Democ­racy is in cri­sis around the world. Why?

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY MAX BOOT The Washington Post

It’s all too easy to be­come ob­sessed with our do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal tur­moil. Pres­i­dent Trump, af­ter all, has fired the at­tor­ney gen­eral and FBI di­rec­tor to pro­tect him­self from in­ves­ti­ga­tion, tried to pros­e­cute that same

FBI di­rec­tor along with his de­feated po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent, de­scribed the me­dia as the “enemy of the peo­ple,” traf­ficked in bla­tant racism and xeno­pho­bia, mis­used troops for po­lit­i­cal ends, spread fraud­u­lent the­o­ries about voter fraud to un­der­mine his po­lit­i­cal foes, and lied with im­punity and aban­don.

Democ­racy is un­der siege in the United States — but not just in the United States. It’s a world­wide cri­sis. Democ­racy has al­ready been de­stroyed in Tur­key, Egypt, Venezuela, Thai­land and Rus­sia, and it is now be­ing un­der­mined in Poland, Hun­gary and the Philip­pines. Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, the bul­wark of the West, is on her way out in Ger­many. Em­manuel Macron, France’s cen­trist pres­i­dent, is bat­tling record-low ap­proval rat­ings. And in Bri­tain, the Con­ser­va­tive Party is tear­ing it­self apart over Brexit, mak­ing more likely an elec­tion that could bring to power a Labour Party led by an anti-Semitic neo-Marx­ist.

How did we go from hopes of an “end of his­tory” in the

1990s to fears of an “end of democ­racy” to­day? We are con­fronting two in­ter­sect­ing crises — an eco­nomic cri­sis and a refugee cri­sis.

The eco­nomic cri­sis has been brought about by the In­for­ma­tion Rev­o­lu­tion, which, like the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion in the

19th cen­tury, is trans­form­ing so­ci­ety out of all recog­ni­tion. The In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion cre­ated im­mense for­tunes for the Rock­e­fellers, Carne­gies, Goulds and other “rob­ber barons” but also great mis­ery for mil­lions of or­di­nary peo­ple who had to leave the coun­try­side to live in grimy cities and work in back­break­ing fac­to­ries. The re­sult was what Ben­jamin Dis­raeli de­scribed as “two na­tions” — the “rich and the poor” — “be­tween whom there is no in­ter­course and no sym­pa­thy; who are as ig­no­rant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feel­ings, as if they were dwellers in dif­fer­ent zones, or in­hab­i­tants of dif­fer­ent plan­ets.”

The grow­ing in­equal­ity and so­cial dis­lo­ca­tion of the in­dus­trial era gave rise to rad­i­cal new ide­olo­gies such as Marx­ism, fas­cism and an­ar­chism at the very time that new tech­nolo­gies — prin­ci­pally print­ing presses that made it pos­si­ble to pro­duce cheap news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, fol­lowed by ra­dio and film — gave rad­i­cal ide­o­logues ac­cess to a mass au­di­ence for the first time.

The In­for­ma­tion Rev­o­lu­tion is just as desta­bi­liz­ing. It is cre­at­ing vast for­tunes for the Gate­ses, Be­zoses, Job­ses and Zucker­bergs while im­pov­er­ish­ing mil­lions of blue-col­lar work­ers. Economists Em­manuel Saez and Gabriel Zuc­man found that wealth in­equal­ity, af­ter fall­ing from 1929 to 1978, has been ris­ing ever since “al­most en­tirely due to the rise of the top 0.1 per­cent wealth share, from 7 per­cent in 1979 to 22 per­cent in 2012 — a level al­most as high as in 1929.” Mean­while, the United States has lost 5 mil­lion fac­tory jobs since 2000, and the man­ual la­bor that re­mains is gen­er­ally lower-pay­ing and more in­se­cure than in the past.

These trends are driven mainly by au­to­ma­tion, but it is easy for dem­a­gogues to put the blame on sup­pos­edly dis­loyal elites such as in­ter­na­tional bankers, trade part­ners that are sup­pos­edly rip­ping us off and im­mi­grants who are sup­pos­edly steal­ing jobs and bring­ing crime. Con­ve­niently enough, the nos­trums pushed by au­to­cratic pop­ulists ex­ac­er­bate the very prob­lems they claim to be ad­dress­ing, deep­en­ing the cri­sis that gives them the ex­cuse to rule. (Trump-sup­port­ing coun­ties have done worse un­der Trump than coun­ties where the ma­jor­ity voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton.)

Xeno­pho­bia is an easy sell at the mo­ment be­cause we are in the midst of the largest refugee cri­sis in his­tory. Ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, the num­ber of dis­placed peo­ple in the world has grown from 33.9 mil­lion in 1997 to 65.6 mil­lion in 2016.

Just as the tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion made it easy for Karl Marx to prop­a­gate his “Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo,” so the In­for­ma­tion Rev­o­lu­tion has given these pop­ulists the per­fect medium for get­ting their mes­sage out.

His­tory sug­gests that eco­nomic up­heavals such as the In­dus­trial and In­for­ma­tion Rev­o­lu­tions even­tu­ally play them­selves out and leave the en­tire world bet­ter off. Refugee crises also abate sooner or later. But a lot can hap­pen in the mean­time. The cri­sis of the old or­der in Europe pro­duced nearly 80 years of of­ten bloody con­flict be­tween democ­racy and its foes from 1914 to 1991. Buckle your seat­belts. The en­tire world is in for an­other bumpy road.

Max Boot, a Post colum­nist, is the Jeane J. Kirk­patrick se­nior fel­low for na­tional se­cu­rity stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

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