In defence of liberal democracy

Feeding on discontent demagogues are going for a free ride in Europe and the United States. Whoever is in a position to display leadership (i.e. every citizen) must come out in public on the side of democracy

We must not be blind. Some people may feel left out by the system. Alienated by all kinds of change they cannot influence.


Europe is in tatters. The single currency may not have been such a good idea after all. Austerity may have gone too far. The democratic deficit of Europe’s institutional governance undermines the legitimacy of the entire post war project. Old certainties crumble under the weight of globalisation and neoliberal policies. The lack of economic opportunity and healthy growth feeds discontent.

There are more questions than answers, more problems than solutions. There is paralysis among the European political classes. Too few leaders rise to the occasion and engage electorates in a narrative of shared destiny. The vacuum leaves the field wide open to demagogues.

Two lone voices seem unable to stem the tide. German chancellor Angela Merkel holds on to her European vision of better together with clear democratic values. And pope Francis dares speak truth to the false power of money. Inequality breeds terrorism, not Islam, he says; and the cause of loss of social cohesion is the heartless pursuit of materialism.

Demagogues will not save us, quite to the contrary. Look at Great Britain. The protest vote resulted in a majority in favour of Brexit. Its advocates and architects, however, are left clueless about what to do next. No plan, no preparation, no winners. The demagogues took a free ride and managed to damage democracy itself in the process.

Across the Atlantic Ocean another demagogue is doing damage to the cause of democracy day by day. The Republican candidate for president is unfit for the office he runs for, as Mr Obama has noted in unprecedented remarks for an incumbent about a potential successor. But he is right to use his authority and issue a warning before his people go to the polls. You cannot preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States if you engage in corrosive speech, display a lack of understanding of issues critical to the rule of law in the international arena and invite Moscow to intervene in the American electoral decision making. Once again, a demagogue is exploiting discontent and in so doing causing damage to the cause of democracy, both in his own country and among its allies.

I don’t know what to say. I’m not eligible to cast a vote in the U.S. presidential elections, but as a national of one of America’s European allies I am a stakeholder of the cause of democracy, the rule of law and upholding liberal values. The new divide in politics in Europe and the U.S. is closed minds versus open minds, The Economist writes. I’d say this is the divide between demagogues and democrats (not meaning the American political party of that name).

Democrats, to which I count myself, must act responsibly, listen and incorporate legitimate concerns of people feeling left out by their political systems. This still means current problems will remain unsolved, but whoever is in a position to display leadership (i.e. every citizen) must come out in public on the side of democracy and distance himself or herself from demagoguery. Address the issues in this context is the very least all of us are able to do. What’s more, it is a moral obligation for us to do so. Whatever uncharted waters we may be in, democracy needs its defenders now that it itself is under attack from within.

I remember the shame many open minded Americans knew about the presidency of George W. Bush with its controversial wars, its ‘extraordinary rendition’ (quasi legal kidnapping and torturing) and its Guantanamo Bay. The current president has undertaken corrective action where he can, though Guantanamo, collateral damage by drone warfare and the unfinished business of American involvement in international conflict could all be construed as threats to the credibility of democracy. Equally, Europe does not escape criticism for the role it plays or does not play in certain parts of the world.

But all this should be included in a sensible, democratic debate. Meanwhile, however, demagogues everywhere are playing with fire. I would not want to see democracy go up in flames like in the closing parts of a Wagnerian opera.

Throughout the centuries much work has gone into the development of liberal democracies. They’re far from perfect, but still a beacon of hope to those people across the world whose civil rights are being trampled upon by state or non state actors. So let’s all engage whoever we know or encounter in a discourse characterized by a spirited defence of liberal democracy and its fundamental integrity as a system of rule which takes into account everyone’s rights, of majorities and minorities alike.


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