Charismatic politicians entice disillusioned people into giving them support. Some of those politicians are would-be despots. Others are scoundrels. Yet their siren songs are enticing. How then should politicians of the centre right and centre left and those who support them respond?
They must recognise they are in for a huge fight. A massive financial crisis, with a bitter aftertaste, undermined confidence in almost all elites. Moreover, as Jonathan Swift wrote, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it.” What would Swift have made of our media? Yet liberal democracy survived the great challenges of the interwar years and the cold war. As Torben Iversen and David Soskice argue in Democracy and Prosperity, the stabiliser is widely shared prosperity. Without that, all is lost, especially when belief in democracy has waned (see charts).
So how is hope to be renewed?
First, leadership matters. Democratic politics is not just about buying votes. It is about persuading people. Donald Trump may be an inexperienced politician. He may also be a widely detested person. But he knows how to motivate his supporters, because he knows how to tell a good story. A politician without a story will lose. Great politicians are always storytellers, from Pericles of Athens to Franklin D Roosevelt.
Second, competence matters. It matters far less, at least in the short run, for the demagogues of right or left. Theirs is an oppositional politics, even when they are in power. Competence is less demanded. But politicians of the centre need to know — and show they know — what they are doing. That is particularly important so soon after leaders of this kind made big mistakes, the most important being the belief that financial markets are stable and those engaged in them know what they are doing. Such errors proved disastrous.
Third, citizenship matters. A democracy is a community of citizens. The sense of what is owed to — and expected from — citizens is the foundation of successful democracies. Without the idea that citizens come first, there can be no national community. In modern democracies, the welfare state is a practical expression of citizenship. But so are policies that give all citizens a chance to participate in — and benefit from — economic life. Foreigners can usefully participate, too. But immigration must always be managed if it is to be judged fair and politically acceptable.
Fourth, inclusion matters. It is striking that on one well-known measure, the “gini coefficient”, inequality of market incomes is not in fact particularly high in the US. But inequality of disposable incomes (after taxes and spending) is relatively much higher. This outcome, then, is a policy choice.
Fifth, economic reform matters. As Paul Collier argues, in The Future of Capitalism, and Colin Mayer, in Prosperity, we need reform of taxation and of the corporation if we are to create a society that is economically successful and more inclusive. Particularly important are taxing rents and promoting greater competition. As Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn argue, in The Myth of Capitalism, the decline in competition is a large concern. This does not justify a socialist economy: we know that does not work. It does justify better markets.
Sixth, the local matters. Interestingly, this is a theme of both Collier’s book and of a new book, The Third Pillar, by Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India. Both talk about communities. Devolving decisions, while also giving communities the means to revitalise themselves, must be part of a good new politics.
Seventh, public services matter, even if people usually dislike paying the taxes needed to support them. What is most demanded varies across countries. But the libertarian idea of a minimal state that leaves all this to the free market is not only unworkable, but incompatible with democracy. Politicians of the centre have powerful arguments in their favour when they defend the public services on which people depend.
Eighth, managed globalisation and global co-operation also matter. No country is an island. We depend on ideas, resources, people, goods and services from other countries. This is true even for very large countries. The economic, political and moral arguments for stable and predictable rules governing these interactions is even stronger now than during and shortly after the second world war, when they were first brought together into a new global system. National sovereignty does matter. But it is not all that matters. This is even more true for management of the global commons. Co-operation among nations is not optional here. It is absolutely essential.
Ninth, looking ahead matters. We live in a world of large long-term upheavals — notably climate change, artificial intelligence and the rise of Asia. Good governments must look at what these things might mean for their peoples and the world. If democracies cannot do this sort of forward thinking, they will have failed. Certainly, the Chinese party-state will certainly argue just that.
Finally, complexity matters. The great American humorist, HL Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” That is what the charismatic demagogues offer. Expert advice can easily be wrong. But technocrats have reputations to lose. A politics that rests on popular anger and despotic whim is sure to fail. The only question is how. The right response has to be a politics that bases hope on realism. That is the only sort of democratic politics worth doing. Will it succeed in today’s world? Possibly not. But trying to do the right thing is the only way to give the world the best chance of good outcomes.