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Inequality and inefficiency: the main obstacles to the spread of democracy

Published 03 Oct 2018
Amy Lin

Promoting liberal democratic values has been a foreign policy objective of many Western democracies, including Australia. Yet in recent years, unfulfilled promises of a more equal and efficient society has led to an increasing number of people becoming indifferent to the idea of a liberal democracy. Support for populist governments around the world has also grown and there are indications that globally, liberal democracies are on the decline. Even Francis Fukuyama, the man who famously proclaimed the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberal democracy towards the end of the Cold War, noted recently that the world is in a “precarious situation” and that the liberal democratic order is at risk.

Predictions of the decline of liberal democracy is not new. Prominent political scientist Samuel Huntington warned in his 1993 article, ‘The Clash of Civilisations’, that Western liberal democracies would be inevitably be challenged by people from non-Western countries, many of whom do not have a culture of democracy. Huntington’s ideas are still very prevalent today, and this has been highlighted in the rise of anti-immigration populist parties in both America and Europe. By blaming migrants and multiculturalism for enabling the spread of anti-Western values, far-right political groups have reinforced Huntington’s idea that the clash of civilisation is responsible for the decline of liberal democracy in Western society.

However, if liberal democracy is an integral part of Western culture, why are more and more people are turning to right-wing populist parties that favour nationalism over democratic rights, such as the freedom of the press? Frustrations with multiculturalism and fear related to immigration also does not explain why both far-right and far-left populist movements are gaining more support, even though they both have completely different values.

The common denominator of populists movements is they are all anti-elite and anti-establishment. For many people, neoliberal democratic values, including free market economies, globalisation and less state regulations, has only benefited the elites at the expense of local jobs and industry. The 2018 World Inequality Report further supports the notion that there is a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and this has consequently resulted in growing dissatisfaction with globalisation and a liberal democratic system. Hence, in many cases, the lack of economic stability has driven many young people towards anti-establishment populist governments.

The growing inequality and the economic woes are problematic for liberal democracies, especially for Western nations like Australia because it undermines the rationale that  freedom and innovation are essential for economic growth and long-term prosperity. Taking into account one of the main attractions of liberal democracy is its perceived link to economic prosperity, the current economic uncertainty in many Western countries weakens one of major reasons for people to support liberal democracy.

Likewise, many people no longer believe that a liberal democratic system of governance will guarantee a representative government that acts for the public interest. This notion is supported by the latest Democracy Perception Index Report, which indicated that most people in democratic countries do not believe their voices matter in society. The fact that more people in non-democracies like China believe that their opinions matter to the governance of the country also dilutes the argument that liberal democracy will guarantee more consideration of the public interest in the governance of the country.

Furthermore, the perceived lack of efficiency in liberal democracies is why many people in non-democracies continue to tolerate their established authoritarian regimes. For example, in the case of China, in spite of more people having being aware of outside ideas, most people do not support a liberal democratic system with free elections because they believe that continually changing parties and leaders would lead to less long-term policies and less economic stability within the country. President Xi Jinping’s popularity amongst the majority of population has also been attributed to his strong leadership and his ability to ‘get things done’.

Many Western governments acknowledge that for the promotion of liberal democracy to succeed, there needs more engagement with the public. Nowadays, it would be hard to find a politician who is not on social media ‘engaging’ with their target audience, particularly with the younger voter base. However, with support for anti-establishment populist parties continuing to grow, it appears that little has been done to address the disparities in the distribution of wealth, nor the lack of efficiency in the government institutions.

Liberal democracy is a major soft power asset for many Western countries that relies on public support for its legitimacy. Yet with rising inequality and less efficient governments, more and more people are becoming indifferent to the idea of liberal democracy. Unless Western countries like Australia can once again persuade people around the world that liberal democracy will indeed result in huge economic and social benefits, the promotion of liberal democracy will face a tough road ahead in coming years.

Amy Lin is conducting an internship with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. She is a final year Bachelor International Studies (International Relations) and Bachelor of Media (Public Relations and Advertising) student at the University of New South Wales. Her one-year exchange in Japan, and her involvement in the UNSW United Nations Society nurtured her strong curiosity of non-Western perspectives on international relations. She currently volunteers for local NGO, Australian Refugee Volunteers, and her key areas of interest are soft power, East Asia and migration issues.