With the inauguration of new U.S. President Donald Trump, democratic politics are being confronted with changes of the magnitude that could happen only once in a century. The change this time is not for the better — but in the direction of its collapse.
Democracy in the 19th century was a restricted form of representative politics, with the participation limited to wealthy male citizens. The 20th century democracy was marked by universal suffrage that then extended to women, which aimed for equality of people based on political participation of the broad masses and accompanied by income redistribution. Among the key actors that promoted such a transition in democracy were social democratic political parties — or the liberal elements in the U.S. Democratic Party.
And democratic politics in the 21st century might be called politics as a show — in which economically deprived masses cheer agitating leaders to vent their frustration amid the decline in the government’s redistribution functions. Trump’s policies lack coherence, and what props up his administration is his showmanship in which he keeps on sending stinging messages. In Western Europe, a number of agitator-politicians hope to follow in his footsteps.
Not a few historians express concerns that the situation surrounding the world today resembles that of the 1930s, which paved the way for the rise of the Nazis. Indeed, the methods used by some political leaders to send out false information to fan popular prejudice and a sense of discrimination, thereby igniting resentment against minority groups, carry the potential of destroying democracy. It is urgent for both conservative and progressive forces to restore sober politics that fight against post-truth.
In Europe, however, the social democratic political forces that played a key role in the development of 20th century democratic politics are now in deep trouble. The Jan. 11 edition of The New York Times carried an interesting op-ed article, “Old Labour, New Labour, No Labour” by Matthew J. Goodwin. In Britain, the Labour Party stayed in power in the late 1990s by garnering support from workers and the middle class in a two-front strategy of going along with the wave of globalization and expanded financial capitalism while, to a certain extent, rebuilding social security and public expenditures. But today, Labour is in the worst crisis since its founding as wealthy citizens who can afford to benefit from globalization turn to the conservatives and the economically deprived working class flocks to anti-immigrant right-wing forces.
The same picture haunted the Democratic Party’s defeat in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, and is a common problem in France and in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel now appears to have become the last remaining hope for moderate democracy.
What steps should the left take in the face of the meltdown of 20th century-style democratic politics? One option for them would be — like the Scottish National Party in Scotland — to seek to build a fair republic by incorporating tolerance and social inclusion into nationalism itself. It takes a great deal of political leadership, however, to control a highly flammable sentiment like nationalism.
The other path is a grand coalition like the one that’s taking place in Germany. This strategy will be necessary if the current situation is deemed akin to what happened in the 1930s. The conservatives and social democratic forces — the rivals that vied for power in the 20th century democracy — join forces against right-wing populism to protect pluralistic democracy. The left might be relegated to a supporting role in the act — but that’s what it deserves given its current power.
Policies like those advocated by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to revive the big welfare state of the past will only be dismissed as impractical. They should put the brakes on excesses of capitalist forces under the market economy while highlighting and securing public expenditures in areas of public services that need to be maintained, such as medical services and education. They should stand by civic freedom and protect a plural and tolerant society. Building a consensus among moderates on these policy challenges will be the mission of traditionalist political parties.
The structure of the challenge in Japan is the same in that it is necessary for moderate conservatives and the left to work together to confront the administration in power that pushes a right-wing nationalist agenda. The problem here, however, is that moderate conservative forces within the Liberal Democratic Party have declined with the generational change in the party, while the left has been reduced to a tiny minority. The difficulties that lie ahead for protecting democracy in this country are much larger than in either the U.S. or in Europe.
Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.
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