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The Roots of Democratic Erosion
Vertical social, economic, and political realignmnent creates toxic polarisation.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is often encapsulated by the symbolism of the Berlin Wall falling on the 9th November 1989, the final barrier toward the emergence of a democratic world crumbling along with the last tyrannical socio-political ideology of the 20th Century. The current outlook for democracy makes this historical hubris of optimism seem quaint.
The anticipation of a global democratic domino effect ultimately exhibited a very short-half life, peaking in 2011 with 42 countries embracing liberal democracy. In 2022, we are back to levels of global democracy that existed in 1989. On a global scale, the trend is an unambiguous move away from democratic norms and toward increasing autocracy; 70% of the global population now live under some form of autocratic regime, compared to just 13% living under liberal democracies.
There is a concept that the V-Dem 2022 ‘Autocratization Changing Nature?’ report designated “toxic polarisation”, defined as the:
“declining respect for legitimate opposition, pluralism, and counterarguments measured by the deliberative component.”
Toxic polarisation increased by 540% over the past decade; present in just 5 countries in 2011, polarisation has now, based on the definitions in the 2022 V-Dem report, reached toxic levels in 40 countries. There are any number of social, political, geopolitical, and cultural forces driving these domestic turmoils. However, one way to conceptualise the decline in democratic function and norms within a unifying framework is to consider the concept of vertical, rather than horizontal, realignment. And because we can conceive of vertical realignment in political, social, and economic terms, which are interrelated, we can identify common factors.
I wrote earlier this year about “status disaffection" as a factor driving the increasing authoritarianism in democratic societies. Specifically, a sense of marginalisation from social and cultural developments, exacerbated by economic hardship and perceived lack of accountability of political and social elites, strongly predicts support for populism at both ends of the political spectrum. Importantly, status disaffection remains predictive of support for populism independent of class, and perceived status discontent may overlap along class lines. In effect, status discontents are a problem stemming from social integration, and social disintegration is primarily driven by rising inequality.
Status disaffection can be conceptualised as intersecting axes; a horizontal axis of the traditional political and economic Left-Right, and a vertical axis of libertarian-authoritarian values. While class may be useful in predicting Left-Right voting, it has little influence on the libertarian-authoritarian spectrum, for which status is the dominant predictor; individuals with higher status express more libertarian values, while individuals with low status express more authoritarian values. The fact that the relationship for status and authoritarianism is observed for both Left and Right sides of the horizontal axis is indicative of this vertical political realignment, itself a consequence of a vertical socio-economic hierarchy.
However, the traditional Left-Right divide has also undergone a profound demographic reorganising, which in turn has generated vertical social and cultural realignment. Thomas Piketty has distinguished between the “Brahmin Left”, where parties like the Democrats in the U.S. and Labour in the UK became the party of an intellectual, highly educated elite, and the “Merchant Right”, where parties like the U.S. Republicans and British Tories became the party of a high wealth corporate elite. The current demographics of the traditional political Left-Right spectrum represents a flip from their respective voter bases during the post-War period of social democracy. Whereas voters with lower education and low incomes typically voted for parties that, in the post-War period, were politically and economically Left-of-centre - the Democrats or Labour - the shift of those parties to the centre-Right on economic policy from the 1990’s onwards, coupled with their prioritising of educational advantage for the middle-class, created the “Brahmin Left”: parties for whom their average voter became part of a university educated, higher income, professional class, and globalist in worldview. To quote Piketty:
“The problem is that many who succeeded in this way developed smug and condescending attitudes towards the rest of the population; or, to put it more charitably, they did not inquire too deeply into whether official ‘meritocratic’ pronouncements corresponded to reality or not. Thus, the former workers' party became the party of the winners of the educational system, and gradually moved away from the disadvantaged classes...”
Piketty’s reference to meritocracy is important, because the available literature on status disaffection indicates that the rhetoric of meritocracy championed by parties like New Labour or the Democrats is a substantial driver of status discontent, when this rhetoric is divorced from the reality of societies in which social mobility has collapsed. The failure of meritocracy is an important factor in why populist parties of the Right, including the Republicans in the U.S. or the Tories in the UK, have so effectively mobilised a counter-rhetoric; that “the system” is rigged against the blue-collar worker, who is being deliberately left behind by “the elites” despite their hard work and effort.
This rhetoric is important when we consider Piketty’s “Merchant Right”. The trend that occurred for parties that in the post-War period were economically centre-Right parties - the Republicans or the Tories - was, from the 1980’s onwards, to shift farther to the economic Right and embrace libertarian market deregulation catered to corporate and financial wealth interests. However, paradoxically these parties were also rewarded electorally by the economic inequality produced by their very own policies, skilfully mobilising anger and resentment among lower educational and low income strata of society that had been cut adrift by the former political Left. This Merchant Right thus resembles what Piketty termed a “Market-Nativist Ideology”, where these parties stoke nativism on issues like immigration while ensuring that all of the economic advantages are leveraged toward the wealthy. Piketty uses the 2016 Trump campaign to illustrate this concept:
“In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump tried to give his politics a social dimension by portraying himself as the champion of the American worker, whom he described as the victim of unfair competition from Mexico and China and as citizens abandoned by Democratic elites. But the actual policies of the Trump administration have combined more or less standard nativist measures (such as reducing the influx of immigrants, building a border wall, and supporting Brexit and nativist governments in Europe) with tax cuts for the rich and multinational corporations.”
