Twilight of the democracies

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When democracies fail to deliver, all bets are off.

We stand on a threshold.  We are teetering on a brink. Something momentous is upon us. 

Angela Merkel [CC BY 2.0]Commons

Angela Merkel [CC BY 2.0]

Think December 26, 1991: the collapse of the Soviet Union. Think something on that scale.

Think, furthermore, not of being onlookers at the fall of someone else’s world. Imagine, instead, being inside end-of-empire events of which others relish the spectacle.

Think what our world could be like by December 26, 2017.

Governing class crisis

William A. Galston1 recently summed up the moment in this way:

“Every society, regardless of its form of government, has a ruling class. The crucial question is whether elites rule in their own interest or for the common good.

“ … In democracies, meritocracy will always be on the defensive. Its legitimacy will always depend on its performance — its ability to provide physical security and broadly shared prosperity, as well as to conduct foreign policy and armed conflict successfully. When it fails to deliver, all bets are off.

“This is what has happened throughout the West. Failed wars, domestic insecurity and uneven growth have undermined the authority of governing elites. Although the pro-Brexit vote in the U.K. came as a shock, it was the latest in a series of surprises tending in the same direction.”   (The Populist Revolt Against Failure, The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2016.)

Monetary débâcle

Taking our lead from Galston, let’s not begin with Brexit. Consider, instead, what came before: the crisis of the EU.

First up, the monetary union – covering 19 of 28 EU member countries – is a débâcle.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, several EU countries are stuck in an economic bog of Great Depression depth and sucking power.  The nations in the most critical condition on both debt and unemployment are Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain with, disturbingly, France not far behind. By way of brief illustration, absorb these figures:

Debt to GDP Unemployment (under 25s)
Greece 167.9% Greece 50.4%
Italy 132.7% Spain 43.9%
Portugal 129.0% Italy 36.9%
Spain 99.2% Portugal 28.6%
France 96.1% France 23.3%
Euro Area 90.7% Euro Area 20.7%
EU 85.2% EU 18.6%
Germany 71.2% Germany 7.2%

 

The latest damning judgement on the euro zone comes from Joseph Stiglitz: progressive economist, Columbia University professor, Nobel laureate and former vice-president and chief economist of the World Bank.

He’s just written a book The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe. Stiglitz is emphatically not an opponent of the European Union.  In fact, he proposes an even closer union (and perhaps division of the EU into a number of smaller, closer unions) in order to save the “European project”.

In his words, the single European currency has been “an utter economic failure.” Having signed on to the euro zone, nations in economic crisis have to bear stringent externally-imposed disciplines while remaining powerless at the national level to stimulate their economies by such ordinary means as currency devaluations.

Given that Germany has been foremost in devising, and insisting upon, fiscal retrenchment, it has been easy for both parties of the Left and of euro-sceptic Right to depict the EU as in thrall to a jackbooted German financial empire.

The invasion

Then there is the EU’s internal open borders policy — which extends across the so-called Schengen Area and embraces 22 of 28 EU members — combined with a catastrophic failure to control illegal immigration into Europe as a whole.

The flood from without is dominated by people fleeing the multiple crises of the Islamic world and is seeded with Islamist radicals. These, together with people of a similar bent born in Europe to families of earlier migrations, are fuelling a wave of terrorist attacks before which Europe’s security services are reeling. They can’t keep track of all the suspected Islamist radicals who’ve popped up on their internal security radars.  There’s a growing fear that things might be spinning out of control.

France’s domestic intelligence chief, Patrick Calvar, has acknowledged in evidence, given in May to French parliamentary deputies, that France could be facing civil war.  He argued that further terrorist attacks could signal that the state had lost control of the situation in which event he feared that far Right political groups would launch reprisal attacks on Moslem communities.

…[C]onfrontation is inevitable,” he is reported to have told the parliamentary committee inquiring into the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.

While in France there is some realism about what is happening to the country and where it’s headed, in Germany — still psychologically reeling from the experience of two world wars and Nazism — its authorities are struggling to analyse the nature of the problem confronting them.

France could be facing civil war.

Chancellor Merkel’s fiat in August 2015 to turn Germany into a refuge for all who could reach it, stunned Europe and – after an initial frisson of moral rectitude – stunned Germans too. They remain so.

More than a million immigrants poured into Germany last year and a further 300,000 are expected this year. While Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have dug in their heels and refuse to take “their share” of Merkel’s moslem guest list, German authorities have struggled to explain a spate of attacks by people shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Mental disorders have been offered as a possible first blush explanation.

Meantime, the German Interior Ministry has put together a draft civil defence plan which would encourage German households to store food and water, the first time since the end of the Cold War that such measures have been contemplated.

The report has been quoted as saying that, although “an attack on German territory, requiring conventional defence of the nation, is unlikely,” other threats to security could not be ruled out.

Such as?

Kanzlerdämmerung

Not so long ago, Chancellor Merkel’s authority was approaching imperial. But, after her “Kaiser’s call” on refugees, her credit has tumbled.  While, so far, she has no rivals within her Christian Democratic Union, Merkel has been compelled to delay announcing her intention to run for a fourth term until early next year rather than, as she had hoped, earlier this year.  Given the breathtaking presumption of her “Wir schaffen das” — “We can do this” — Horst Seehofer, leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union, sister party to the CDU, has developed doubts about backing Merkel for a fourth term.

He has good reason.

