Weekend Roundup: Populists in Power Push Western Democracy to the Brink

Nathan Gardels

These are trying times for democracies around the world.

In Washington and London, the intransigence of populists in power has resulted in unprecedented political paralysis. When the body politic is so divided against itself that consensus is perpetually elusive, democracy becomes ungovernable.

Precipitated by partisan gridlock over funding the wall on the border with Mexico, a government shutdown in the United States has stretched on for nearly a month. In Great Britain, Parliament this week overwhelmingly rejected the prime minister’s plan to exit the European Union, which was mandated by a popular referendum in 2016 largely driven by anti-immigration sentiment.

Elsewhere, from Hong Kong to India, proposed authoritarian measures threaten liberal freedoms.

For the U.K. to move forward now, Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham proposes a “cross-party commission” of eminent figures to chart a new course of compromise to “lower the temperature” of factional ire. But above all, he says, a new temperament is needed. “Beyond all the technical debates of Brexit,” Burnham writes, “we all need to get much wiser to the anarchic tactics of the populist right. On both sides of the Atlantic, a clear pattern is emerging. Our great nations have been reduced to a narrow and divisive stand-off over immigration. This is not a coincidence; it is a deliberate strategy. No good will come of it.”

Burnham continues: “My greatest regret is that, in 2016, we didn’t make the patriotic case for remaining in the E.U. After all, it was Winston Churchill in 1946 who first called for a ‘United States of Europe.’ It is time to remind these false patriots of the new right of this simple fact: through our shared history, the United Kingdom and the United States were at their greatest when they built bridges, not walls.”

On the other side of the planet, activists are trying to hold on to the fragile freedoms promised to them after Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997. Writing from the former British colony, famed “umbrella movement” protest leader Joshua Wong and fellow activist Jeffrey Ngo take on Beijing’s proposed National Anthem Ordinance that, if passed, will put anyone who performs the anthem in “a distorted or disrespectful way” in jail for three years. “The national anthem bill,” they write, “represents [Chinese President] Xi’s ambition to create a single, unified polity based on his vision of what ‘One China’ ought to be, a project that includes the ongoing mass incarceration of up to 1.1 million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang and ceaseless attempts to threaten Taiwan into unification under ‘one country, two systems,’ the same dubious framework in place for Hong Kong and Macau that evidently does not guarantee autonomy.”

In India, as elsewhere, the fear is that efforts to govern social media will lead to political censorship in the name of filtering out harmful content. Prominent opposition figure Shashi Tharoor scores the Indian government’s Internet governance plans. “There are indeed compelling reasons to filter out hate speech online, especially given how easily panic-inducing rumors on WhatsApp have ignited violence in parts of the country,” he writes from New Delhi. “But giving the government more power to regulate the Internet, without procedural safeguards, isn’t the answer. The government’s commitment to tackling fake news and hate speech is suspect.”

As Tharoor sees it, Modi’s record so far evinces little concern with privacy. “I am deeply troubled to say that the cumulative actions of the Modi government suggest it is trying to turn India itself into a digital panopticon,” he writes.

The chain of consequences that lead from protracted political paralysis and social splintering through the technologies of connectivity to panopticon or authoritarian solutions will become more evident as dysfunction pushes democracies toward the brink. Out of chaos, the demand for order will gain ever more momentum and legitimacy. If a governing consensus can’t be found, sooner or later attempts will be made to impose it.