Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018
Aaron Bartnick, Skoll Scholar and 2017-18 MBA at Saïd Business School, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement’.
The 2018 Skoll World Forum is a celebration of proximity. But could this proximity–proximity of people, of ideas, of cultures–actually be the root cause of so many of our problems?
That was the provocative opening to one of the Forum’s most anticipated panels: “Democracy in Crisis? Populism, Polarization, and Civic Engagement,” moderated by New America President and CEO Ann-Marie Slaughter and featuring Obama Foundation CEO David Simas, former South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, and Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran.
Despite living in the most complex era in human history, we often divide our worlds into black and white. For Forum attendees, that tends to mean that things like pluralism and proximity are good, and populism and nativism are bad. But there are more than a few shades of grey to each of these phenomena. Popular movements can both take down despots in Tunisia and install them in Hungary. And pluralism can make us both richer and more uncomfortable than ever before. “We love the mobility of capital and goods,” Rasool explains, “but we don’t know what to do with the mobility of people.”
Populists have found their answer. Shut down the borders, villianize the immigrants and elites, and make [insert country here] great again. It is a compelling story, argues Temelkuran. It has a good guy (a nostalgia-tinged version of our triumphant past), a bad guy (the elites that have always kept us down and the new people who have aligned with them), and a clear path for the good to triumph over the bad.
What is the democrats’ answer? “Populists have a compelling story,” challenges Temelkuran, “and we are trying to beat it with a PowerPoint.”
That, perhaps, is why we are asking if democracy is in crisis. It is not because democratic governments are in retreat. Forty years ago, there were nearly three times as many authoritarian regimes as democratic ones. Today, it is nearly five-to-one in favor of democracies. Democratic institutions remain intact. Representative governments and independent judiciaries are not being disbanded in waves around the globe, though they have come under alarming threat in several countries that were once considered on the road to democracy, most notably Temelkuran’s own Turkey.
But what is in crisis is the democratic story. Individuals, not institutions, make decisions. And individuals, Simas reminds us, make decisions based on stories. In the United States, voters who twice supported Barack Obama and then flipped to Donald Trump were responding to a story, Simas argues, which was built by the Obama Democrats and then adopted by the Trump populists. Both ran as outsiders seeking to subvert an unjust system and restore power to the people. Neither’s motivation was viewed as particularly partisan. And the aspirational desire for “hope and change” that defined Obama’s first presidential campaign morphed, after eight years of mixed satisfaction, into a call for confrontation in the form of “drain the swamp.”
What, then, is democracy’s new story? If it is a cost-benefit analysis clearly showing that the benefits of free trade and borders outweighs their associated pains, Rasool thinks we are sunk. “The middle ground can’t be boring,” he argues, “when we’re fighting for our survival.”
Instead, it is up to those who wring their hands at the current challenges to democracy to rise up with an affirmative case for its defense. If democracy is the ultimate expression of individual freedom, then let us say so. If pluralism makes us more competitive and successful, then let us say so. And if we genuinely believe that there is a place for everyone in this new interconnected and competitive world, then let us prove it.
Populists have their story. It is time for the would-be defenders of democracy to tell theirs.