People in Western democracies are losing trust in government, but that is hardly a surprise. Political mediocrity has caused leaders to make promises they cannot keep while shunning other points of view. Nothing less than freedom itself is at stake.
“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill uttered these words in 1947, and today they remain as true as ever.
Since democracy is better than all of the other forms of government we have tried, one might expect that in Western democracies, trust in government and its institutions would be high. This is not the case. For many years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has measured the relationship between people and their governments. Citing the 2022 edition of the measure, Reuters pointed out that it had fallen to “new lows.” However, it also showed rising scores in autocratic states like China.
“The biggest losers of public trust over the last year,” the article continues, “were institutions in Germany, down 7 points to 46, Australia at 53 (-6), the Netherlands at 57 (-6), South Korea at 42 (-5) and the United States at 43 (-5). By contrast, public trust in institutions in China stood at 83 percent, up 11 points, 76 percent in the United Arab Emirates (+9) and 66 percent in Thailand (+5).” Businesses, however, “retained strong levels of trust globally,” due to their role in “developing vaccines and adapting workplace and retail practices.”
These are woeful scores for the “liberal democracies.” But what might be the underlying reason?
Misuse of democracy
Like many good things, democracy is susceptible to misuse. Many systems label themselves “democratic” though they have no democratic qualities whatsoever. The former German Democratic Republic or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea come to mind.
Other places may have leaderships that act in a rather autocratic manner but have nevertheless been selected in a democratic way – Singapore is one example. In yet other places, there are successful democracies based on wide decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity, coupled with a strong element of direct democracy, such as in Switzerland. Most Western countries have systems of representative democracies with different degrees of centralization and federalism.
However, democracy is under constant threat – as is freedom. Just as freedom is a precious public good and must continuously be defended, so must democracy. The challenge for democracy is less autocracy, but rather two other phenomena: populism on one side and excessive bureaucracy (sometimes called “technocracy”) on the other.
Political parties are tempted to battle for ‘market share’ instead of defending their convictions and the public interest.
The pillars of democracy that should distinguish it from other systems are a guarantee of individual freedom and an efficient (as opposed to oppressive and arbitrary) rule of law. Democracy requires freedom of speech and opinion, and thrives on healthy debate between opposing views.
Because political parties compete for votes, they are tempted to battle for “market share” instead of defending their convictions and the public interest. They tend to disguise their populist, unsustainable proposals as ones that would serve that public interest.
A close look at the writings and debates of the United States’ founders reveals a worry that populism can take democracy hostage. They therefore introduced an elaborate system of checks and balances to contain the excesses of the majority. They designed institutions such as the Senate, in which each state, regardless of population, is represented by two senators.
Switzerland’s thriving democracy is based on a high degree of subsidiarity, granting the cantons broad autonomy and giving the municipalities a key role to play. The country also has a robust system of referenda, allowing for direct democracy. Frequently, decentralized systems have more resilient democracies and a stronger defense of individual freedom than more centralized ones. Subsidiarity is crucial.
Populism and bureaucracy
Another challenge to individual freedom and democracy is the rise of technocracies and bureaucracies. This trend diminishes magistrates’ responsibility and reduces the efficiency of administrative and political systems. The result is a torrent of rules limiting freedom of choice and adding huge societal and economic costs. The tentacles of state administration extend further and further, yet according to the constitutional concept adopted by most Western democracies, it is the parliament’s duty to keep public expenses under control and ensure that the state and its institutions do not become a burden on citizens.
Unfortunately, in many European democracies, populism is increasing and the state’s role in society and the economy is rising fast. The proponents of these changes like to camouflage this rising state interventionism as “technocracy,” to make it seem like experts are running things. As they gain traction, the traditional European dedicated civil service is transforming into an ever more bloated bureaucracy.
In many European democracies, populism is increasing and the state’s role in society and the economy is rising fast.
There are different varieties of populism. On the periphery are the more extreme types – some are radical, while some simply challenge what has become the accepted norms of the so-called “center.” Yet the traditional parties have long been engaging in their own type of populism. As they try to increase their constituencies, they water down their own policies, abandoning their stated convictions and using muddled rhetoric.
This is the populism of mediocrity. It leads politicians to avoid making decisions that are unpopular but necessary, and it makes it harder to find and implement good solutions. Examples are everywhere. In Germany, the Christian Democrats have taken a sharp turn to the left over the last 16 years to obtain more votes. The move worked at first, but by the end of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s time in office, the party had lost a huge chunk of its electorate. Moreover, the strategy emboldened radical groups on both the extreme right and left. When “centrist” parties engage in cheap populism, it radicalizes the political spectrum.
Political comfort zone
Unfortunately, the parties themselves have become very bureaucratic. Being a member of parliament has become a profession. As politicians increasingly rely on reelection for their income, they are less independent – they must bow to the will of the party bureaucracy if they want to be nominated.
As they try to siphon off votes from each other, the mainstream parties – the Christian democrats/conservatives and social democrats – have all begun to occupy the same cozy, center-left territory on the political spectrum. Any deviation from this philosophical zone is denounced as “radical.” As they try to maintain this balancing act, politicians increasingly make misleading campaign promises or take refuge in empty statements or even outright lies.
The fact that so many successful politicians are such shameless liars is not only a reflection on them, it is also a reflection on us. When the people want the impossible, only liars can satisfy.
But with mediocrity on one side and radicalization on the other, what has allowed the citizenry to become so misguided? Convenience is one cause. It often takes a lot of work to understand policies and their consequences. It is reassuring to remain in a political comfort zone that the center-left purports is morally driven, especially in elaborate welfare systems. For a while, it can even seem like things are going well.
However, the uniformity at the center can make others feel resentful and left out, compelled to take to the political periphery. Others simply fall back on indifference – a social cancer that has become widespread and is toxic for democracy.
Rising inflation will further eat away at trust in institutions. The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that in Western countries, people have enormous doubt about their economic future. For years, the socialist political mantra has been that overspending by the state is unproblematic and that central banks can issue money at nearly unlimited rates without any negative consequences. That dishonest narrative is beginning to backfire. Inflation is here to stay, and the dire situation is clearly a failure of the state, not the market.
Another characteristic of the worsening quality of politics is how leaders create panic while both amassing power and remaining indecisive when it comes to real problems. The alarm over climate change and the incompetence in fighting Covid-19 are just two of the most prominent examples. In these cases, the leaders are often well-meaning and engaged, but lack the necessary understanding to deal with these issues and have grandiose ambitions about saving the world. They pose an immense danger to liberty.
Mediocrity, often presented as stability, is a breeding ground for decline.
This type of populism adopted by most of the West’s mainstream political parties, in which they ignore fundamental realities and promise more than they can deliver, has brought terrible results. It can be seen in post-Merkel Germany, in President Emmanuel Macron’s France, and in many other countries around the world, including the U.S. It has all of the toxic ingredients necessary to snuff out democracy and freedom.
Flimsy politics and a dependence on printing money have embroiled the European Central Bank – ostensibly a politically independent institution – in everyday politics. Former ECB President Mario Draghi (now prime minister of Italy) had political ambitions, while current President Christine Lagarde is a career politician. They have betrayed the institution’s mandate to preserve the value of the euro. Because it currently finances many of the European Union’s governments, the ECB has become Europe’s power center. This recalls Thomas Jefferson’s remark: “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions.”
Freedom and democracy must not be taken for granted. Like all important public goods, they are constantly threatened by those who would seize power – be it autocrats, technocrats or weak politicians. Mediocrity, often presented as stability, is a breeding ground for decline.
It is citizens’ responsibility to defend their rights. Voters hold the key to change.