Commentary: Even in world’s oldest democracies, citizens may be losing control

We know by now what illiberal democracies are. They are countries like Russia, Hungary and Poland, where the formal rules of democratic elections are preserved – though at times with credible claims of vote-rigging, especially in Russia – but where an authoritarian government so dominates the political and social space, so weakens the institutions of civil society, the news media, and the academy, and so plays on popular fears of foreigners and internal minorities, that choice is effectively skewed in one direction.

A re-election campaign advertisement for Russian President Vladimir Putin is displayed on a street in Moscow. Jan. 15, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

They are illiberal, it’s often claimed, because there is no depth to the democracy. When democratic procedures were adopted by the Eastern and Central European states following the collapse of communist rule in the Soviet Union and the countries of the Soviet bloc from the end of the 1980s, they were overlaid on populations with no previous experience of civic participation, and little understanding of democratic principles. Few of these states have had any more than a brief and often crisis-ridden experience of a polity in which democracy, rule of law and respect for independent institutions were the norm. Today, it seems, old spectres are emerging from their temporary entombment, as anti-Semitism rises again, and recent social and sexual shifts in both law and public opinion in Western states – such as acceptance of same-sex marriages – are shunned.

But there’s a new descriptive phrase for our present condition, which is disorienting for those of us who live in societies which do have a substantial democratic history. It is “undemocratic liberalism,” and it comes, like much else that is new, from a Harvard professor, Yascha Mounk, whose book, “People vs. Democracy,” portrays the power of the electorate – assumed to be the final decider in Western societies – as increasingly undercut by special interests and elite maneuvering. In an article for The Atlantic, boldly titled “America is Not a Democracy,” Mounk, citing recent research by political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, argued that “economic elites and narrow interest groups … succeeded in getting their favored policies adopted about half of the time…as for the views of ordinary citizens, they had virtually no independent effect at all.”

The claim has received dismal underpinning this past week. The massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school caused an outcry by those Americans who support more gun control. A Gallup poll late last year found that a majority of Americans support stronger gun control and, though it is unlikely to be placated by President Trump’s suggestion that teachers be armed, it is unlikely to prevail, once this latest tragedy recedes from memories.

Another Harvard professor, Dani Rodrik, has taken Mounk’s conclusion a step further: he believes that bureaucracy and technocracy are now replacing meaningful democratic decision-making. The European Union, he writes, is a prime example of this phenomenon: “decision-making increasingly takes place at considerable distance from the public…the Brexiteers’ call to ‘take back control’ captured the frustration many European voters feel.”

The U.S. gun lobby and the National Rifle Association – which was a major contributor to President Trump’s campaign – are perennial and common targets for liberals. But Mounk’s and Rodrik’s warnings point to liberal elites (such as that which created and runs the EU) – economists, financial institutions, policy institutions and even academics – as well. “When elites have sufficient power,” writes Rodrik, “they have little interest in reflecting the preferences of the public at large.”

The Brexit campaign was conducted under the slogan of “Take Back Control,” one that seemed to resonate strongly enough to obtain a majority in a country where most politicians and nearly all experts (though not most of the news media) were arguing for Remain (in the EU). Taking back control, for people everywhere, is a message in a bottle which they can fill with their own meaning: for it is a condition of our contemporary lives that control seems to be what we are losing.

For an older generation – and for many in all generations – the advent of and our increasing envelopment within a digital universe is deeply puzzling. A UK poll in September 2016 showed that nine out of ten citizens did not know what companies did with the data they had (sometimes unknowingly) shared when they conducted transactions on the internet. A bewildering array of threats to one’s privacy enter into our lives through social media – local and personal examples of the alleged Russian invasions of election campaigns in North America and Europe.

Discussion of the future revolves increasingly around dystopian visions, such as that put forth by Yuval Harari in Homo Deus, which describes a world where a minority of human “gods,” possessed of enormously augmented capacities which artificial intelligence (AI) has bequeathed them, rule the majority of the ignorant masses. “Once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence,” Harari writes, “it might simply exterminate mankind.”

At a few steps back from our fate at the hands of machines we’ve fashioned are the forecasts of mass unemployment – also a result of artificial intelligence, the kind which drives our cars (before killing us). Influential voices – such as Moshe Vardi, professor of computational engineering at Rice University, and the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking – forecast tens of millions of jobs lost: this time, it seems, the substitution of old work by new work won’t…work.

What to make of this? Though AI may, in the pessimists’ view, may eventually make every kind of job, from carpenter to consultant, obsolete, it’s the working-class jobs that will go first. Self-driving trucks will throw truckers out of millions of cabs: are there enough hamburgers to flip to take up the slack (and will hamburger-flipping anyway not already be done by bright young robots?) Thus those who already feel least in control of their lives and the world around them now believe a world still more radically insecure awaits them and their children – even if the latter get a university education.

From the way in which our supposedly democratic societies function, to the future of our children and ourselves, someone – or something – now seems to have pre-empted our efforts to freely choose, and to have stilled our voices. The often well-meaning substitution by technology of human actions and voices which, together, had caused or demanded change is the underlying political dilemma of our times. Our current quandary is vast, complex and demanding of radical solutions – just when politics seem at their weakest.

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.