For defenders of liberal democracy, global politics in 2016 was not a pretty sight – and many believe 2017 isn’t looking much better. They might have a point. The rise of populism, threats to global human rights, and continued terror attacks will not stop overnight. But they can diminish, and each of us defenders can assist in contributing to that demise. Let’s take a look at the year that was, and how we can shape the year that will be.
2016 kicked off its depressing streak with the continuation of civil conflict in Syria. In the nearly six year civil war, 4.8million people have fled the country and 6.3million people have been internally displaced (UNOCHA). This has led to the largest civilian displacement in recent history. In May, the people of the Philippines democratically elected populist politician Rodrigo Duterte – who promised a war on drug crime and inspired his followers to “slaughter” addicts, dealers and anyone associated with drug crime. In 2016, nearly 6000 people were killed as a result (CNN).
The Brexit vote to leave the European Union in June dealt a further blow to globalization and liberal democracy. Shortly after, a failed coup in Turkey in July led to government crackdowns against academics, journalists, military professionals, and anyone suspected of having supported the coup, in a clear suppression of the liberal values of free speech and right to fair trial (CNN). July was also the month when an ISIS sympathizer killed 85 people by driving a truck into Bastille Day celebrations in France (CNN). In November, Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric won him the US election, leading to an increase in xenophobia and harassment of minorities across the US (CNN). In December, Italian’s voted “no” in a referendum on constitutional reform, which was seen as another example of anti-EU sentiment (The Guardian). And of course, Russian meddling in the American election was front and center throughout the month of December.
These are only some of the lowlights of 2016, but you get the point. In 2017, we don’t expect the crisis in Syria to abate in any significant way. Surprisingly, Russia, Iran and Turkey recently brokered a ceasefire with the warring parties, and are holding peace talks, but so far there is no end in sight to the conflict and humanitarian disaster (IB Times). The war against terrorism wages on as Iraqi and Kurdish forces try and recapture key territory from the so-called Islamic State. But the ISIS propaganda machine remains strong, and their conversion of extremist supporters to become their suicide weapons is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, the threat to liberal democratic values continues with the popularity of populist parties all over Europe. After Brexit and Trump, we are not as quick to underestimate the potential of populist politicians to win the upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, in March, April and October respectively (Globe and Mail). And in addition to the unknowns posed by a Trump presidency, this is arguably the biggest reason why defenders of liberal democracy are bracing themselves for 2017. The front runners of these populist parties are shockingly illiberal. For example, Netherlands frontrunner Geert Wilders has been found “guilty of public insult and incitement to discrimination, over a speech in which he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the country “(Economist). Another populist, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has “suggested the EU should build a massive refugee camp – either on an island or “somewhere in North Africa” – and that all those who came to Europe illegally should be transferred there until their asylum applications were processed” (Globe and Mail).
European elections, war in Syria and suppression in Turkey may seem out of our span of control from our relatively more comfortable liberal seat in Canada. However, I want to focus on one cause of the cracks in the liberal democratic framework that is in our control: the promotion and practice of liberal values, including fairness. I recently read a fantastic book by Canadian author and Professor, Jennifer Welsh called The Return of History. In it, Welsh provides a well summarized overview of the state of world politics today, including why we are seeing so much rebellion against the traditional liberal democracy, and what needs to be done to change the trajectory.
As Welsh illustrates in The Return of History, one of the key drivers of the angst of lower and middle class voters to elect populists is the economic inequality that capitalism and globalization have created. Indeed between 1988 and 2008, “the top 1% of earners have increased their real incomes by 60%”, or to put it a different way, “the wealthiest 1% of Americans held 35% of the country’s wealth” in 2016. Income inequality is at incredibly high levels, and we see this playing out in Trump voters’ demand for jobs and Brexit voters’ demand for tighter control over those entering their workforce. Populists pander to this angst; they blame the inequality on immigrants, failed policies, or in the case of America, on the ‘elites’.
From my admittedly comfortable liberal seat in Canada, it baffled me that Western citizens would be so inward looking and, dare-I-say selfish, in their support of populists. How could the blue-collar worker in the rust belt who lost his job to offshoring (actually more likely automation) not see that bringing his more expensive job back would raise the cost of goods for everyone? How could the anti-immigrant Canadian or Hungarian not see that refugees fleeing Middle Eastern conflict are running away from suppression and terrorism, not supporting it? How could they further not see the economic arguments that with our declining birth rates, we need immigration to keep our industries afloat? The answer lies in fairness. As Welsh states, “deepening economic inequality is a moral issue – it erodes individuals’ capacity to see one another as worthy of respect and weakens social cohesion.” Fairness is a foundation of liberal democracy, and when citizens feel liberal democracy has treated them unfairly, so the cracks begin.
Globalization has not been fair. There are winners and losers, and right now those on the losing side are making their voices and their votes heard. What can we do about it? At an individual level, the solution starts with understanding the other. Only then can we begin civil discourse about how to change the great wealth inequality, without immediately discounting each other’s views. I too am tempted to write off any Trump supporter, but we must work together to move forward. Welsh concludes that a deeper transformation in politics is required, one where politicians talk openly about fairness and support policies that address wealth inequality. This will require sacrifice for many, but I believe it will be worth it to defend liberal democracy. And if we begin this open conversation with each other, the state of democracy in 2017 may not be as scary as it seems.
Authored by: Candice White, Co-Founder & Editor, mPolitics