The End of “End of History” and the Arrival of Casino Democracy
A year ago, on the eve of the Brexit vote, many went to bed confident that the referendum was one big showoff event for those who held a deep-rooted, but utterly misplaced, contempt for the political, social, and economic consequences for the UK’s membership in the EU. They expected that at the end of the day sanity would prevail. Their complacency did them in! Then in November, many went to bed in the US, believing that what happened in the UK half a year before was a unique event, Donald Trump's candidacy for the presidency was a joke, and he had virtually no chance of prevailing. Complacent again.
If voters - and more importantly, those among them complacent enough to believe that democracy would take care of itself without a robust get-out-the-vote effort - knew then what they know now, they certainly would have gone to the polls. But they didn’t. Instead, they bet on pollsters’ predictions. Their forecasts could not have been more wrong.
In the Brexit referendum, only 36% of the young voters bothered to get to the polls. By contrast, 83% of those 65 and older voted. In US presidential elections about half of the young eligible voters went to the polls. In both momentous elections, those without college degree overwhelmingly voted for Brexit or Thump, accordingly.
Then came the Dutch elections in March and the UK elections in June. Pollsters were again dead wrong. In the Dutch elections, they expected the far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party to win over 20% of the vote in a viciously fragmented electoral system, which would have made his PVV party the largest in the Dutch Parliament. The PVV won 13%, far less than the expected. Then came the big 2017 upset for Theresa May, the battered British Prime Minister, who gambled and lost by calling snap elections. Pollsters again turned out to be dead wrong, giving her and the Conservatives a significant superiority over the Labor party. In neighboring France, a young and charismatic politician and a former economic minister did what no one since the establishment of the Fifth Republic has done. In less than a year, he founded a political movement capable of taking on France’s monolithic party system—the only ones capable of passing the high threshold for entering in the National Assembly. After winning the presidency he also won a decisive majority in the Assembly. No one believed this possible, and even analysts highly sympathetic to Macron expressed doubts that his young movement was capable of taking on the established party system.
Democracy in the West has become a volatile process, where surprise and unexpected turns are the new norms, with politicians, pundits, analysts, pollsters, and voters engaging in a strange betting game. Players try to beat the odds in a game that no longer follows the logic of the traditional democratic processes. The times when one had only to know constituents’ age, income, and education levels, and residence in order to predict their voting preferences seems now long gone. Deliberations over policy substance seem to matter little anymore, or actually to take place at any political level. Party manifestos are shots in the dark with moving targets.
Populists of different types and sizes lead an assault against hard-won basic liberal values and principles, while the general public either doesn’t care, or cares in a militant way, as if in a civil war, and not in a civilized celebration of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It feels as if we were in a casino, betting on chance, hoping to beat the odds, and hit the unexpected jackpot at the expense of the others on the table. How are we to make sense of this all?
Three main reasons come to mind that could help us make sense of this confusing situation. A major underlying factor, what Joseph Nye may call “deep causes”, is history itself. Democracy is not all voting. In North Korea today they have 100% voter turnout, and it is surprising they haven’t striven yet for 120% or more. Communist countries in the former Soviet bloc routinely held elections with the punctuality of army personnel, not of voters; but that didn't make them even a bit democratic. Voting may not be enough for a functioning, let alone a consolidated, democracy. But, voting is a necessary condition for any democracy, a sine qua non principle. There is no way around it, democratic governance requires active participation, effort, and dedication.
Over the past three or four decades, for a variety of reasons, voter turnout in the democratic West has been steadily declining. Part of it is because voters feel increasingly under- or non-represented; and, partially, because the rational choice scholars finally got their revenge for what seemed as one of their approach’s biggest failures -–the practicality of voting itself. More and more people prefer to increase their individual utility by free-riding on others’ votes.
There is, however, one more reason that envelops the others: people in the West–or whatever we may call the world of consolidated democracy and great wealth–are now generations removed from the last Great War. The three youngest generations were all brought in the era of the greatest peace and prosperity in human history. So they steadily grow complacent and oblivious. There is no fear factor to scare them into active political participation. For many of the younger voters, WWII is no different than the Napoleonic wars, the Thirty Years War, the Punic or Peloponnesian wars–just historical facts with dates and names. In other words, the emotional factor for active political engagement is missing.
One of the most prominent contemporary scholars of democracy, Adam Przeworski, has compared the democratic process to a civil war, in which the pitchforks and scythes are replaced by ballots. Except that even in this highly minimalist version of democracy, flexing muscle requires active participation. One cannot sit at home and hope to win. But that is exactly what many, particularly young voters, have chosen to do over the past few cycles of elections.
