A health check on democracy

Is America decaying or it just taking a short break from democracy?

He was a Republican

At Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas Geraldine Doogue chaired a session “American decadence” with three keen observers of the US political landscape: Adam Tooze of Columbia University and author of Shutdown: how Covid shook the world’s economy; Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: how they rise, why they succeed, how they fall; and Nick Bryant, former BBC correspondent in Washington and author of When America stopped being great: a history of the present.

A 35-minute extract of the 50-minute session – American decadence – was included in last week’s Saturday Extra.

Much of the session was about the country’s financial, military and technological strength, in contrast with its political weakness. Are its democratic institutions strong enough to arrest a Trumpian decline into authoritarian populism? Is the decline a recent Trumpian phenomenon or does it have older roots?

There was discussion about political polarization, which refreshingly didn’t resort to an insipid “both sides do it” moral equivalence. Bryant came right out saying that one party is committed to democracy while the other isn’t: no one disagreed. Ben-Ghiat pointed out that Trump, the authoritarian cult leader, has completely domesticated the Republican Party. There is no home anymore for anyone on the moderate centre-right.

The discussion about polarization touched on many divisions: the old Confederate-Yankee division, the liberal-reactionary division, racial divisions, and the rural-urban division. Ben-Ghiat dared to mention class – a division that doesn’t align with the country’s mythology. (One division from which we are spared, thanks to our ranked-choice system of voting and proportional representation in the Senate, is America’s unassailable two-party division. Also we are blessed with an independent electoral commission.)

On the same theme there has been a recent YouGov poll that asked Americans “How concerned are you about the future of American democracy?”. It is reassuring to see that 77 percent are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about the future of democracy, but there is a significant difference between old (65+) and young (18-29) respondents: 71 percent of old respondents are very concerned, contrasting with only 35 percent of young respondents.

Such a finding is hard to interpret: is a lack of concern an indicator of satisfaction, or is it an indicator of disengagement and cynicism? Another division in the survey hints at an answer: Americans describing themselves as “Black” are significantly less concerned than those describing themselves as “White”. One can hardly expect that African Americans, subject to centuries of contempt and economic disadvantage, are unconcerned because they are more satisfied with democracy than Americans of European background. The answer elicited by the survey is probably about political disengagement and cynicism.

Elections – it’s more complex than a swing to the right

Sweden – polarization?

Although all seats have been declared, the outcome of Sweden’s election, held on September 11, is still not fully determined. But there will be some deal among parties on the right to form government, displacing Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrat government – an awkward coalition as Jacob Christensen describes the situation in the Washington Post.

Some media describe the outcome as a significant gain for parties on the right, but the right-wing Swedish Democrat Party enjoyed a swing of only 3 percent, up from 21 percent at the previous election, while other parties on the right had offsetting falls.

The more significant outcome is that Swedish politics seems to have become more polarized on the right. The Swedish Democrats have been building up their support for many years, on an anti-immigration platform, directed strongly (but not always explicitly) against Muslim immigrants, with claims that immigrants have been responsible for an increase in crime. More centrist parties on the right have been losing ground to the harder-line Swedish Democrats.

David Mac Dougall, writing in my.europe, describes the strategies that led to the Swedish Democrats’ success:Why the far-right were the biggest winners and four other takeaways. One of those takeaways was the party’s success in southern Sweden, particularly around Malmö, while it did badly in Stockholm and Gothenburg. In what is becoming a familiar pattern among right-wing populist parties, the Swedish Democrats had much more support from men than from women, and much more from “blue collar” workers than from other voters.

Italy – Il Duce’s legacy

Most media have reported on the success of the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) Party, headed by Giorgia Meloni, breaking the gender stereotype of the strongman heading a far-right party. (Have we forgotten about Margaret Thatcher?)

The election has certainly been a success for the far right, but as in Sweden it looks more like hollowing-out of the centre-right than a general swing rightwards, because Brothers of Italy seems to have most success in gaining votes at the expense of Marreo Salvini’s Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, both of which would pass as far-right in most democracies but as moderate-right in Italy.  By contrast there was no discernible swing against the centre-left groups. Also there was a very low voter turnout by Italian standards – 64 percent, down from 71 percent in 2018.

The success of Fratelli d’Italia has surprised many commentators, its vote having risen from 4 percent in 2018 to 26 percent in 2022 – to become the largest of any of Italy’s 15 parties. But it is not a new movement. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, writing in The AtlanticThe return of Fascism in Italy – traces the development of Fratelli d’Italiaback to Mussolini’s Fascists. She sees in the party’s campaigning a barely attenuated echo of Mussolini’s warning about “empty cradles” and “expanding cemeteries”, and his 1927 warning that “the entire white race, the Western race, could be submerged by other races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own.” Homosexuals and career women who do not reproduce are not pulling their weight in producing more “white” and “Christian” Italians. (Peter Costello’s exhortation for Australians to breed comes to mind.)

