Our damaged democracies must gear up for the trials ahead

Joe Biden

Joe Biden, who takes office this month - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Countries around the world are facing remarkably similar problems, yet several different approaches have emerged in how to tackle them. This year will a crucial one in the tussle between them. JOHN KAMPFNER reports.

Was there a year as bad as 2020? Not in my lifetime, but I have not lived through a war. Perhaps 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, comes close. Those events may have been terrible shocks to the system, but they felt like reactions to the status quo. In the four intervening years the world’s reference points have shifted. The abnormal has become the new normal.

If the first two weeks of 2021 are anything to go by, perhaps even worse is yet to come? There are two ways to read the mob invasion of Capitol Hill. The first is to fear the prospect of armed attacks on Joe Biden lasting throughout his administration. The second is to hope that the made-for-TV violence of that event may have alienated all but the hardest core of Trump supporters and that he and his movement will peter out.

The focus of the next four years in the United States will be on two things: will Biden be able to deliver a modicum of economic recovery to enough people? And will the Republicans alight on a candidate for 2024 who is as extreme as Trump, but has smarter political skills?

Trump himself may finally be done for, but his movement most certainly is not. The fact that almost half the population opted for him, and that according to opinion polls more than half of Republicans defend the insurrection, suggests a demographic trend more ingrained than a one-off protest.


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This is a man who has presided over more than a fifth of the world’s Covid deaths. Several millions of people lost their health insurance during that time. He has reversed 80 environmental laws and regulations. He has slashed the number of refugees coming into the country.

His one major piece of legislation brought the tax rate for the wealthiest 400 Americans below that of every income group. Lest we forget, he himself paid only $750 in federal income taxes during his first year of office. Plus, the one figure that everyone seems to know by heart: he has lied 25,000 times while in power. And yet he received the second biggest aggregate vote in history.

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Back in October, Trump survived coronavirus in some style, his burly frame and his unmasked face a picture of defiance and recklessness that appeals to millions of people. According to this mindset, Joe Biden is in hoc to the medical experts and other assorted state conspirators and do-gooders when it comes to Covid. Why else would he be preparing to clamp down on citizens’ inalienable right to go about their business?

Biden will have no honeymoon, no 100 Days. He and his vice president Kamala Harris know that they should have romped to victory. The January 5 Senate run-off results in Georgia came as a relief and could mark the start of a demographic shift. But the Democrats continue to struggle, even though logic dictates that they shouldn’t. The Republican share, particularly 'down ballot' votes within the states, held up remarkably well.

As ever, the forces of liberal democracy live in the land of wishful thinking. “Trump’s defeat can be the beginning of the end of the triumph of far-right populisms also in Europe,” tweeted Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and now head of the centre-right European People's Party. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, called it more accurately. “Even now, elites still fail to understand why people vote the way they do,” it declared in a post-election editorial. “Once again, they are missing the strength and diversity of this coalition”.

Once finally prised out of the White House, Trump will do everything he can, with or without Twitter, to stay firmly in the public eye. Watch out for the launch of Trump TV, a prime time show on the One America News Network that will rip the mantle of true believers away from the treacherous Fox News, which had the temerity to call in the election for Biden.

Next time around Trump – assuming he hasn’t been retrospectively impeached (a bizarre notion) – will not enjoy the mantle of the insurgent. He will look and sound old. Imagine a new, fresh-faced right-wing demagogue who turns out also to be competent. That is a far more dangerous proposition. It is very likely.

Right-wing authoritarian populists around the world have taken heart from recent events. Trump was seen as a means not end to a wider shift away from democracy. Central Europe’s populist leaders have stepped up their showdown with Brussels over the EU budget and its insistence that further project funding will requires countries like Hungary and Poland to uphold basic liberal values. The war of attrition will continue. “Ideological pressure is used under the guise of the rule of law against certain countries just because we say no to migration, no to multiculturalism, and because we have a different view on the role of family in society,” said Hungary’s justice minister.

Hungary and Poland’s leaderships are especially dangerous because they demonstrate a non-Trumpian competence. The same cannot be said for Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who called Covid “the sniffles”, and Narendra Modi. India’s prime minister ordered one of the world’s tightest lockdowns, leading to millions of rural migrants in cities losing their jobs and handing back to the countryside, turning packed bus stations into hot spots. Yet both leaders have soared in popularity, doling out huge amounts of public money in their wake. With access to so much cheap borrowing on the world markets, the economic reckoning will be a long time coming.


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The three coronavirus vaccines that have attracted most attention – Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca – have been developed and manufactured by Western scientists and big pharma. The one that is likely to have the most political significance in the long run may turn out to be the Chinese one. Still in its experimental phase, Sinovac is already being tested on volunteers in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. If it proves successful (and few would bet against the prowess of scientists backed by the limitless resources of the Chinese state) the vaccine will play a central role in Beijing’s soft-power diplomacy. Chinese largesse – building infrastructure, issuing loans – comes with political strings attached.

