Survival of Democracies

The earliest form of democratic authority is accredited to the Greeks less than 2,500 years ago. Democracy has survived in various hues and with dubious degrees of success ever since.

In his farewell to the nation in January 2017 President Obama emotionally declared; “Democracy needs you to survive”. MMPI suggests he may have been a little too patronising. Democracy requires growth to survive – without growth there is no hope!

For thousands of years modern-day homo sapiens plodded along without any expectation of economic growth – sometimes life got better and then the ravages of war or pestilence drove conditions back to square one. In truth, consistent economic growth that saw the kids’ generation outstrip the parents’ has been around for less than 150 years. Zero growth creates conflict – steady growth drives communal prosperity. It is doubtful if democracy could have persisted without growth – the pleasing notion that one person’s gain doesn’t have to come from another’s loss.

World history is littered with examples of fledgling democracies surviving in good times but falling to coups when times get tough. But could it be the case that even well-established democratic institutions can be toppled in the absence of growth? Democracy has never broken down in a wealthy country – at least not yet! Academic research suggests that economic downturns test the fabric of democracy. In many ways the democratic Brexit vote and the election of President Trump are good examples of the democratic fabric being examined. Prime Minister May has promised to follow the democratic will of the people and pursue a Brexit strategy that will severely curtail Britain’s trading links with its main trading partner. That promises to be a crucial test of democratic principles.

Where democracy exists, market economics are not far behind; and conversely the absence of market economics doesn’t generate much enthusiasm for democracy. Economic growth is an integral constituent of the lifeblood of democratic success; and, therefore, politics and economics are irretrievably connected.

Many complain about political figures and their ultimate motives; becoming exasperated with ever-more signs of impropriety and incompetence. However, rather than complaining we should accept that we have an ongoing role to play in the process and not simply to exercise our minds every four years or so. Thinking about democracy in this way may remind us of how fragile it is and how difficult it might prove to adapt to alternative rulers.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal had it right; “Thought makes the whole dignity of man; therefore, endeavour to think well; that is the only morality.” The lasting quality of democracy, and in the end the only reason for striving to keep it intact, is that, with all of its obvious deficiencies, the democratic process provides the most favourable conditions for upholding our personal dignity and for testing and exploring our own morality. But few think like that anymore – pity!! The ultimate challenge that confronts democracies is to restore favourable economic conditions by democratic means or cease to be democracies!