Published On: Fri, May 10th, 2019

Why Western Democracy is in crisis.

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Western democracies today are not functioning well, are unable to plan for the long term and are highly unstable.  In survey after survey people living in democracies all over the world are showing record levels of dissatisfaction with how their countries are run.  This is not just in countries that have recently shifted to democratic systems but also in the US and the UK, the two countries that have done most to promote democracy throughout the world.

In this History Future Now article we ask why this is the case and come to a worrying conclusion: society’s emphasis on what makes us different is making it hard to form political majorities. If it is not possible to achieve clear and consistent majorities then it is hard to create stable and consistent governments that can plan for the long term. To combat this we need to re-emphasise what we have in common and not what divides us.

Let’s get started.


Democracy is new

It is worth noting that the democratic system of government that exists in the West is relatively modern. While Westerners like to believe that democracy has continuously existed in the West since the Greek city states in the 500s and 400s BC, that ancient system of government bears little resemblance to Western democracies today.

Athenian democracy was direct government, more analogous to Swiss-style referendums. Those who fought and put their lives on the line for the defence of their city were able to vote on decisions. This meant that you had to be a man, as women did not fight, wealthy, as the cost of equipping yourself with armour and weapons was high and the military training requirement took time, and free, which eliminated much of the population, who were slaves.  Even this system of government could result in catastrophic decisions, thanks to the influence of populist demagogues.  The case of the flamboyant Alcibiades who, in 415BC, persuaded his fellow Athenians to attack neutral Syracuse in the middle of their conflict with the Spartans is a good example of this.  The Athenians were crushed and never recovered. After the Greek city states were absorbed into larger empires democracy withered away for nearly two thousand years.

When the English and Americans adopted democratic institutions, they were initially much closer to the Athenian model, with only wealthy free men being able to vote.  It is only in the last 150 years that the democratic franchise has been expanded to include most adults.

As the democratic franchise expanded in the mid 1800s to early 1900s the number of people needed to get any consensus also expanded.  This creates challenges as democracies can only function if a majority of voters agree on what to do about the issues at hand.  If no majority is possible the alternative is chaos and gridlock.

From the perspective of the previously non-voting population, such as poor men and all women, this expansion has been a boon as their views and rights, previously ignored or trampled on, were gradually addressed.  This transition, however, from a narrow electorate of male elites to a broader electorate was not easy.  It was during this period that revolutionary movements emerged and later resulted in experiments with fascism and communism.  Once this initial conflict was resolved democracies in the West proved reasonably stable and functional from the 1940s to 2000s.

The democratic issues in the West during the past decade are directly linked to changes in the makeup of the electorate.  These changes include: a reduction in middle class numbers; changes in ethnic and religious mixes; an ageing population; an increase in the number genders; and a transformation in the way people communicate ideas, thanks to social media.

Rise and fall of the middle class

The biggest issue for democracy has been the reduction in the numbers of middle-class people in the West.  Prior to the First World War, the West was unequal. There were the very rich, a small merchant class and then a mass of poor people.

The First and Second World Wars, however, created far more equal societies.  After the war much of Western Europe was in ruins. Rebuilding basic infrastructure led to full employment and factories and managers used to producing vast quantities of war materiel shifted to providing vast quantities of consumer goods. A labour shortage resulted in huge bargaining power for unions, who ensured that their workers got a decent share of the economic miracle.

That produced a large middle class. The late 1940s to the 1970s were boom years in the West and produced some of the most stable and homogeneous societies in Western history where the bulk of the population could claim to be middle class. They had relatively similar incomes, similar values, similar cultures, similar ethnicities and similar views on the world.

This post war boom, however, created a number of problems.  Once everything had been rebuilt, and most people had their initial set of consumer goods, life became more competitive. Companies responded to this by trying to reduce costs, and especially labour costs. They advocated government policies that led to greater levels of immigration and eventually western companies would shift factories overseas in order to supply their home markets. Cheaper immigrant labourers were happy not to be unionised and so undercut union labour and the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas resulted in job losses at home.

Citizens responded to this erosion of earning power in multiple ways. Women, who would have either not been working or would have been doing part time work at most, entered the labour force in large numbers. Dual incomes were now needed to pay for what originally only needed one income.  Banks developed consumer credit and low-cost mortgages in the 1980s, which allowed people to borrow future income streams in order to consume today.  This helped boost short term spending and spawned a massive new industry of global finance, which had not existed before.

