Is Democracy Failing?

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Is Democracy Failing?

Bruce Newsome reviews: “Is Democracy Failing?” authored by Niheer Dasandi, series-edited by Matthew Taylor, published by Thames & Hudson, paperback, 144 pp. £12.95, ISBN 9780500293652.

Yes, democracy is in decline. In the 1990s, most states turned democratic, but the surge tailed off in the 2000s, and has regressed this decade. Democracy is correlated with economic development, peace, and rights, which have regressed in the same period.

We could use an accessible book on these developments, their explanations, and solutions. “Is Democracy Failing?” seeks to cover all these scopes with a radical new style, looking more like a collection of webpages. It has a few chapters but no other headings. The font fluctuates in size from paragraph to paragraph; the paragraphs are placed in different parts of the pages – sometimes in columns, sometimes wrapped around images, sometimes shifted right or left; no page is structured alike.

The inside cover advises you to read only the paragraphs with the two largest font sizes if you have only 30 minutes – for “a basic overview of the subject,” or read all but the smallest font if you have 60 minutes – for “a deeper understanding of the principles and arguments,” or read everything in a couple of hours – for “a well-balanced overview  and a detailed comprehension.”

This type-setting is branded as “quick-recognition text hierarchy,” but I couldn’t recognize any hierarchy. Sometimes the biggest font is used like a heading, sometimes to explicate, sometimes to conclude. At least four other font sizes are used for the same apparent purposes. Yet another form of text is used to define or biograph something highlighted in the main text (highlighted in grey – a poor choice for black print on white negative space). Yet another font is used to caption the images, but not beside the images – you must follow a lettered key. The rapid eye movement gave me a headache. Closing the fluorescent orange and blue fractal cover gave no relief.

Now let’s turn to the content. I struggled to work out the target audience. Sometimes the content is childish: take this sentence (page 58): “Some parties have socialist leanings, other emphasize liberalism or conservatism, and some prioritize environmental protection.”

At other times, the content attempts the gravitas of an undergraduate textbook, but trips itself up with base mistakes, such as to introduce the fifteen-century philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli as “the founder of modern political science” (page 27).

The major part of the book is a discussion on what democracy is, rather than why it is failing, but keeps betraying over-simplifications. For instance, political parties are introduced as “essential institutions in a democracy” that “help to guarantee pluralism” and “play a crucial role in holding governments to account.” The book does not admit that parties also institutionalize tribalism, in-group biases, and issue-linkage – to the detriment of pluralism and accountability, not to mention innovation and agility. An American may like the Republican Party’s taxation policy and the Democratic Party’s counter-terrorism policy, but the American cannot vote for both policies.

The book’s root prejudice is consistent from the introduction, which blithely describes the enemy of democracy as “nationalist politics,” but nationalism has helped to realize democratic opposition to imperial and supra-national authoritarianism (as in the Soviet Union and the European Union) and to metropolitan centrism (as in Spain). The book talks about only the recent nationalism used to justify authoritarianism in Turkey, India, the Philippines, the US, and Russia.

The book repeatedly characterizes nationalism in the developing world as anti-colonial democratization, while characterizing all other nationalism as anti-democratic. In fact, most anti-colonial movements ended in autocracy, but the book cherry-picks its cases and explains them as orchestrated by the CIA and MI6.

The book repeatedly conflates “nationalism” with “populism,” but you’ll wait until page 90 before the latter is defined:

This involves a form of politics in which charismatic leaders are able to arouse a group of people that feel marginalized by mainstream politics. In turn, this perceived marginalization enabled these leaders to pit ‘ordinary people’ against ‘the establishment.’ Populism promotes a form of politics reliant on appeals to emotional impulses, often rooted in people’s fears rather than reasoned debate and evidence.”

