As the historian Mark Mazower soberly pointed out in the Financial Times recently, it is striking just how many of the conditions that paved the way for fascism (and, less directly, Stalinism) in the 1920s and 1930s are present again across much of the democratic world.
There is a widespread sense of economic insecurity. This clearly applies to the millions left behind by globalisation and decades of market fundamentalist economics. But it also covers many more people in ostensibly good jobs who are struggling to pay their bills and know that their livelihood could be taken away in an instant. Unless significant changes are made to the economic system, this insecurity will get worse as technological advances start to eat away rapidly at skilled and “white collar” employment too.
The supposed victory over racism and bigotry is incomplete. Such prejudices have been rendered impolite but not obsolete. The age-old propensity to look for scapegoats and an “other” to blame during times of trouble has resurfaced. Nor has it deviated from its traditional selection of entirely the wrong targets – people from different ethnic, religious or national backgrounds, more than those with political and economic power.
Simultaneously, our democratic institutions are suffering from a crisis of credibility. Governments, political parties and parliaments have struggled to adapt to the speed and complexity of the modern world. In some democracies, too many politicians are drawn from too narrow a section of society and have insufficient experience of other walks of life. This has led to the institutions being portrayed, sometimes correctly, as being out of touch and little more than rubber-stamps for the demands of unaccountable elites. Impartial legal systems have also been diminished by politicised attacks. But these institutions are crucial to our democracies and we need to find ways to restore their credibility quickly.
Overlaying all of these problems is the extremism of political discourse in the twenty-four hour news and social media age. There is now far too much incendiary speech about the opposing side being criminal and traitorous, rather than merely mistaken in their policy proposals. Far too often, the usual partisan levels of political exaggeration slip over into outright lying. This malaise turned into an epidemic during 2016’s big political campaigns.
Democracy largely depends on there being a broadly agreed set of facts and debate between opposing ideas of what to do about them. If we want to go beyond proposing our own ideas and start inventing our own facts as well, then democracy is done for and we will all reap the consequences.
I realise that this article offers few solutions. Those are for another piece. My point is that we need to recognise the risks of our current situation before we can work out what to do about it. Recently departed generations would tell us peace and democracy can be destroyed easily and that few of us, whatever our political views, would enjoy the alternatives.