Trump and May Are Discrediting Democracy

Chaos and dysfunction in Washington and London make liberal democratic government look bad—and embolden China and Russia to market authoritarianism as an efficient alternative.

U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 30, 2018.
U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May attend the G20 Leaders' Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 30, 2018. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted remark that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” has long been considered axiomatic in many quarters. But the idea, which Churchill borrowed from someone else, is now contested across the globe. China’s authoritarian economic model has become a source of inspiration—or what President Xi Jinping has described as a “new option”—for would-be autocrats who are no longer persuaded that rights and freedoms are prerequisites for prosperity, much less their own survival in office.

Right now, the spectacular tempest unfolding in both Washington (due to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history) and in London (over the Brexit impasse) is laying bare the fissures and frailties of two of the world’s most stable and vaunted democracies. The stakes are high for the United States and, even more so, for the future of the United Kingdom and the entire European Union. Pundits and voters are understandably focused on when and how their careening, almost out-of-control governments will eventually come to rest. Yet the fact that these two chaotic episodes are unfolding simultaneously poses risks for the claim—seen in many quarters as increasingly tenuous—that democracy is the world’s most credible and effective political system.

While the American and British publics have grown almost inured to the chaos in their capitals, the rest of the world is looking on, dumbstruck by the dysfunction. Autocrats have long appealed to voters by claiming they will bring “order” after chaos, hence the lingering legend that Benito Mussolini made the trains run on time.

The twin crises in Washington and London provide rhetorical ammunition for governments that are invested in promoting a narrative of Western degeneration and the decline of democracy. Beijing has not been subtle in gloating over what it hopes the world will view as an unfavorable contrast to its tightly scripted brand of politics. China’s state-run Xinhua news service put it plainly in an editorial about last year’s shorter shutdown, “The Western democratic system is hailed by the developed world as near perfect and the most superior political system to run a country. … However, what’s happening in the United States today will make more people worldwide reflect on the viability and legitimacy of such a chaotic political system.” This year, Chinese media outlets are crowing about the potentially catastrophic consequences to the U.S. economy of a prolonged shutdown that results in a downgrade of U.S. credit ratings and a rise in borrowing costs; a typical headline was “Owning US government bonds like holding a ticking time bomb.”

Russia is promoting a similar narrative. An opinion piece published by the Kremlin-backed RT portrayed the Brexit debacle as the inevitable downfall of “a state born in mercantilism and sustained by centuries of empire and colonialism,” concluding that “the UK as we know it, is past its sell-by date.”

Observers in other democracies are watching ruefully. In India, a Hindustan Times editorial wrote: “This tells us something about the usefulness of calling referendums with binary choices on extremely complex issues. The entire world should learn from the UK’s experience.” In Hong Kong, where democracy advocates are struggling to fend off an increasingly intrusive China, the South China Morning Post columnist Richard Harris called out the “aggressively personal attacks” on lawmakers in the Brexit fracas, saying, “Churchill would spin in his grave.” In South Africa’s Daily Maverick, the security expert David Africa observed a “clash between rational politics and one based on ‘alternative facts’ and imperial nostalgia … rooted in white nationalism” at work in both Britain and the United States, impairing prospects for partnership “at a time when the need for Euro-African partnership in trade and security” as a counterweight to Chinese economic intervention “is not only required but eminently possible.”

While the impasses on opposite sides of the Atlantic are not identical, both expose the underbelly of contemporary democracy. The U.S. shutdown is a function of deep political and social cleavages that have helped give rise to a narcissistic president, whose policy positions are driven not by reason but by the expectations of a hardened political base and the pundits who have his ear. The debate rewards public brinkmanship over private problem-solving, fueled by the demands of a 24-hour news cycle and social media audiences with an insatiable appetite for further flamethrowing to like and share. While similar periodic shutdowns have always stumbled their way to resolution, this one stands out; it is both the longest in history and it comes against the backdrop of the convention-shattering disorder of the Trump administration, the president’s deepening legal troubles, and mounting questions over where his loyalties (other than to himself) really lie.

In Britain, the stakes are even higher. Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s fateful decision to risk a public referendum to determine the country’s future coincided with a peak of frustration over the fate of the middle and working classes amid rising immigration, automation, income inequality, and wage stagnation. The masterminds of the Brexit vote fled for the hills as soon as the measure was passed, leaving Prime Minister Theresa May with the impossible mission of convincing both the EU and the British Parliament to back a deal that, no matter how artfully crafted, would do irreparable harm to both parties.