One doesn’t have to be a Trumpian fanatic to acknowledge that China has 'got away' with the pandemic, fending off its responsibility for incubating it. By locking down the entire city and region around Wuhan, and then pretty much the rest of the huge country, the communist leadership dealt with the virus in a way that few others did or could. It then went after journalists, doctors and activists who alerted the world to the problem in the first place. It cracked down further on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. The outline trade agreement signed by the EU and China at the end of December reinforced the hard line of Xi Jinping yet further.

The rise of this alternative model in government, economics as in disease control, poses questions that the West has long struggled to answer. It is proving attractive to many other countries, particularly when rich Western nations are hoarding vaccines for their own people. China has joined a UN-backed global scheme for its distribution. Trump refused to be part of it. It is not yet clear whether Biden will sign up.

The Chinese model provides balm for the beleaguered in the developing world; the populist-authoritarian model provides a channel for the furious in the developed world. Each group rails at the globalisation of the millennium era. They are developing a new form of globalisation: the construction of transnational, but likeminded, identities, separated by vast distances in the physical world, but a click away in the virtual world.

Fuelling all of this are conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon and others. The social media companies are now taking action, but it remains to be seen how far this will go to reduce the power and spread of fake news. For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracies  are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, particularly those who are geographically isolated in left-behind villages, towns and regions around the world, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have.


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In the US alone, more than two million women stopped work or lost their jobs during the pandemic. It will take years for that situation to recover. Two million people in the UK slipped under the minimum wage threshold as a result of being furloughed. Covid has widened the already yawning gap between the university-educated metropolitan citizenry and the rest, between the anywheres and the somewheres.

These are deep seated problems. It is much easier to pander to the anger than to take the difficult steps to tackle systemic failings that date back decades. Who has the tools to reduce the economic and social chasms? Biden will battle against many headwinds. In Europe, Emmanuel Macron faces re-election in 2022, when the long-term effects of the pandemic may be at their peak. By then Angela Merkel will be gone. Germany’s elections next September are likely to see her Christian Democrats resume at the helm, but with a new and untested leader. None of the candidates fills the heart with joy.

There is a more optimistic scenario, however. Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all have social democratic prime ministers. The Greens are the new rising force in European politics. In New Zealand, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, has won a new term of office, seeing off right wing nationalist populist opposition. Germany and France will keep Europe together, come what may. The stock market will continue to rise. Economies will rebound.

Over Christmas, newspapers got carried away with predictions of a 21st century version of the Roaring Twenties. According to this scenario, once the vaccine is seen to have been effective, happy days will return. Those with jobs will be out and about with gusto, making up for lost time and spending money they saved during the pandemic. That may yet happen, but it is likely to be far more gradual. In any case, many people will be broke, unemployed or in poor health. The 2020s will not roar for them.


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And what of the Sceptered Isle? After nine months of flailing, the government has finally shown a modicum of Covid competence, introducing the vaccines quickly. Although the target of mid-February for vaccinating the most vulnerable groups has already been watered down, the progress is not unimpressive even if it patchy.

With this, Johnson has bought himself time. He has restored his credentials among diehards by securing the flimsy December 24 deal that led to the end of EU transition.

Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has raised the white flag on Brexit, voting through the trade agreement and abandoning any lingering commitment to free movement or any form of significant renegotiation. He sees no votes in continuing the fight over Britain’s place in Europe.

For passionate Remainers, his position is close to a betrayal. Yet he suspects that, given the chance to remove Johnson in 2024, metropolitan and younger voters will bite their lips and side with Labour, except in a small number of Lib Dem strongholds.

Starmer is calculating that voters will eventually rumble Johnson and the Conservatives, both on Covid and on Brexit. He wants them to come to that conclusion unaided. He, like Tony Blair in the 1990s, is focusing exclusively on removing any and all impediments to power.

Yet lacking from him is any sense of passion about the existential dangers. He has given Johnson a free pass to curate the 'new normal', not just outside the EU but outside the bounds of what used to be known as mainstream politics.

The prime minister and his friends supped at the table of Trump and now effortlessly are succeeding in distancing themselves from him. If he hasn’t already, the Labour leader should study the recent speech by the former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. “I grew up in Austria. I’m very aware of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. It was a night of rampage against the Jews carried out in 1938 by the equivalent of the Proud Boys,” he said. “Wednesday was the Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States. The broken glass was in the windows of the United States Capitol. But the mob did not just shatter the windows of the Capitol – they shattered the ideas we took for granted.”

Schwarzenegger knows that those who wish liberal democracy harm are gearing up for the next battle and many more ahead. Which other politicians will step up?

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