On Sunday September 4, at the state elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommen, Merkel’s CDU (19 per cent of the vote) came in third behind the Eurosceptic “Alternative for Germany” (AfD: 21 per cent) and Social Democrats (30 per cent).

This was a mortifying result for the Chancellor.  Mecklenberg-Vorpommen, in east Germany, is home territory for Merkel.  Her own Bundestag electorate is in the state and she was a conspicuous figure on the CDU campaign trail in the recent state election.

Mutti, as once affectionately she was called, has fallen from her pedestal as Germany’s prudent national Mum.  Today she looks just like any other flawed, shifty, self-righteous Western politician, manoeuvring behind a smokescreen of carefully crafted mea culpas, in search of new and firmer ground from which to pursue the same failed policies. Immigration might be slowed; an EU border security policy might be developed; other European nations might be dragooned into shouldering heavier immigration burdens; but the bottom line remains the same: Germany will continue to be reinvented out of cultural opposites.

“That’s the way it is, people.”

Or maybe not. The Kanzlerdämmerung, or “Twilight of the Chancellor”, as German pundits have phrased it, is spreading a Wagnerian gloom over Deutschland’s comforting politics.  The rise of the three-year-old AfD has shocked Germany’s political establishment. In fact, it’s shocked the whole EU political establishment.

AfD candidates have been elected now to 10 of 16 state parliaments.  After its alarming success in the relative backwater of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen, AfD didn’t do so well in municipal elections in Lower Saxony that took place on September 11.  But a state wide vote of 7.8 percent — and 10 percent in the city of Hanover — was still enough to get some of its candidates elected.  Then, on September 18,  AfD snatched a projected 14 per cent vote in elections to the Berlin state legislature.  All other major parties appear to have lost votes to it: the SPD fell from 28.3 per cent to 22 percent; the Greens from 17.7 to 15.5 per cent: and Merkel’s CDU from 23.3 to 17.5, it’s worst ever performance in Berlin. To make matters worse, the CDU could be forced out of the state’s governing coalition with the SPD which is predicted to form a new governing partnership with the Greens and The Left socialist party.

These state and municipal election results indicate that AfD candidates will be elected to the Bundestag in the Germany’s September 2017 federal elections. Obviously, the grand alliance between the CDU-CSU and the SPD will exclude AfD from participating in any governing coalition for the time being. But would that logic hold if the CDU-CSU felt compelled to abandon the Merkel refugee policy to bring on board AfD voters?

The plebs revolt

Which brings us back  to Brexit.  It sheds an interpretative light upon events and movements in Germany as elsewhere in Europe.

Prescinding from the debates between “Brexiters” and “Remainers” about who peddled what exaggerations or told what lies to the British electorate, Brexit was a popular rejection of the perceived dysfunctionality of the EU and of its élite boosters, at home and abroad, in politics, business and finance.

The canonization of failure represented par excellence by Merkel’s refugee policy bore a meaning that could not be mistaken.  If the EU declined to defend its continental frontiers from illegal people flows, then neither the EU nor an EU satellite government in Westminster were going to plug the gaps in Britain’s own shambolic border controls.

Brexit was a popular rejection of the perceived dysfunctionality of the EU and of its élite boosters.

However complex the divisions and conflicts within Britain revealed by Brexit, the immigration issue crystalized out the widespread antipathy of town and country, of the cloth caps and the wellington boots, for the utopian projects of the metropolitans.

This is why the whole European political élite is deeply disturbed by the rise of AfD in Germany. It’s a symptom, they believe, of the dreaded Brexit disease whose spread they rightly fear.

Accumulated policy failures have released the genie of European “people power” from its hitherto firmly stopped up bottle. This wasn’t supposed to happen.  And, probably, it cannot now be reversed.  Either there will be a new politics that takes on board ‘plebian’ aspirations for border control, familiar faces and national identity or there will have to be (ahem) “bureaucratic measures” to drive the genie back from whence it came and that would risk igniting widespread social discord not seen in the West since the 1960s.

Either way the EU, as it is presently conceived in the capitals of continental Europe, is dead.

Trans Atlantic

Back in the USA, its voters are confronting a Hobson’s Choice between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Our distant American cousins, especially the politically engaged, are all too often an angry, intractable people who hold one another in contempt. Hillary Clinton’s attack upon the “the deplorables” of the Trump camp was emblematic. These “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic” white working class Americans made up half of Trump supporters, she reckoned.  Clinton’s sentiments are reciprocated with a loathing to match her own.

If you thought the way that the Democratic Party and US media tore down Richard Nixon was horrifying, just wait for a Trump presidency to witness something worse. There will be no holding them back.  Speculation about a military coup against Trump has already been floated. You can just imagine how “The Deplorables” would react to any kind of “Watergate” campaign  (or worse) launched against their man in the White House.

Or, imagine a Clinton victory: in the international sphere, a possible collision with Russia over Syria or Ukraine; plus, on the domestic front, letting loose the final stage of the cultural revolution in marriage and family life, over religious freedom and freedom of speech, with churchmen and lay folks imprisoned for giving voice to once cherished American values.  These are no longer the stuff of nightmares.  These are imminent possibilities long in formation.

Meanwhile, contemplate “The Deplorables”: they may be poor, but they love their guns and they are armed to the teeth.

If we think our world – our much taken-for-granted democratic West — will celebrate Christmas 2017 “as usual”, then maybe we need to “recalibrate”.

  1. William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in Governance Studies and is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

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