In both the United States and Britain, democracy is reeling not just under its own natural weight but as a result of calculated outside efforts to exploit vulnerabilities and undermine trust. Russian interference in the U.S. election and the Brexit vote, along with other countries’ elections, has now been proved. Unless and until far more sophisticated technologies can be perfected, fully safeguarding future elections from the kind of insidious information warfare perpetrated by the Kremlin and its proxies would require active and intrusive efforts to regulate social media and online information that would risk reshaping open discourse and public debate. Right now, such tactics pose an ongoing threat to democracy that cannot be fended off without far more aggressive policing of online content, a path that carries obvious and heavy risks.

Amid current preoccupations, neither country has figured out how to protect itself from similar intrusions in the future, much less how to balance these competing interests in a world of rapid-fire digital evolution.

All this raises fundamental questions about the viability and appeal of democracy. Francis Fukuyama has long acknowledged that his 1992 theory that we had reached an “end of history,” culminating in the global triumph of liberal democracy, was at best premature. Yet there has remained a widespread belief that, all things being equal, democracy is both fairer and more functional than any other system, meaning that if countries and peoples were in a position to rechart their destiny, democracy would be the obvious direction.

This conclusion has been supported and helped along by legions of officials, programs, organizations, and experts informed by their experiences in democracies all over the world but also by an ingrained belief in the system that is usually bred in the West. Amid global efforts to seed and nurture democracy in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, the stability and functionality of Western democracies have been an article of faith.

Multimillion-dollar U.S. government-sponsored programs and countless nongovernmental organizations have run programs to train and support aspiring democrats, help establish election codes and procedures, lay the groundwork for the rule of law, and otherwise foster democratic development. In all these cases, the premise is that citizens of Western democracies, and Americans in particular, know how this is done. Indeed, every four years at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, observers from less developed democracies the world over join in the raucous festivities with the aim of, as the National Democratic Institute put it, “see[ing] the American democratic process at work first hand and … spark[ing] meaningful conversations at home about the future of democracy in their own countries.” After the last few years, it’s hard to imagine inviting representatives from overseas to come to the United States to see what democracy ought to look like.

As the U.S. and British crises of democracy play themselves out, believers in democracy will have their work cut out for them to demonstrate that these two high-profile predicaments don’t reflect design flaws at the heart of modern democratic government. To prevent the concept of liberal democracy as a whole from being dragged down, proponents of the model need to address its obvious shortcomings and make a convincing case for how democracy can and does work.

Showcasing bright spots including the inclusion of new and diverse voices in democratic leadership around the world, democracies’ successes in tackling income inequality, the nexus between democratic freedoms and technological advances, and the power of people’s movements to shape democratic outcomes on galvanizing issues like women’s rights and climate change can help highlight what’s most appealing and inspiring about democracy, ensuring that the downsides aren’t getting all the headlines. Democracy advocates also need to be forthright in calling out and tackling corruption, abuses of power, obstruction of justice, elitism, and other systemic flaws laid bare in the system.

Democracy advocates across the globe should be working in partnership to shore up election integrity against new online forms of interference and manipulation that have been exposed in recent years. Governments that benefit from the worldwide collective strength of democracies should join the effort to help themselves and safeguard others. Technology companies, election experts, specialists in political communication, and engineers all have roles to play in hardening the systems on which democracy depends. Given the threat such interference poses to democracy, this effort deserves the level of focus and resources afforded to recent global campaigns to eradicate disease and choke off terrorist financing.

At a time when global headlines are filled with leading democracies in disarray, champions of democracy should also find new stories to tell. Indonesia and Ethiopia offer promise. Last year, Indonesia, the largest democracy in Southeast Asia, marked two decades since the overthrow of the Suharto dictatorship. Though current President Joko Widodo is not without isolated authoritarian proclivities, he has allowed media freedom and a robust civil society to thrive. In Ethiopia, a longtime dictatorship seems to be giving way to democratic rule, with the release of political prisoners and the country’s first-ever contested election for prime minister.

Elsewhere, mass protests, legal challenges, and the rise of social movements to confront indigenous rights abuses, expose sexual harassment, advance social inequality, and confront corruption attest to the persistent yearning of individuals to have a voice in how they are governed. These dynamic, digitally enabled rumblings, which have also invigorated U.S. democracy by helping propel a new, more diverse generation of elected officials into office, are the green shoots of the next phase of democratic vitality.

Ultimately, though, the test of a democracy lies in its ability to self-correct. Where leadership has devolved into corruption, stasis, and dysfunction, the forces of free speech, press freedom, freedom of assembly, judicial review, representative rule, and elections can all cause a change of direction, proving the system’s resilience. Right now, both the United States and the United Kingdom are racing against the clock, trying to find ways out of their respective morasses before the political and economic consequences of the stalemates become too grave.

As these two great democracies teeter, the viability of their fail-safe mechanisms may determine not only whether the United Kingdom and the United States can right themselves but also whether the idea of democracy can redeem its global reputation.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.

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