Time To Redefine Democracy?

 
 

The global liberal consensus that has existed since the Second World War is now in danger of collapse. Keri Heath takes a look at the causes and effects of this seismic shift.

SOME political scientists believe that Trump’s presidency and similar upsets such as the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and Duterte’s controversial policies in the Philippines, are symptoms of trends all over the world. Dr. David Farrell, a lecturer in the School of Politics and International Relations here in UCD, says these protests reveal a change in the way people engage with politics.

“Others have been saying democracy is moving from a mode that was vote centered to a mode that is voice centered,” Farrell said. “We’re less passive citizens only getting to vote every couple years and then going back under our shells. We’re much more active citizens.”

Farrell says people are becoming interested in the political engagement that was characteristic of old style politics. These include protests, petitions, boycotts and participation with NGOs. This trend is also age dependent, with millennials more inclined towards active politics.

“Democracy is moving from a mode that was vote centered to a mode that is voice centered”

Despite what some may believe, this shift in political expression is not confined to the United States. Dr. Aidan Regan, also based in the School of Politics in UCD, says that trends similar to those in America can be seen across the western world. The most commonly cited example would be Brexit.

These right populist tendencies have elicited responses from the popular left. Examples include Syriza in Greece, a radical left coalition, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, and the French Socialist Party’s nomination of the hard-left Benoît Hamon for the forthcoming Presidential election.

“But they’re very different, the type of discourses,” Regan said. “It would be a mistake to just throw them all under singular concepts. The current political context is very difficult for the left because the trend in shift is towards cultural nationalism, nativism.”

Regan says this is because the left popular movements are built around internationalism, rather than nationalism. He doesn’t see the rise of a populist left in Ireland however, as Sinn Féin, which occupies the far left, has a cultural nativism narrative. In addition, Farrell doesn’t see a radical left response emerging to counter the populist right rhetoric.

“One positive out of this shambles, is that it might help to reengage people with politics”

“Whether I’d go so far as to say there’s some sort of hard left backlash, I’m not certain I would go that far,” Farrell said. “What I am more inclined to think might happen, which for me is the one positive out of this shambles, is that it might help to reengage people with politics.”

Both Farrell and Regan agree that the political trends emerging now – trends Regan says are likely to continue for the next few election cycles – are a result of globalisation. According to Regan, those who have benefited most from globalisation include emerging middle classes in developing nations such as China and those in south-east Asia.

“This is not a Trump conspiracy. Globalisation has created winners and losers,” Regan said. “The working class person in Wisconsin hasn’t seen an improvement in their purchasing power for over thirty years. Most of the research shows that societies in general benefit from immigration but that doesn’t change the intensity of how people feel, whether they feel economically…culturally threatened by immigrants in the sense of their values.”

However, nativism resulting from increased immigration is nothing new. Dr. Conor Tobin, of the UCD School of History, says that what makes it different now is that the ban focuses on Muslim nations. In America, one of the first instance of backlash against European, mainly Irish and German immigrants was in the 1830s and 1840s and created several nativist political groups. The first example of a travel ban came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. The ban wasn’t fully repealed until 1943.

Tobin also points out that protest has been a popular method of political action in the past through movements such as populists in the 1890s, the progressives in the early 20th century, and civil rights.

“It seems to be a rejection of the political system from both sides of the political spectrum”

“What we are witnessing today is different as it seems to be a rejection of the political system from both sides of the political spectrum,” Tobin said. “I would agree that there are ominous signs with… aspects [that] point towards the start of a more authoritarian form of government.” Those aspects Tobin refers to include use of excess executive orders, dismissal of criticism, and singling out of specific religious and ethnic groups.

Farrell notes that many political scientists are debating if citizens are being turned off politics. “The declining turnout in elections, …membership in political parties, the rise of populism,” Farrell said. “All of these indicators and more are speaking to [an] agenda that’s being promoted by political scientists, that suggest we’re in a crisis of democracy.”

Farrell, however, insists he has a more positive outlook on the situation. “We’re going to an extreme and I hope the backlash will bring us back to some version of a democracy that’s more familiar,” Farrell said. “We can only hope and pray that the momentum continues and they keep the lid on the worst excesses of the protests so that they don’t force a reaction from the administration that could really cause things to boil over in a bad way.”

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