The Prospect editorial—Democracy on the ballot

Authoritarians are in the ascendancy—but hope has not been extinguished
September 3, 2020

This issue happens to mark a quarter of a century of Prospect—the inaugural edition was October 1995. So it is fitting that we marshal a cast of world thinkers—George Soros, Dahlia Lithwick and Anatol Lieven—as well as rising stars of long-form journalism such as Samira Shackle, and set them to work on the sort of sweeping, thematic question that made this magazine’s name.

But while we can allow ourselves a birthday pat on the back, there is little else to cheer. The big question we’ve set our writers is the condition of democracy, and the answer supplied by each is chilling in a different way. The swaggering post-Cold War confidence that the global future lay with a liberal political settlement, a mood that reached its giddiest height in 1995, has slowly given way to a sense of confusion laced with fear.

The human hunger for autonomy and self-government has certainly not been extinguished. As I write, we do not know how the great uprising to topple Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus will end, but it seems pretty obvious that the animating spirit against Europe’s last dictator in the Soviet mould is in keeping with that which felled so many of them in 1989-91. But—and here was the great misunderstanding of the 1990s—just because one form of authoritarianism has bitten the dust, it doesn’t follow that free institutions are a given.

Like all miracles, the apparent miracle of democracy—the fabled ability of an old lady to mark a cross on a paper in a church hall, and thereby bring a government crashing down—was never all it seemed. The fact of even a free election cannot, in itself, change how a country is run, without courts and a bureaucracy willing to implement its result, and a culture that respects it as well. And, of course, without independent machinery to hold the ring and an independent media, an election will never be free.

[su_pullquote]“Like all miracles, the apparent miracle of democracy was never all it seemed”[/su_pullquote]

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán rose by the ballot box, and yet Shackle’s investigation exposes an assault on the broader political ecology that is remorselessly cementing his chauvinist grip on power. Hungary may be a small and a young democracy, but one of its most clear-sighted sons—the financier-turned-philanthropist Soros—explains to Mario Platero why he thinks the frail architecture of the European Union has been unable to answer the needs of its citizens, and speaks of the many perils that could befall the continent if it were to collapse.

And then there is the US, where in a matter of weeks, democracy itself is arguably on the ballot. The capricious, divisive and nakedly self-serving Trump style of governance has become gruesomely familiar. But by playing games with the US post office, his determination to thwart millions of mail-in votes is—as Slate’s legal doyenne Dahlia Lithwick details—his most brazen assault on the very idea of “government of the people.”

Raising the stakes further in the 21st-century struggle for political freedoms are the burgeoning possibilities of high-tech surveillance: Darren Byler’s report on the oppressed Uighur people in northwestern China reveals that Beijing keeps watch with a truly all-seeing eye, in a way that the Stasi could never have dreamed of. Closer to home, liberty is crushed by an almost wilfully bone-headed immigration system (Amelia Gentleman) and threatened by Downing Street’s chaotic insurgency against the legal processes that are designed to ensure rights are respected (Helena Kennedy and David Allen Green).

I’m conscious of painting an unremittingly bleak picture which would be a mistake, because everything’s not lost. Western leaders wanting to rebuild democracy on firmer foundations could start by reading Lieven’s masterly analysis of how victory in the Cold War was squandered by complacency, hubris and ultimately moral bankruptcy. And then, suitably humbled, they might usefully reflect on ideas from the likes of Michael Sandel (whose book is reviewed, and who is interviewed) about how to banish the smug and increasingly self-defeating elitist assumptions on which our politics has rested, and replace them with an ethical commitment to bring all voices to bear in the running of society.

It won’t be easy—but then it never was. Walking out of the hall where he’d helped to draft the US constitution, the old story goes that Benjamin Franklin was excitedly asked what form of government the new nation would have. “A republic,” he replied, before adding the sage rider: “if you can keep it.”