In Western democracies, the leaders have given up on promoting the common good and would rather chase supporters by paying lip service to utopian goals. If the political elite wants to regain the trust of the people, it must ensure a fair and open public discussion.
In 1893, Anatole France wrote in The Opinions of Jerome Coignard about the French Revolution and its horrors: “The folly of the Revolution was to wish to establish virtue on earth. When one would make men good and wise, free, moderate, and liberal, one is led to the fatal desire of killing them all.” Liberte, Egalite and Fraternite became a pretext for mass murder. “Virtue” not only legitimized but also demanded denunciations and slaughter. This is what results from believing that any end – even if fully utopian – justifies the means.
Since before the Revolution and still to this day, the French system revolves around a small elite that controls political, commercial and even cultural processes. The prerevolutionary system had an additional problem, namely that it was nearly impossible for newcomers to penetrate this inner circle. The ruling class was self-sufficient and did not represent the interests of the population.
The result was a flood of fake news and conspiracy theories, creating distrust, violence and unrest. The gap between rulers and citizens became disproportionately large. This lack of understanding paved the way for the revolution and allowed agitators to gain a following.
In the long term, good governance is based on pragmatism, not on the upheavals described above. Habits evolve but human nature does not change. Good rulers are not dogmatic and try to promote the common good while respecting individual freedom and rights. A functioning judicial system that cannot be swayed by public sentiment or political pressure is key.
These were important aspects in the development of the British democracy, the Constitution of the United States but also in the acts of some 18th-century enlightened absolute monarchs, like Austrian Empress Maria Theresa and her successors.
This pragmatism led to today’s democracies, which are based on the rule of law.
As a result, systems can now evolve through constitutional procedures, without violence. This is why freedom of speech matters, even if an opinion contradicts the spirit of the time, public sentiment or widely accepted ideas. Violent and illegal acts have no place in free societies, even if some groups feel that “virtue” entitles them to such behavior.
Long-term, a healthy society is not built on conformity but on plurality.
This is not to criticize groups who want to improve society. To the contrary, religious and civil society initiatives are essential for the good functioning of communities. But they must accept dissenting attitudes and opinions. Long-term, a healthy society is not built on conformity but on plurality.
Unfortunately, because of growing bureaucracy and governments, as well as inflexible political party structures, the gap between the political elite and the population has increased in all Western societies. Politics now revolve around gaining voters rather than serving the long-term needs of the res publica.
Intolerance is on the rise. We may not have reached the extreme violence of the French Revolution, but a parallel can be drawn. We increasingly see politicians present their choices as the only possible alternative. The media frequently marginalizes unconventional but logical and well-founded opinions. Voices – whether right or wrong – doubting the efficacy of Covid vaccines or lockdowns, are dubbed “covidiots” by officials and journalists. Even the mildest critics of the Paris Agreements are deemed climate deniers. Political groups that “dare” to criticize the decisions of the European Union are called anti-European, even if they fully support realistic European integration – and despite the fact that the EU does not equal Europe.
This lack of alternatives is becoming dogma. People begin to believe that the end justifies the means. In the name of protecting the climate, demonstrators destroy shops and cars and vandalize public property. During the Portland riots and several others, supporters of Black Lives Matter forgot Martin Luther King’s wise insistence that protest be peaceful. These reactions harmed the legitimate demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd.
Certain universities now believe their calling is to convey ethics and convictions rather than knowledge, and exclude opinions considered out of line. But there is no reason to exclude well-grounded ideas from the public debate. Open discussion is one of the pillars of academia.
Coping with Covid-19 requires action, but the discussion around the matter is being censored. Even in these difficult circumstances, a clear and open debate would be preferable to governments’ authoritarian attitude and the panic-mongering of most media.
In July 2020, fundamental principles of the European Union were broken in order to create a “transfer union.” This strongly limits the principle of subsidiarity and hurts national sovereignty. The Union will now have its own budget, which does not respect the abovementioned guidelines. All member states – their citizens, in fact – will be liable for it, and the European Central Bank will create the money. The real reason behind the initiative is that most member states are in strong financial distress and Brussels wanted to save the EU as an institution. The pretext was to finance Covid recovery, restart economic progress and create a greener economy. While some of the damage caused by the lockdowns can be mitigated, the other objectives will clearly fail. A sustainable economy, be it green or otherwise, cannot be created by government planning. The plan will, however, destroy savings and pension systems. Governments’ debt problem will be prolonged, not solved, through the devaluation of households’ purchasing power.
The growing distance between the political elite and the wider population will lead to more agitation.
All this gives power to political groups that misuse public opinion and further the interests of profiteers. These examples are only a few among many, unfortunately.
Lately, we have been witnessing an interesting phenomenon. For example, governments and the World Health Organization do not always provide convincing explanations for the Covid-19 measures. This creates, understandably, the impression that there was a political agenda behind the fight against Covid. Then came theories that the whole problem was made up by interest groups. Unfortunately, this shows a high level of distrust.
Political correctness and “cancel culture” were born out of what could probably be deemed good intentions, but they have now been kidnapped by zealots who endanger individual freedom and are being used as a pretext to enforce conformity and censorship. The growing distance between the political elite and the people will lead to more agitation, jeopardizing democracy and the rule of law.