Uhlir: The Downfall of Democracy

by Tadeas Uhlir | 3/2/16 6:45pm

Winston Churchill once said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” While these words reflect an elitist view of governing, they offer at least some insight into the upcoming election. American democracy, like all others, will stand or fall with the average voter. Hence, it can be terrifying to imagine who will be elected to lead our nation. Recent developments on the campaign trail have been particularly concerning — the average voter seems to be gravitating towards not-so-average candidates. This election cycle, we’ve witnessed the rise of both a billionaire-turned-politician and a 74-year-old socialist. Obviously, I’m referring to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

But, the rise of political ideologues isn’t just an American phenomenon. In Britain, the far-left politician Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour Party leader by a landslide. In France, the far-right National Front party gained 27 percent of the vote in regional elections. In fact, its leader Marine Le Pen is expected to run for president this year. In my home country of the Czech Republic, the most popular politician is finance minister Andrej Babis. Babis is also the second richest person in the country and heavily invested in the food industry and publishing business.

The popularity of politicians with such extreme views — and here I do not mean extremists, as none of the people mentioned above would deserve such a title — is not simply the result of ignorant voters. Given that this is global trend, it has more to do with the worldwide sociopolitical climate.

Historically, the popularity of unconventional leaders is inversely related with the general state of a country — after all, Nazism and fascism rose to power during the devastating Great Depression. But strangely enough, we currently live in a period of economic recovery and low unemployment. While our lives are certainly not easy, we don’t face any truly imminent danger, such as nuclear war. We are much more likely to be killed by our eating habits than by religious terrorists. We have also made great strides in the field of social justice and while there is still a lot more work to do, objectively the world is more just than ever.

So why have elections all over the Western world suggested that the population is not satisfied with status quo? I believe this is the result many factors, but the most important is globalization. This goes beyond the influx of foreigners to Western countries. People all over the world now have access to an overwhelming amount of information due to technology and international trade. Although many intellectuals and academics have long put globalization on a pedestal, it is a major test for Western nations. With our perceived exceptionalism, national pride and well-established capitalist economies, globalization is uncomfortable. For the first time, we’re learning that we are not the center of the universe. We’re watching as our institutions become more diverse. In a way, the Cold War was an easier time to live in — we knew who to hate, we knew who to love.

Of course there are many other factors contributing to people’s dissatisfaction. For example, rising socioeconomic inequality has allowed Trump to exploit the American electorate and win votes. Overall, democracy is failing — instead of protecting what works and improving on what doesn’t, voters are intent on blowing everything up. In this complicated world, we look for simple solutions, like those offered by Trump. Such simplicity, however, will never be successful in either foreign or domestic policy.

I am a centrist who believes that evolution is better than revolution. If people like Trump, Le Pen or Corbyn were ever successful in a general election, then voters must be ready to live with four years of a social experiment. In the worst case scenario, maybe such experiments will bring about the end of democracy as we know it. In 2020, maybe we’ll finally appreciate the world we lived in today, in 2016.