During the past decade, populist revolt against the bastion of neo-liberalism – liberal democratic governments in the West – has seen the emergence of both right-wing and leftist forces. This surge reflects deep-seated trends in contemporary market economies—in particular, the shift from liberalised trade, to narrow nationalism, from mass manufacturing and resource extraction to information and services. It also reflects growing apprehension caused by migration and a widening ideological gap between progressive and traditional attitudes on a variety of social issues.
These uprising have triggered concerns about the future of liberal democracy, whose triumph seemed assured just a quarter of a century ago, when governments across Asia, Latin America and Africa seemed to embrace democracy, in what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave of democracy’.
Twenty-five years ago, liberal democracy was on the rise. The Berlin Wall had fallen; the Soviet Union had collapsed; new democracies were emerging throughout the world. It was considered the only legitimate form of government.
However, for those who have experienced the failures of the institution of liberal democracy (specifically in the West), there is very little joy in the current trends. While aspects of populism – both on the left and right – may have threatened the institution, those institutions still operate within their traditional moulds. A pertinent example would be the Brexit vote. While mass migration and trade liberalisation may have motivated many to “vote leave”, Brexit has not weakened the liberal democratic institution in the United Kingdom.
While Western Governments seem to undergo an internal crisis, causing a greater questioning of traditional systems; it is in fact the developing world, which is showcasing success via alternative models of government.
As such it is critical to distinguish between aspects of political rhetoric and populism happening within liberal democracies in the West, which simply equates to policy disputes; and those countries which have rejected the institution of liberal democracy through popular vote, and embraced an alternative system which has shown early signs of success.
One of these countries is Mexico.
While Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) first 100 days heralded success in various areas, providing a case study for the path a modern socialist government could take, his success (based solely on his first 100 days) has been underplayed and dismissed in mainstream media in the same western countries currently undergoing change.
It is therefore logical to draw the conclusion, that showcasing an alternative to the failing neo-liberal system, which is so evidently being questioned in western countries, would cause greater contestation for liberal democracies, if people felt they had a workable alternative.
And Mexico is showing early signs of being that alternative.
It is important to note that there is a global decline in popular trust that a liberal democracy can deliver the social change needed. The unquestioned staying power of this institution is finally being called into question.
Part of this is born by a generation with no intrinsic loyalty to the current system which historically stood in juxtaposition to the “Communist threat”. And it was this so-called “threat” which solidified support for Liberal Democracy a quarter of a century ago.
However, historically the idea of democracy was seen as the political expression of the will of the people. What this presupposes, at an abstract level, is a unitary will.
However, with the advent of social media, and the proliferation of information online, each individual now has the capacity within their grasp, to seek alternative viewpoints, to not conform based on what was historically considered fact. And to perhaps find alternative explanations, narratives and voices.
As such every individual has the potential to have radically divergent viewpoints, and via social media they have a platform to express it. Which poses the question, whether a system based on majoritarian unitary will is both feasible and possible, especially when a global trend of coalition governments is underway.
Cockatoo or Phoenix : The end or the resurrection
Liberal democracy faces multiple external and internal challenges, and the success of countries like Singapore and the astonishing economic accomplishments of China’s market-Leninist system, showcases that alternatives, especially within the context of rapid economic transformation and the trickle-down of wealth, do exist.
The ills of liberal democracy are deep and inescapable. Ordinary people, through the proliferation of information online, are waking up to the realisation that their ‘lot’ is not defined, and that alternatives exist.
Cambridge Academic, David Runciman thinks that it’s possible that rational citizens (in Western countries) might choose an alternative to democracy, and be willing to sacrifice smaller freedoms for greater economic prosperity.
This view is born out of the lived experience of liberal democracy, where it is seen as incapable to addressing extreme inequality. Throughout the last decade, researchers have questioned Liberal Democracy’s ability to change its own rules in order to more justly and equitably distribute the fruits of enterprise. It has not. And it seems it has no intention of doing so.
Liberal Democracy has had a long life, especially in Western Countries. However, it will be engrossing to see if it will be like a Cockatoo, and its long life has come to an end, or if it will, despite the current trends, rise like a Phoenix from the ashes.