Politics & Policy

On Complacency and the Thinning of Democracy

Polling site in Stillwater, Okla., March 2, 2016 (Reuters photo: Nick Oxford)
In finding a way out of our current malaise, we should take care not to destroy the post-war institutions that have long served us so well.

Janan Ganesh is one of the world’s great newspaper columnists, and his column in Tuesday’s Financial Times is another stellar entry in a remarkable oeuvre. Casting about for a macro-level explanation to the tumults of our time — Trump, Brexit, and their ilk — he finds one in the apparent complacency that has overtaken Western society since the end of the Second World War. There is no Passchendaele, no D-Day, no Iwo Jima to give our politics an anchored, foundational meaning; over time we’ve become bored with the way things are and lost the discipline that did so much to create our current prosperity. The typical view sees Trump and Brexit as reactions to the economic and social dislocations wrought by globalization and its attendant forces. Ganesh sees them as the opposite, products of our faded memories of past trauma.

It is a fascinating argument: It runs perfectly counter to conventional wisdom and raises serious questions about the future viability of our system of governance. But complacency and the fractures of globalization alone can’t explain our current predicament. Something significant has also changed in the way that we govern ourselves..

The first half of the 20th century was, for better or for worse, a period of mass democratic involvement in Anglo-American society. In the United States, the votes of the people effected the New Deal, a fundamental change in the relationship between American government and society; in the U.K., something similar happened under the postwar government of Clement Attlee, whose New Jerusalem dramatically rewrote the British social contract — or recognized it as having been rewritten — to provide a generous welfare state for all. These were times when people mattered, or at least believed they did, and when the choices they made at the ballot box stood a fair chance of entirely upending the existing order, typically for the better.

It is hard to say that sort of democratic choice exists today. Rather, in the words of John Lanchester, democratic choice now has something of a “thinned, diminished texture to it,” there is “a sense that democratic choice [has] narrowed; that, in most elections, a narrow set of economic ideas would be the dominant facts of life, irrespective of where you put your x.” The precise date that this diminished texture came into existence is a matter of debate — one might say the elections of Reagan and Thatcher were the last times the votes of individuals could recreate the system under which they lived, but even that pair had only minimal success in rolling back the post-war welfare state. What matters is that voters no longer possess this feeling of control over the vicissitudes of their own lives; the system exists, and it cannot be changed.

There is much to the idea that the underlying explanation for Trump and Brexit (and perhaps also Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece) is that people feel powerless to bring about any meaningful change and have thus chosen to direct the instruments of democracy toward ends foreign from the system. Complacency is indeed an evil, and it seems true enough that the fading memory of the great democratic struggles of the mid 20th century is a factor in the tumults of 2016. But an equal factor must be that people feel unable to escape the abiding sense of complacency even when they desire to do so. The Petri dish of radicalism, to use Ganesh’s phrase, is not mass suffering, but a combination of prolonged order and diminished democracy.

The solution, then, seems clear enough: Reinvigorate the moribund democratic spirit of the Anglosphere through both cultural shifts and political action. Remind people that they really can effect deep changes in the way their societies operate, that not all votes are simply useless howls into an entirely uncaring ether.

The solution, then, seems clear enough: Reinvigorate the moribund democratic spirit of the Anglosphere through both cultural shifts and political action.

There is a problem with that proposal, though. The institutions that Ganesh describes — the ones that may well have generated the complacency that in turn eased the path toward our ongoing troubles — are, by and large, good. War, despite the fantasies of the alt-right, is on the whole a bad thing, and the vast human toll of the world wars seems a high price to pay for the reminder that politics is indeed a rather serious business with rather serious consequences. So too do the dual phenomena of Trump and Brexit — the former is doing much harm to the United States, both domestically and on the world stage, while the latter seems to be drifting listlessly toward a disastrous scenario in which the United Kingdom crashes out of the European Union in March 2019 without having secured an exit deal of some sort. These phenomena may, it is true, do their part in forcing us to confront politics with a cold, rationalistic mind once again. But surely there are better, less wantonly destructive ways to drag ourselves out of the politics-as-sports morass into which we have been drawn.

Indeed, finding those better ways is the most crucial task before us today. A robust version of democratic choice is a boon to any society — it invests citizens with a thickened sense of purpose and meaning in their own lives and it provides the means for an endogenous course correction when the projects and schemes of the ruling elite either go wrong or run out of steam. What is crucial is that a reinvigoration of democratic choice does not mean a reneging on the institutions of post-war governance that have served us relatively well for most of their existence, creating prosperous economies, stable political systems, and open, tolerant societies. We would be better off directing our democratic energies toward the murky and uncertain future to come.

The politician or intellectual who comes up with a solution to that question — lying at the nexus of civilizational complacency and democratic inspiration — will have gone a long way toward squaring the political circle of our time. And the need to square it is evident. More Trumps could prove a fatal blow. So too could the present democratic malaise. Both problems merit solutions. But let us make sure that in finding them we do not destroy an existing order that has earned its chance to adapt.

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