Failure of democracy has many root causes

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The failure of democracy? An academic study published last summer, which is rather suddenly being hailed in places like the New York Times, claims "an entire global generation has lost faith in democracy." Citizens "have grown jaded." This applies to youth especially, who call elections "unimportant" and say "a democratic political system" is a "bad" way to run things.

But is it really so? Young Americans who enthused over Bernie Sanders in the primaries, skipped the election because it wasn't democratic enough. People in Greece, Spain or Italy, left old parties and built new ones for similar reasons.

Their despair may be not over democracy but over its absence. Generational faith loss is a tricky catch-all and you might be more likely to invoke it when votes like Brexit or Donald Trump didn't go your way. Meanwhile politics is rife with failures of all kinds, which also contain explanations. Take for instance:

The failure of identity politics. Trump ran on economics, with a subtext of racism and misogyny. But his face card was the economy. Hillary Clinton ran on an elaborate version of identity politics, as if by aggregating every aggrieved minority, she could outnumber Trump's angry whites. She too had an economic agenda -- probably better than Trump's -- but it lacked credibility due to her lifelong record; she probably didn't believe it herself.

There's nothing wrong with identity politics. Western countries had grown obese with the rhetoric of respect for individuals while creating a sewer of hate and degradation for almost every version of "the other," until the past 60 to 70 years. As Sanders says, it would be horrifying to reverse that progress.

Yet no one lives by identity alone. They need to provision themselves, as classical economists said. In fact, the only people able to draw a living from identity politics are academics, artists or activists, who analyze, polemicize and aestheticize the stuff. Everyone else needs some economic sand. So why be surprised by the numbers of Muslims and Hispanics who voted for Trump?

In fact the last great "crisis" of democracy happened in the 1930s. Then you had overt anti-democrats: fascists who scorned democratic trappings in favour of Duces and Führers. They were rebutted not by electoral reforms but by economic policies. Roosevelt saved American democracy with the New Deal, which addressed the economic pain of the majority.

Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, among others, have shown the way back, though neither has (so far) succeeded. Absent even their challenge, Trump and his equivalents will have a clear field, despite the hypocrisy and emptiness of their economic promises. At least they occupy the terrain.

Or, from the other side of the political universe:

The failure of Fidel. I've been shocked by the animosity toward Castro since his death, not just in the U.S. but among many Canadian commentators. Why not at least some balance? Fidel is among the most balanceable of figures. True, he was on billboards all over Cuba but he also decreed there would be no statues or monuments to him, and there aren't. Of his support in sending Cuban troops to anti-colonial battles in southern Africa, Mandela said: "It was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom."

On political rights though, i.e., democracy, Castro utterly failed. He put his entire bet on social, or economic, rights. In the most unequal region on Earth, he created what Stephanie Nolen called "a notably flat society," especially in health, housing and education. This is pretty much the classic "vulgar Marxist" position: settle the economic issues (ownership, etc.) and everything else will settle itself.

A far more sophisticated Marxist approach was Rosa Luxemberg's, who was murdered in Germany in 1919: "Without general elections, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the free battle of opinions, life in every public institution withers away, becomes a caricature of itself, and bureaucracy rises as the only deciding factor."

You can't ignore democratic rights, she says, without vitiating everything economic that you're trying to achieve. Each piece needs the other.

Fidel eventually acknowledged he'd got a lot wrong, including economically ("The Cuban model doesn't even work for us any more.") But by then he lacked the energy, or just the will, for do-overs. After all, he only lived to 90.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Prachatai/flickr

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