Writing in Social EuropeItaly’s elections: a perpetual political logic – Emilija Tudzarovska Gjorgjievska reminds us that one of Meloni’s promises is to change the way the President of Italy, up to now a largely ceremonial figure, is appointed. At present the president is elected by parliament, but she proposes that the president in future will be elected by popular vote.

Australian republicans should take note. Gjorgjievska points out that such a change looks like a move towards democracy because the franchise is larger, but it is really a move to increase the political discretion of the president because a popular vote legitimizes an expansion of power.

Europolitics – heartening for Putin?

Writing in The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor considers the Swedish and Italian elections in broad Europolitical terms, particularly in relation to Ukraine: The right-wing turn against Ukraine may be just around the corner. He notes that in many of Europe’s right-wing populist parties support for Putin and Russia has fallen since the invasion, but he also notes waning support for sanctions and their consequences for energy supplies. He notes Berlusconi’s recent statements: “The troops were supposed to enter, reach Kyiv within a week, replace Zelensky’s government with decent people, and then leave.”

He notes that there is strong support for Putin in the USA among members of the Republican Party and in Fox News.

Facing up to demography

The broader issue for Sweden, Italy, and all European democracies, is demographic. Italy’s median age is 47, Sweden’s is 41, with most European countries in between. Ours is 38: we’re kept comparatively young by a high rate of immigration. But in most “developed” countries there is growing resistance to immigration. Some resistance may be racist, providing a platform for parties of the hard right; some is opposition to concentration of ethnic groups; and some is about pressure on housing, schools, infrastructure and environmental resources.

Capitalism thrives on growing populations, and governments fear that an ageing population will reduce the relative number of taxpayers while increasing the number of recipients of pensions and health care – a growing “dependency ratio” in econospeak. If countries are not to open their borders, can they develop a stable form of economics that does not depend on population growth? Notably, Japan, with a median age of 49, and almost the world’s highest life expectancy, has chosen what is close to a zero-immigration path. These are issues that are bubbling just beneath the surface in Australia.

Brazil – bye-bye Bolsonaro?

Brazil’s election is tomorrow, Sunday 2 October. This is an election for the parliament and the first round of a presidential election. If no presidential candidate wins on the first round there will be a runoff on October 30.

On Late Night Live Phillip Adams interviews Sarah Maslin, Brazil correspondent for The Economist: Is the Bolsonaro era about to end?

Opinion polls are pointing to an easy win by former president Lula da Silva. Voter turnout will be high because Brazil, like Australia, has compulsory voting. The question is whether Bolsonaro, the “Trump of the Tropics”, will accept the outcome, particularly if da Silva does not win on the first round.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, is adept at attracting crowds to his rallies. This creates an impression of mass support, lending credence to any claim that an election is stolen if it does not turn out to favour the strongman. Maslin points out that Brazil has a reasonably strong and independent election system, but Bolsonaro has been casting doubt on its integrity. (17 minutes)

Julian Assange’s London

While crowds gathered in London to see the regalia of the British monarchy, Julian Assange remained in London’s Belmarsh maximum security prison, incommunicado, locked in his cell for 23 hours a day.

The Chris Hedges Report on the Real News Network has a 33-minute interview with John Shipton, Julian Assange’s father. Hedges describes the process to which Assange is subjected as a “tawdry show trial”.

John Shipton provides details of his son’s persecution at the hands of two countries with contempt for human rights. He describes the trials’ physical details – processes of torment and humiliation in a “deluge of malice” specifically designed to wear down Assange’s spirits. He describes the legal details – the charges under the Espionage Act, and possible avenues of appeal. One avenue of appeal is to the European Court of Human Rights, but the UK government, determined to distance itself from liberal European institutions, plans to remove itself from that court’s jurisdiction. And he describes the politics – the influence of the US mid-term elections, the reach of the US security agencies, and the sheer moral nastiness of the present UK government.

There will be major demonstrations in support of Assange in Washington and London on October 8: details of the Washington demonstration are on the Assange Defense page. The Assange Freedom Network lists some events in Melbourne and Adelaide over coming days. (Unfortunately it seems that Assange’s support networks in Australia are relying on subscribers to social networks to publicize events – a reliance that misses many who would wish to show their support for his cause.)