How ironic that this quote is uncited, emotive, and ignores the reasons that both populists and their empiricist observers have given for populism. Instead, it adopts the elite’s dismissal of anything popular but disagreeable as “populist.” I identified this mistake almost two years ago. More recently, Jacob Rees-Mogg has articulated the populism with which he wants to be identified – the fulfilment of majority will, rather than of the elite’s interests.

You’ll find in this book no admission of elite frustration of popular will. Instead, the elite is conflated with the wealthy, with much hand-wringing about the widening wealth gap, but no admission of the tyranny of the minority. By the way, the treatment of the wealth gap is as simplistic as anything you’d see in the Socialist Worker newspaper, exemplified by a photograph of a food bank above a photograph of a gaudily gilded dish, with the caption (page 118): “While many struggle for basic meals, others can afford this £645 ‘Golden Phoenix’ cupcake. The growing divide between the haves and the have-nots has fuelled discontent with the political establishment.”

Having conflated nationalism with populism, the book goes on to conflate right-wing politics, which it never defines but presents with baffling prejudice. On the same page as it defines populism, it displays a photograph of Boris Johnson waving while a passing cyclist gives him the finger. The caption is: “A cyclist swears at London Mayor Boris Johnson in 2015. There is growing frustration in many democracies.”

The next photograph shows a carnival float depicting Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Adolf Hitler – all with yellow hair, above the slogan (in German) “blonde is the new brown” (an analogy to Hitler’s brown-shirt militia; in fact, Hitler wasn’t blonde). The message is racist and reductionist, but the book glorifies this sort of liberal hypocrisy as a fair reaction against the “right-wing.”

Then, the book conflates nationalism, populism, and right-wing politics with Brexit, which is introduced as follows:

There has been a huge increase in far-right nationalist movements across Europe on the back of growing anti-immigration, and particularly anti-Muslim, sentiment. Even in European member states, such as Austria, France, Greece and the Netherlands, which have long promoted democracy and individual rights, political parties linked to far-right movements have grown in popularity. In Britain, the campaign to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum was rooted in nationalist populism and fears of immigration.”

Again, this is prejudicial. The book makes no admission of the democratic or liberal reasons to leave an increasingly unaccountable and protectionist super-state. Elsewhere, the book barely admits how globalization, the information revolution, and the transfer of sovereignty to international institutions have undermined democracy, and implies that these things are problems only because they can be misrepresented by the right-wing.

You’ll go through some long-winded Trump-bashing before the return to Brexit, with the reproduction of an ad. urging border control. The book says: “This UKIP poster from 2015 appeals to public fears of mass immigration during the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. The Brexit referendum led to populist campaigning that spread misinformation.

At this point, the book reads like the worst Soviet revisionism. The same page (115) continues in largest font:

The unease about democracy is less to do with the outcome of the referendum and more about the nature of the campaign leading up to the vote, which saw the rise of demagogues whose divisive and angry rhetoric aimed to appeal to voters’ fears, insecurities and prejudices. In addition, the populist nature of the campaigns led to misinformation and hysteria rather than a reasoned evidence-based debate should leave the European Union. The demonizing of politicians and minority groups contributed to the murder of the MP Jo Cox, and a surge in racist hate-crimes after the referendum result. The overall effect was to damage the democratic culture of the country.”

Really, books like this are ruining our democratic culture.

The book’s prescriptive conclusion is as simplistic as the rest (page 143): “To strengthen the basis of democracy, there needs to be far greater effort to engage people in democratic politics.” By whom? How? The book’s consistent implication is that we would save democracy by eliminating right-wingers, nationalists, populists, and Brexiteers. Socialist autocrats would agree.

The only reason to browse this book is to see how hypocritical are the true enemies of democracy.

Book reviewed: “Is Democracy Failing?” authored by Niheer Dasandi, series-edited by Matthew Taylor, published by Thames & Hudson, paperback, 144 pp. £12.95, ISBN 9780500293652

4.33 avg. rating (86% score) - 12 votes
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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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