Everyone remembers Winston Churchill’s quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government…except for all the others.” What many people don’t remember is that, before Hitler even became Chancellor of Germany, Churchill had spent years in the political wilderness, trying and failing to convince his fellow politicians of the dangers of Hitler’s ideas. In fact, as one of the only British politician to have met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany before WWI, Churchill had more experience of dealing with authoritarian rulers than most. Even when both leaders were eventually defeated, Churchill continued to warn against complacency, fully aware of the price that had been paid.
Once again, however, we have failed to listen to those who tried to warn us.
One can only imagine how Churchill would see people like Rodegrio Durete in the Phillippines, Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Donald Trump of the United States. Mexico, Hungary, Turkey and now Brazil are all been driven towards extremist ideologues, back by powerful strongmen who trash the liberal values and social order of the post-WWII world. With the election of Jair Bolsonaro, the world’s fourth-largest democracy has chosen fear and hatred over hope.
Jair Bolsonaro is an outright homophobe and misogynist who openly expresses admiration for Brazil’s previous dictatorship and vows to fill his cabinet with military generals rather than elected politicians. He is pro-torture, advocates racist views and has no respect of either the rainforests or the indigenous populations who still live there. Yet, he commands broad popular support and won the election comfortably. Women, blacks, and gays all supported him to varying degrees, mostly due to his promise to end the rampant street violence and corruption that has plagued Brazil for years. Others simply wished to punish their ruling government, much like their counterparts in the UK and the United States.
Around the world, the reaction was one of shock and despair as Jair Bolsonaro’s ascendancy marks a depressing pattern. Much like the 1930s, the world seems to be sliding towards extreme ideas and movements. Even in Britain, the whole concept of Brexit, leaving the European Union, has been characterized as liberal democratic values pitted against the rhetoric of the hard-right. Nigel Farage may not have won a seat in Parliament, but his influence has shattered the status quo within Britain, as the referendum showed.
Of course, it’s not just the far-right that have gained much from the political winds of change. From Bernie Sanders in the USA and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK to Mexico new president, the left-wing Andrés Manuel López Obrador, it is clear that left-wing politics is seeing a comeback as well. It’s a more modest one and arguably less dangerous than the right-wing surge, but it still heralds a disturbing change.
That change is made all the more frightening after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reeling from a string of disastrous by-elections results, has announced that she will resign as party leader and will step down as German chancellor in 2021. Her intention seems to be to try and outlast Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, but it’s questionable whether she’ll last as long as that. The jockeying for power has already begun. The fight promises to be bloody and bitter.
Merkel isn’t totally lost. Despite falling poll numbers, a divided coalition, and the rise of a new far-right party, she remains popular in many parts of Germany. Merkel has been consistently regarded as an enduring symbol of liberal democracy in Western Europe, a much-needed ally in uncertain times. She has led Germany to become an economic and political power to be reckoned with in both Europe and the world. A firm supporter of the European Union, Merkel is a political survivor and one who gained worldwide admiration for being one of the few leaders to stand up to Donald Trump.
Her successor will find her legacy a hard one to follow. It is still early days yet, but it seems that those who openly seek to replace her will not be able to match her achievements. Her most divisive policy, opening Germany’s doors to over a million Syrian refugees, will likely divide her nation for years. The rise of AfD, a far-right party that openly admires the Nazis, may tempt members of Merkel’s party to lean further right. As Theresa May and her Conservative party have discovered, however, it is a dangerous road for Europe’s most stable democracy to take.
Germany is rapidly approaching a state of flux at a time when France seems to be turning against the centrist idealist Emmanuel Marcon who faces a serve drop in popularity. Britain has become more of a liability, uninterested in preserving a sense of European cohesiveness in favor of a narrow-minded idea of ‘Rule Britannia’, potentially at the cost of its own cherished unity. How Churchill would despair at his own homeland tearing itself apart!
Merkel’s retreat happened a few days after Bolsonaro’s advance, but the two events are still connected. The values of liberal democracy are under threat, facing an existential crisis that may be worse than the 1930s. Democracy seems unable to counter the lies that social media spreads and reacts too slowly to great sweeping political changes. Trump, Bolsonaro and other strongmen come across as ‘sincere’ and ‘honest’ by simply saying everything and anything to annoy the establishment, even if it goes against all human decency.
The world seems to be growing darker every day as many people find themselves unable to defend democratic values across the world. Those who don’t reject the system outright are either reluctant to provide the case in favor of those values or are unable to mobilize enough numbers to prevent disaster.
Churchill would likely despair at the rise of extremism across the world, knowing full well that such extremists, if left unchecked by both internal and external critics, would lead to conflict. There is no easy answer to combat extremist rhetoric or to fight against the lies on social media, but it is still possible to fight against them.
But even in such times, Churchill would be the first to remind us that “We must not despair, we must not for a moment pretend that we cannot face these things. Dangers come upon the world; other nations face them.”
The old ways are done for, that much is clear. We can never go back the post-WWII social order nor should we. All we can do now is prevent the new ways from leading us down darker paths, to prevent democracy dying to the sound of thundering applause.