The increasing concentration of wealth among the top 10% of society, and the gulf of wealth disparity between top and bottom 10%, creates a vertical economic alignment akin to a neo-feudal social order. From this, a problematic vertical cultural realignment emerges where the Brahmin Left weaponise identity politics to claim a moral and intellectual ascendency over the lower educated and lower income in society. Thus, while the Merchant Right may cater economically to a “1%” as it relates to wealth, the Brahmin Left caters to a “1%” in cultural and social terms. The evidence for status disaffection indicates that both of these forces combine to create a sense of low perceived status, which is particularly acute among individuals with low-income and/or low-skills levels. To quote a paper by Bukodi and Goldthorpe in relation to the working class giving up on Labour in the UK:
“This was seen as now dominated by graduate metropolitan elites obsessed with political correctness, and more concerned with telling the people they were supposed to represent that they were ‘wrong’ than with trying to understand the conditions under which they were living and their responses to these conditions.”
Thus, the erosion of the social fabric, while having economic roots, also exhibits crucial socio-cultural vertical realignment. The unifying characteristic between wealthy conservatives and highly educated, high income liberals, is that they both despise the working class. Wealthy conservatives express their abhorrence in economic terms (“welfare queens”, “lazy”, “irresponsible”), while liberals express their loathing in socio-cultural terms (“racists”, “stupid”, “[insert identity]phobes”). While this has been standard rhetoric for the Right since the 1980’s, for the high-education/high-income liberals who claim being of “the Left”, this is the elephant in the room in identity politics; the sneering moral condescension at its core provides a means for university-educated urban professionals to justify their hate of the poor without the cognitive dissonance this entails for their self-perception as a “liberal”.
When the forces of economic and socio-cultural vertical realignment combine, it constructs a vertical distinction between a large powerless group (“the people”) and a small power-wielding group (“the elites”), whose power is considered illegitimate, irrespective of democratic norms. The mobilisation of a vertical distinction between “the people” and some oppressive force depends on the context in which it is applied. For the Right, this tends to be the dichotomising of “the people” against an unaccountable and unelected technocratic, decision-making elite; their power is considered illegitimate because legitimacy for the Right is derived from “The People”. For the Left, society is dichotomised between marginalised identities and the power-wielding oppressor identity, whose power is considered illegitimate because they do not represent the marginalised identities; legitimacy for the Left is thus derived from having a particular identity, or “intersection” of identities. The consequence of this politically motivated vertical distinction for the Right and socio-culturally motivated vertical distinction for the Left is the “toxic polarisation” which characterises our societies. These characteristics define both conservatives and liberals, their respective media outlets, and echo-chamber belief-systems about the nature of society and reality. The V-Dem 2022 report captures this landscape:
“Camps of “Us vs. Them” start questioning the moral legitimacy of each other and start treating opposition as an existential threat to a way of life or a nation. Once political elites and their followers no longer believe that political opponents are legitimate and deserve equal respect, democratic norms and rules can be set aside to “save the nation”. This is a dangerous development.”
The implicit assumption underpinning the post-War democratic social contract was that there would be a minimum standard of living below which no one in society would fall. Both centre-Left and centre-Right bought into this contract, ensuring that even if governments changed in their respective ideologies of the relationship between market and State, the relationship between State and citizens was recognised for its importance to the function of a healthy democracy and society. For 30 years, that social contract has been repeatedly shattered, and the citizens that comprised one signatory to this contract repeatedly brutalised.
The assaults on basic dignity in the lives of ordinary people translated into a reciprocal rejection of the institutions that, in theory, are supposed to act on behalf of citizens. Why buy into the functioning of institutions if those institutions are totally unresponsive to your needs? Consider that a majority of citizens want their country to focus more on social outcomes over economic growth, yet political elites continually opt for a decimation of public services in favour of crony capitalism to facilitate corporate accumulation of wealth. And why buy into a more inclusive society if the cultural elites constantly dismiss and demean your conditions in favour of making you the target of exclusionary rhetoric of moral inferiority?
This decline in the legitimacy of different perspectives, in the value of hearing and understanding, and in respect for democratic norms and institutions, reflects the fact that most ordinary people are excluded from meaningful participation in society; economically excluded by the policies of the Right that are the de facto economic status quo, and socially excluded by the crusade of moral righteousness of the cultural Left. What do people, in a society where their lives are defined by gross inequality and social exclusion, owe democracy?
The answer to that is simple: nothing. They don’t owe democracy a thing. Participatory democracy requires not only an informed citizenry, but more importantly, a citizenry that feels that its institutions and social fabric are worth upholding. When economic, cultural, and political forces realign to create a society divided along vertical distinctions between self-perceived legitimacy and social status, the result is the inevitable consequence for any vertical structure on shaky foundations: it topples.
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