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The vulnerability of democracy in bad times


It’s a depressing
time for democrats. Russia, run by dictator Putin, is attacking the
fledgling democracy of Ukraine. Orban, who destroyed the pluralist
democracy of Hungary, was reelected. In the UK the government is in
the process of rigging elections in its favour, and giving itself
powers to lock up anyone who demonstrates for up to 10 years. The
mid-terms in the US seem set to see the advance of a Republican party
that shows little respect for democracy when it loses. Those that
chart these things (e.g. here
or here)
find more countries moving in an authoritarian direction than in a
democratic direction.

Alongside the global
movement towards authoritarian regimes is a growing dissatisfaction
with democracy by people in democratic states. This is clearly
tracked in this report
from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at Cambridge. As the
charts in the report clearly show, globally this rise in
dissatisfaction began during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), and
is clearest in established democracies rather than developing
democracies. The United States shows this pattern clearly:

surprisingly, the UK does not follow this pattern, in that
satisfaction recovered from the dip during the GFC, but has increased
substantially during the Brexit implementation period.

Of course there are
many ways of interpreting these results. It could simply represent a
reaction to bad times (as the rise since the GFC suggests), a
reaction to the particular democratic system in place (e,g, first
past the post), or a preference for some non-democratic alternative.
Here a 2017
is interesting.

The support for
representative democracy is strong, and far outweighs rule by a
strong leader or by the military. Reported dissatisfaction
with democracy seems in part to be expressing a dislike or distrust of current
politicians rather than democracy itself. For example a very recent
showed that among every age group, when people
responding to a question of whether “democracy in Britain as a
whole addresses the interests of people like you” either well as badly,
more thought badly rather than well, although it was close for the 65+

Questions about how
satisfied people are about democracy, or how they feel about
politicians, may do little more than tell you how they feel about the
political party in power, rather than the democratic system itself.
Another 2019
Pew analysis
found that in France, 85% of those who
support President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party are satisfied
with democracy, compared with 34% of those who do not support it. How
people feel about the political party in power may in turn depend on
major events, like the GFC.

Which brings us to
the French presidential elections, and the rise in popularity of the far right. Latest results suggest Le Pen won 23.4% of the vote in the
first round, compared to Macron’s 27.6%. That means that Macron and
Le Pen will compete in the final poll on 24th April. Opinion polls
conducted before the first round suggest that, unlike last time when
Macron beat Le Pen easily, this time it will be a close race,
although Macron’s first round showing is a little better than pollssuggested.

At first sight, Putin’s war against Ukraine should have dealt Le
Pen a fatal blow. In the past she
has been
an admirer of Putin, and has taken money from
Russian banks. She took Putin’s side over the annexation of Crimea
and the fate of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Yet she was
quick to condemn Russia over Ukraine, and has instead focused on
bread and butter issues like the cost of living. She has effectively
to detoxify
her campaign.

In part this has been possible because
in the first round there was another candidate, Zemmour, who took up
even more right wing positions on immigration and Islam. It is
Zemmour who has taken most of the criticism over admiration of
Putin’s Russia. This could play to Macron’s advantage in the
final vote, and it may yet be the case that the polls change as the
second round vote approaches. In 2017 in the first round Macron got
24% compared to 21.3% for Le Pen, while in the final round Macron won
easily, 66% to 34%.

The more worrying alternative view is that the French electorate is
now much more open to a far right populist candidate than it was five
years ago, particularly if it pretends to be something else. The first important point is that Macron is no longer a
novelty, but the incumbent who can get the blame for how things are.
Second, in 2017 Le Pen was the only far right candidate. Putting the
Le Pen and Zemmour vote together (assuming the exit poll above is
correct) you get that over 30%. Finally, despite a different policy on fuel costs to the UK, France is not immune to cost of living pressures caused by the pandemic and Ukraine war. 

But the big story of the first round voting is the further collapse
of what were once the established parties of left and right. The
collapse of party loyalty in established democracies generally goes
together with growing disenchantment with democracy, and reflects a
steady fall in the number of voters who closely identify with a
political party. Voting has become much more like consumer choice,
where voters are often willing to try something new instead of
established brands. (In two party systems, such as in the UK and US,
that desire for change is frustrated, perhaps increasing
disenchantment.) Choices are often based on low information. 

This is an environment that allows right wing populists to thrive. Someone like Le Pen is able to detoxify her brand in just five years, and gain more votes as a result.  In difficult
times these populists can pitch themselves as outsiders against the
existing political elite, and can promise the unattainable and be
believed (as happened in the UK with Brexit). Most voters who vote for far right populists are not deliberately choosing authoritarian leaders who could, like Orban and perhaps Johnson, end up destroying pluralist democracy, but that is where their disenchantment with democracy in bad times can sometimes lead.    



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