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Democracy and wishful thinking

By Chris Lewis - posted Wednesday, 16 February 2022

With liberal democracy intended to limit the power of elites and respect individual rights, thus providing legitimate opportunity for interest groups to influence public opinion to help balance economic and social policy considerations, should we fear recent pessimism.

For example, the ABC’s Stan Grant on 2 January 2022, having noted that the United States (US) has for several decades experienced increasing inequality, a loss of faith in Washington politics, racial division and a partisan media, also suggests that Australia now faces “worrying signs” because of the “increasingly toxic influence of social media” through “flames of anti-democratic identity politics that erode a shared sense of citizenship”.

But the situation facing liberal democracies deserves further explanation in line with the reality that a perfect liberal democracy has never existed and probably never will in this competitive world struggling for resources and the influence of certain ideas.


As noted by Pew Research, an ongoing lack of confidence in many liberal democracies since the global financial crisis has resulted in economic pessimism that feeds “dissatisfaction with the way democracy is working and weakens commitment to democratic values”, pessimism not helped by the recent COVID pandemic-driven global downturn.

Hence, while a 2019 survey of 34 nations found majority agreement that voting gives ordinary people some say about how the government runs things, in line with 2017 polling of 38 nations that found overwhelming support for “a democratic system where representatives elected by citizens decide what becomes law”, a 2021 survey of 17 advanced economies found that a median of 56 per cent wanted major change or complete reform for their political systems, including two-thirds or more in Italy, Spain, the US, South Korea, Greece, France, Belgium and Japan.

The reality is that many people do not always support democratic means, especially in poorer nations, with the 2017 survey of 38 countries also finding that a median of 26 per cent supported “a system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”, along with a median of 24 per cent considering “a system in which the military rules the country” (including 17 per cent in the US, Italy and France).

Whereas many liberal democracies overcame the struggle between democracy, communism and fascism that occurred prior to the Second World War, promoting voting rights, social welfare and the public regulation of corporations, the importance of economic fortune has remained crucial to all liberal democracies seeking to balance national aspirations and market demands in the face of ongoing economic globalisation and technological improvements.  

When we take account of the important relationship between wealth creation, social wellbeing and even domestic generosity, the history of all liberal democracies has included divisive debate which often means that many issues take time or may never be resolved.

Of Australia’s liberal democratic experience, it took many decades during the 20th century before Aboriginals were given citizen and land rights, ongoing division remains between those on the left and right over the extent of social welfare spending and appropriate taxation and labour market policies, and Australians are still discussing whether dramatic action is needed to address rising greenhouse gas emissions despite hearing about the issue since the 1990s.


But here we are in the 21st century, and Australia’s relatively prosperous liberal democracy faces much tougher times as authoritarian China uses its growing economic might to impose sanctions on Australian exports to remind the western world (and others) how determined the Chinese Communist Party is to promote its authoritarian influence around the world, and to prevent peoples everywhere from speaking out against anti-democratic practices.    

In this competitive world, the question has become how willing are the liberal democracies to uphold their commitment to related freedoms to help balance economic and social policy considerations, yet lose further economic share to rogue nations that have little regard for democratic norms with thousands of Chinese alone being removedfrom their everyday lives each year for simply speaking their minds about important life issues and current affairs.

While Grant speaks of the US as a poor liberal democratic example, even though the stability and prosperity of most liberal democracies (including Australia) has depended greatly on US military might for many decades, it is the US which leads the resistance against authoritarian and mercantile China influence.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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