and Turkey. The authoritative capitalism of the demagogy is a hybrid. Like China’s bureaucratic authoritarian capitalist system, rulers are beyond the law and are not democratically responsible — elections are fake. However, power is personal, not institutionalized. This is a corrupt gangster politics. It is based on the personal loyalty of sycophants and cronies. Often, the core is made up of families and is considered the most reliable of all. This is the political system that Mr. Trump wanted to introduce in the United States.

Such a ruler is like a bee larva that eats spiders from the inside. They manage to win elections and then erode institutional and political breakwaters against indefinite personal rule. Mr. Trump has all the relevant characteristics. The truth is what he says. A fair election is what he wins. And good officials are loyal people. He wants to be a dictator. This is different from what he says he wants to rule. Nero was also not very interested in governance. But he was definitely tyrannical.

The events in the United States show two important things. First, core American institutions, including courts, resisted his efforts to overthrow the elections. Second, most Republicans betrayed his lie that elections were fraudulent. This highlights another reality of the last four years. Republican leaders showed absolute obedience to their leaders until almost the last gasping.

This is not a coincidence. It is the logical result of the “Pluto Populist” political and economic strategy. Mr. Trump is a natural achievement of donor-class strategic goals of tax cuts and deregulation. To achieve this goal, they must persuade most of the population to vote against their economic interests by focusing on culture and identity. This strategy is working and will continue to work. Mr. Trump may have left. Trumpism is not. Brexit Britain doesn’t show a completely different pattern. The focus on the form of college-educated left-wing identity politics is in the hands of right-wing opponents.

Mr Biden is a decent person. What he wants to do domestically and internationally makes clear sense. But he will confront the opposition who decided to make him fail. To be sure, failing the government is at the core of right-wing politics and arouses the wrath of the base. You need to be blind so you don’t see where this is heading. Donors are not the first wealthy and powerful people to mistakenly believe they can control the demagogy demons they helped create.

As Pew’s research shows, Mr. Trump’s US reality has eroded world confidence in its capabilities and dignity. Mr. Biden will find it very difficult to regain that trust not because people do not believe in him, but because he does not believe in his country. And the future of the United States as a liberal democracy remains uncertain, with serious problems all over the world.

Liberal democracy has one major advantage. It is the main enemy. As Samantha Power of Harvard University points out, China’s approval rate in the Gallup poll is 32% with a median of more than 130 countries. It has barely sprouted in 10 years. People respect China, but they don’t like it. China also faces the challenge of maintaining economic dynamism without credible rule of law.

None of today’s major systems are working well. Capitalism is innovative, but it creates major social, political and environmental challenges. Liberal democracy is corroding even at its core. But the authoritarian politics that challenges it is very bad. Unexplained domination by gangsters and brutal bureaucrats is deeply depressing, even if the latter is far less incompetent. Our people, who continue to believe in freedom and democracy, hope that Mr. Trump was a necessary warning to all of us. But I doubt it. No one is as blind as the invisible rich egoist.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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