The Revolt of the Disenfranchised: Is Liberal Democracy Dying?

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Italy has elected its first female prime minister. What should have been a cause for celebration (because we definitely need more women in politics) has left observers of Italian politics rather skeptical to say the least. Giorgia Meloni was socialized in a neo-fascist youth organization and some of her views are authoritarian-illiberal or, in other words: non-democratic. In France, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen was even more popular. She achieved more than 40% of the vote share in this year’s presidential runoff but eventually lost to incumbent president Emmanuel Macron. 

Considering the recent electoral success of right-wing populist candidates with anti-democratic views in Western nations, some people wonder: is liberal democracy slowly dying? I do not think it is.

Western-style liberal democracy—that is institutionalized democracy with free and fair elections, guaranteed civil rights and constitutionally-protected civil liberties—may not be particularly well at the moment, but it is still alive. The recent electoral success of right-wing populists is really a cry for attention from those who believe that they have been ignored by politics. To overcome the current malaise of democracies, our societies have to become more inclusive.

Increasing Socio-cultural Polarization

The rise of right-wing populism is often explained with either economic or cultural factors. However, my research shows that the vote for radical right-wing populist parties is motivated by both types of grievances. 

Most Western countries have experienced vast economic growth; yet, fewer and fewer people have profited from it, leaving them with a sense of existential insecurity. Researchers with the World Inequality Lab found that between 1980 and 2016 incomes grew by over 400% in Europe and North America. But the income distribution was highly unequal: virtually all economic growth has gone to the top.

Where income differences are bigger, cultural distances are also bigger. The upper classes set the trends and lifestyle standards; the lifestyles of the lower classes are often considered to be worth less. These people are not only grappling with economic insecurities but also shifts in the cultural frameworks that people use to interpret what is most valued in society and their place within it. 

In the United States, Professor Nancy Isenberg writes, “These people are told that East Coast college professors brainwash the young and that Hollywood liberals make fun of them and have nothing in common with them and hate America and wish to impose an abhorrent, godless lifestyle”.

Democracy’s Greatest Strength Is Also Its Greatest Weakness

The deteriorating economic conditions and progressive social changes have left many people in advanced industrial democracies feeling anxious about the future. Naturally, insecure people are more open to the populist message. If the government is not looking after their interests anymore, the answer is to elect a people’s government that will sack those who enrich themselves and send the immigrants home, or whatever the local remedy happens to be at a particular time. Former U.S. President Donald Trump called it “draining the swamp”. He promised to end corruption and to install a government that served ordinary Americans. 

Therein lies democracy’s ultimate strength: it has the inherent potential for responsiveness and renewal. However, if citizens’ dissatisfaction with the government leads them to harbor a general distrust of democratic institutions, that strength becomes a weakness because it also makes democracies vulnerable to anti-democratic challengers. 

The feeling of powerlessness and distrust of the people who are disappointed by democracy manifests itself in the mounting support for right-wing populism. The populist discourse exploits the gap between promise and performance in liberal democracy. Instead of questioning the overall legitimacy of democracy, citizens who feel the government has failed them might vote for right-wing populist parties to seek improvement. They hope that populists’ promises to give power back to the people can achieve more—rather than less—democracy and therefore provide the solution to their grievances. 

Democracy Is Not Dying

In essence, the recent success of right-wing populism in Western nations is a revolt of the disenfranchised, a reactionary episode of certain people who feel economically disadvantaged and culturally left behind. Their numbers may be too small to affect the average level of democracy in a population, but their deteriorating democratic attitudes should not be taken lightly. These individuals can still influence election results in favor of right-wing populist parties.

To overcome the current crisis of democracy in the West, our democratic societies have to be more inclusive. But financial  redistribution alone will not fix our problems. We need to figure out a way to better deal with people’s (broken) identities. Identity politics is a central part of the social question because economic exploitation and cultural discrimination are closely related. What we are experiencing is not only the result of a failed social policy but perhaps even more so the result of neglecting identity and status issues. 

How do we fix liberal democracy? We could start by treating the symptom of black-and-white thinking, which undermines all honest efforts to treat the unwell patient. We have got to learn again to see the gray area. That is our middle ground from where we can strive to make democracy better and more effective for everyone.

Anna-Elisabeth Schmitz is an international relations professional, currently working for a German Member of Parliament. She is an alumna of the U.S. Fulbright Program and holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from The Center for the Study of Democracy at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg and an M.S. in Global Studies and International Relations with a concentration in conflict resolution from Northeastern University in Boston.  

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