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Flaws in democratic system exposed by triumphalism

By Harvey Morris | China Daily | Updated: 2017-02-04 08:41

Democracy, as Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, is the worst form of government except for all the others.

Even if he did not say precisely that, this is how his pithy aphorism is best remembered. It is a handy phrase for democrats to fall back on when democracy appears to be under pressure.

China's People's Daily reflected recently that Western-style democracy used to be recognized as a historical driver of social development, but it has reached its limits. In an analysis that will find an echo among many disgruntled voters in the West, it suggested democracy had been hijacked as a weapon for capitalists to boost their profits.

The widespread sentiment within Western electorates that they have been ignored and left behind by self-perpetuating elites is seen as a key factor in recent election and referendum results in the United States and United Kingdom and may play a role in future outcomes in 2017.

On the face of it, the Brexit referendum vote in the UK and Donald Trump's victory in the US should be regarded as a vindication of the democratic system-people were given a choice and they have made their decision.

Both results, however, have spurred soul-searching about what these outcomes mean for the future of a political system that is intended to safeguard the interests of all its citizens, not just those who picked the winner.

A worrying trend that has emerged is a "winner-takes-all" attitude among the victors.

Among some who voted for Brexit, on the ostensible grounds that it would allow the UK to regain its democratic rights from an undemocratic European Union, a discomfiting tendency has emerged to delegitimize the views of those who continue to warn about the negative consequences of that decision.

For example, the UK's pro-Brexit Daily Mail newspaper described a legal challenge to launching Brexit without the assent of Parliament as an unpatriotic attempt to subvert the will of the people. It is an attitude of "We won, you lost, shut up".

Similarly, in the US, there are fears that the new administration has little tolerance for the kind of dissent displayed by demonstrators on the streets of Washington the day after President Donald Trump's inauguration.

Those fears may be misplaced and, to be fair to Trump, he conceded that "peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy" but only after earlier castigating the demonstrators for overlooking the results of the election.

A prevailing view among liberal analysts, however, and more than a few conservative commentators, is that Trump's brand of populism poses a threat to American democratic values.

A Washington Post article by veteran conservative commentator George Will referred to Trump's "feral cunning in manipulating the masses and the media" and implicitly criticized the hostile tone the new president has adopted toward China and others.

Others have decried the authoritarian tendencies Trump displayed during his campaign and his alleged anti-democratic behavior since the election. "Donald J. Trump's election has raised a question that few Americans ever imagined asking: Is our democracy in danger?" academics Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt told readers of the New York Times back in December.

Little over a quarter-century ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was arguing that the spread of liberal democracy and free market capitalism might be the endpoint of humanity's social evolution.

It has been something of a rocky road since then. But it is perhaps a little premature to write off democracy as a system that has brought no positive benefits to those societies where it has evolved.

Recent events should, however, generate some humility within the democratic camp and recognition that other societies with other histories and cultures demonstrate the values and benefits of different choices.

Within the international context, what is important is to reinforce the partnerships that have evolved since World War II among societies at various stages of social, political and economic development to tackle the daunting challenges that we all face.

The author is a senior media consultant to China Daily. harvey.morris@gmail.com

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