The global battle for democracy

How secure is our democracy? In times past we would have pondered that question in terms of an external aggressor, like Japan and Germany of the 1940s, or in the years that followed Russia or China, or maybe Indonesia. When the RSL warned darkly each Anzac Day that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” that’s what they meant.

From September 2001 onward, the old national aggressors became foreign terror threats from places like Iraq or Afghanistan. Eventually we came to see that assassins and bomb-throwers could just as easily be home-grown, living in a suburb like your average, ordinary Aussie. 

Now we are in a new age. Since Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House in 2017, Americans – and by extension people of every other democracy including Australia – have had to confront the distinct possibility that protecting freedom may be more a matter of keeping an eye on those in power rather than fighting an invader.

Trump didn’t start the process of undermining US democracy. The seeds of that have been in place since that country’s formative years, since the planters brought in slaves from Africa and then defended their “rights” against the northern Yankees in the Civil War. 

America thought its voting rights laws in the 1960s had buried that anti-democratic, racist demon, but it simply lay dormant, waiting its chance. The rise of Trump was its opportunity.

In January 2001 Trump’s attempt to stay in the White House failed, but as we all know it did not end there. As I write this, the battle for American democracy is being fought in the courts. Lawyers – as both prosecuting defenders and defending aggressors, if you can follow that twisted rhetoric – have joined the fray.

The Trumpian attitude is deeply embedded in US state politics. Last week in Tennessee, after another mass school shooting, two young black representatives were expelled from the State congress, leaving their districts unrepresented, when they protested the refusal of the Republican majority to debate gun regulation.

The US experience, and that of more than a few less established democracies elsewhere, is a warning that narrowly focused leadership, putting personal and party interests ahead of the nation’s, is a road to ruin. But that seems to be the choice of many on the Right of Australian politics.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton’s declaration last week that he would campaign for a “no” vote in the Voice referendum gave him clear air between his Liberals and Anthony Albanese’s Labor, leaving the Liberals well out to the Right on the nation’s political spectrum, a nod and a wink removed from Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. 

The Liberal Party of old stood solidly behind private capital, but it was also a party for “forgotten Australians”, middle-class families focused on a better life for themselves. That included supporting public institutions, funding quality public education and health services and protecting natural values.

At least at a federal level, all that has long gone. All that’s left on the Liberal agenda seems reactionary – reacting to what others say and do rather than following its own policy agenda. Usually expressed in cultural terms, reaction has become its reason for existing.

In the wake of the NSW election last month, the one blue state in an otherwise bright red political landscape is Australia’s island state. Jeremy Rockliff’s Liberal government is not in great shape, but he is responsible and level-headed – and aware that the Liberal Party is not the be-all and end-all of politics.

Like Rockliff, federal Bass MP Bridget Archer understands that there’s a world outside her party that must be listened to respectfully. Such independent attitudes are surely the last best hope for a party that has always made much of its free-thinking base, its “broad church”, which seems to have all but disappeared.

A party that abandons public policy to focus on ideological purity and tearing down opponents is a danger to democracy, which is where the Republican Party finds itself in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency. Disturbingly, that doesn’t seem to bother the party.

A hint as to why can be found in broader research for the World Values Survey, which found an alarming decline in belief in core democratic institutions. Even more alarming, among young people the findings showed a growing preference for a “strong leader” over democracy.

That research was published in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected. We have yet to discover whether subsequent events halted that global drift to autocracy; if so it’s not getting through to Australia’s Liberals. Perhaps – hopefully – they’re just behind the times.

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