Through this process the middle class started to stretch out, with some, in the service and financial sectors, becoming increasingly wealthy and others, unable to find good manufacturing jobs, falling behind.   Richer members of society welcomed poorer immigrants as a way of reducing their costs of living.  Poorer members of society resented immigrants for taking their jobs.  As the economic levels of the middle class started to diverge their desires started to diverge as well.

The stretching of the middle class into upper, middle and lower middle classes was not the only change in the make-up of the electorate.

Increase in diversity

The actual membership of Western societies started to fragment and diversify from the 1980s. The push for mass immigration in order to get cheap workers in the 1960s and 1970s has significantly changed the ethnic make-up of Western societies at an unprecedented pace.  European countries, who had historically been net emigration societies and were ethnically homogenous after World War Two, shifted to becoming net immigration societies. European offshoot countries, such as Canada, the USA, Australia and New Zealand, shifted from being very homogenous societies dominated by Europeans to being very diverse with dramatic declines in the relative proportion of Europeans in their societies.  For example, the European population of Canada was 93% in 1981 and fell to 53% in 2016.  This is likely to fall below 50% by the time of the next census.   The majority of children born in the USA are now of non European heritage.  Within a few years Europeans will become a minority in those countries.

This diversity causes issues about cohesion.  Citizens are increasingly focused on promoting their own ethnic or religious group and seek to get advantages over others.

Ageing population and differing goals

The ageing of Western societies is also starting to cause intergenerational conflicts over who works, how much people are taxed and where the tax receipts are spent. Increased longevity thanks to healthier living and better medicine has been a blessing.  But as populations shift from looking like pyramids, with a large number of young people and very few old people, to columns, with a more even distribution of people of all ages up until their 80s and 90s, many of the economic and social norms have had to change.  A few retired people living for a relatively short period of time could be easily supported by an expanding youthful population.  But as there are fewer young people the burden of taxes on them becomes a serious problem.  They are being forced to pay for their children, themselves and also the pensions of large numbers of adults who are living for decades after retirement. This burden is too high and many are responding to this by having fewer children, resulting in a native population that is starting to shrink.

Increase in the range of genders

Finally, Western societies are also seeing an explosion in the number of distinctive groups linked to gender and sexual orientation.  Historically western societies were dominated by men and politicians were focused on attracting male voters. They did not have to worry about anyone else.

This has changed. Women have become major political players.  This was driven first by the enfranchisement of women in the 1920s and then by an increase in female participation in the work force from the 1980s. In recent years a strong drive for equality in the workforce in terms of pay and senior positions in companies has challenged male dominance in the work space.

Since the early 2010s there has also been a greater acceptance of peoples’ sexual orientations and an expansion in the number of genders. Many of these issues simply did not exist a few decades ago.  In most Western societies homosexuality was illegal until the 1970s and marriage to the same sex was illegal until the 2010s. Medical science could not surgically and chemically alter people’s birth genders.

All of these movements can be summarised by a demand for all people to be treated equally, no matter their class, ethnic make-up, age or gender. A worthy goal.

The problem for politicians and the electorate is that each group emphasises its differences rather than the humanity they share in common.  That focus on diversity rather than communality is making it increasingly difficult for politicians to pull together a majority.

The advent of cable and satellite TV in the 1980s and then the internet in the 2000s and social media since the 2010s has made this problem worse as it has allowed all of these different groups to be extremely vocal.  They can communicate with each other directly and can reinforce their positions with unprecedented ease.  With no majority democracies can only hobble along, which means that voters become increasingly frustrated with politicians. Many have started to actively question whether democracy works and whether an alternative exists.

It is likely that the forces that are currently pulling Western societies apart will weaken. Young people in particular are extremely open and are intolerant of any kind of discrimination.  Interracial and ethnic mixing will eventually result in a more homogenous and equal mix.  LGBT rights and gender swapping will be fully established and become non-controversial.

Citizens are confused about who they are and which group they belong to. Politicians and members of the media establishment need to help create an overarching narrative that provides everyone, no matter their differences, with a common purpose and understanding.

But this process could take decades and, in the meantime, Western democracies will remain very hard to govern.


History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

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