This won’t be a normal political year – just as 2016 was a stunner. So it isn’t enough to forecast the fate of the Islamic State, or the rise of China, or the next Mideast conflict. This year’s dominant theme will be something much more existential: the fate of Western liberal democratic systems as we have known them since World War II.
The cracks in Western democracies have been widening for years as economic inequality has risen and factory jobs shifted abroad or to computers.
But it took the Brexit vote in Britain and the victory of Donald Trump to lay bare a level of public fear and discontent that goes beyond the economic. Those unhappy with the pace of change, or on the losing end of globalization – and even some who’ve done well – are seeking leaders who promise to roll back the clock.
That provides fertile terrain for rabble-rousers who offer voters a list of enemies – migrants, Muslims, international (Jewish) bankers – to blame for everything that has gone wrong. Social media magnifies their message and facts have become irrelevant. Conspiracy theories are in.
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So last year was a great one for demagogues in democratic countries. This year could be worse.
The 2016 crop starred Britain’s Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexiteers (and pal of Trump) who campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union, and demonized Muslims. The British demagogue has started a domino process that could lead to the end of the European Union, which, for all its flaws, has kept the peace in Europe since World War II.
Of course, the victory of Trump – who endorsed Brexit and has hosted Farage at Trump Tower – has more far-reaching implications for democracies in the West.
Trump’s win reflects the bitter political polarization that has paralyzed Congress. The president-elect has encouraged his followers to regard political opponents as the enemy, and has demonized minorities and Muslims. Such extreme polarization makes it almost impossible for a democracy to function.
The United States was once viewed abroad by friend and foe alike as the exemplar of democratic institutions. But as I’ve traveled abroad, in Europe, the Mideast, and China, I have repeatedly heard the same kinds of questions from ordinary people: What has happened to American democracy? How did it collapse?
If the U.S. democracy is no longer seen as a role model, indeed is viewed as a failure, this raises questions worldwide about the efficacy of democracy as a system.
Such questions are fodder for the propaganda of Russia and China, both of which are trying to promote an alternative governing model: one in which a strongman and a single party control the system. Such a system may or may not permit a cosmetic veneer of democratic institutions.
Already, illiberal democracy is making headway in Europe, as Hungary and Poland move closer toward this model. Austria came close to electing a neo-fascist president. Meantime, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now working closely with Vladimir Putin, has turned his country’s once flourishing democracy into a virtual police state. Russia, for its part, is encouraging populist parties and demagogues across Europe, offering reams of publicity and cash, and no doubt secret cyberassistance.
So what should you look for in 2017 to measure how democracy is faring in the West?
One key will be the results of April-May presidential elections in France, where Trump’s win may have boosted the chances of right-wing nationalist Marine Le Pen, who wants France to leave the European Union. Were that to happen, the EU would collapse.
A second key factor will be how well the party of Germany’s Angela Merkel does in parliamentary elections, which must be held by October. The widely admired Merkel has rightly been billed as “the last man” (or last strong leader) still standing in Europe, and the last firm defender of liberal democracy. But she has lost popularity since letting 1 million refugees into Germany in 2016, in large part because she considered it her country’s moral duty.
The most important factor, however, will be the governing choices made by Donald Trump.
The president-elect has made clear he has little interest in the network of the post-World War II international political and economic institutions that America created and led for decades. No doubt they need overhaul, but if they crumble, the vacuum will be filled by others, notably China and Russia.
Moscow will also be trying to expand its geographical sphere of influence. It will be greatly emboldened if NATO and the European Union crumble. But neither prospect seems to dismay Trump, who finds Putin praiseworthy and may dream of real estate deals in Moscow.
The key to Western democracy’s fate in 2017 will be whether, once in office, the president-elect moves to strengthen alliances with democracies in Europe and Asia. If he retreats to the America First stance he embraced in the election, and prefers to pal with Putin rather than Merkel, Western democracy will be in even deeper trouble.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.