The fault for this complacency lies partially with the digital revolution. We have confused being citizens and being consumers. From the comfort of our couch, we can buy over the internet everything from a pizza to an airplane. We no longer have to take a trip to the store, or to the mall. Amazon merchandise is just a few clicks away. This culture of online convenience transfers over to our duties as citizens. As consumers, we want the best deal at the cheapest price, which includes the transaction cost of going out and purchasing it. In a prosperous, peaceful, consumerist society many voters, and particularly the young, who are most affected by the digital revolution, increasingly behave like consumers and not citizens.
Voting, on the other hand, requires effort and motivation. Fear and trauma are very powerful motivators and those historic memories are now covered in thick layers of dust. The fall of communism galvanized citizens’ participation in the first waves of Eastern Europe’s elections. As the years went by, voter turnout decreased there as well, but not in par with the decline of the citizens’ participation in the democratic processes in the West. The West experienced the period differently, more as a cold peace, accompanied by a great deal of economic recovery and prosperity, and social evolution.
The mid-range factor, the “intermediate causes”, is the hubris of liberal democracy. When Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” he was referring to the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Even then the claim attracted a great deal of criticism for being too self-congratulatory and arrogant. There is nothing in the democratic system that inherently linked to liberalism. The Scandinavian countries demonstrated that their version of democracy--essentially more of a social welfare system than a liberal one--offers a viable alternative to the purer liberal democratic systems of the UK, Japan, and the US, for example.
More importantly, however, the feeling that liberal democracy vanquished communism gave birth to a form of intolerance towards less-liberal principles that may still be compatible with democracy, but are nonetheless deeply ingrained in large segments of the Western societies, regardless whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.
Globalization, for one, is a very big black box – or a magician’s hat. Everyone puts whatever they want in it, and pull white rabbits out at a will. Yet, some of its consequences are undeniable, especially but not necessarily limited to in the European context: greater freedom of movement, greater cultural diversity, and the need for greater tolerance towards others. Today, with a low-cost air carrier, one can go from Warsaw to Valencia, or from Sofia to London for less the cost from Krakow to Warsaw, or from Varna to Sofia. The cost of flying between New York and London is the equivalent of a night and a dinner in a mid-range hotel in a major European or American city. Planes are full because people travel as never before.
This unprecedented movement of people, especially during this digital revolution, when internet technology and social media instantly deliver all that happens around the world to one’s smartphone in a 24/7 race for attention, people become much more aware of the differences that separate us than the commonalities that unite us. Even though this may sound awfully familiar to many, given that it’s a line from Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations paradigm, I am using it here merely to illustrate that this growing diversity and mobility is not an inherently fertile ground for the cultural cosmopolitanism and intellectual inclusiveness that the principles of liberal democracy protects. On the contrary, it breeds a new form of intolerance that becomes deeply ingrained in the heart of hearts of many, who for a variety of reasons do not share the enthusiasm for culturally, religiously, and ethnically pluralistic societies, but are forced to maintain a false public face of pretend support.
These were the American voters who felt deeply stigmatized by their preference for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and these were the British voters who felt that the EU is not for the UK. For them, the so-called “safe spaces”, “trigger warnings” and other forms of “political correctness” are not expressions of the freedom of speech, but encroachment on it: greater tolerance for religious practices or ethnic traditions are not acts of cultural pluralism, but destruction of their cultural identity; and events, such as the gay parades, are not celebrations of diversity, freedom from social dogmas, and embracing of the other, but perverse manifestations of liberal democracy gone astray. Just because we may not agree with them does not mean that we should stigmatize the holders of such preferences. Perhaps, a healthy debate would be better than labeling and rejecting them outright. By pretending that holders of such illiberal values have no place in our liberal society does not make them disappear. It makes the others hide, until a candidate that speaks to them appears. Should we be then so surprised to see the rise to prominence of Le Pen’s Front National, Wilder’s PVV, or for that matter Donald Trump and the so-called “alt-right”?
What the opponents of these liberal practices hate the most is the need for self-censorship and the pressure to hide their real preferences. While bigotry, racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and prejudice should rightfully be excluded from any self-respecting, democratic society, with the victory of liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War came a form of liberal arrogance and intolerance that ironically squeezed rather than expanded the space for diversity. There was no longer room for the really different, the ones we certainly do not like but should tolerate nevertheless if we are to remain true to the real liberal principles of tolerance. And, there was no longer place for even discussing the need for such a space. Labels flew, and social stigmatization prevailed. That sent many into hiding, while it also hardened their anti-liberal views beyond reasonable acceptance.
Finally, the most immediate factors, or “precipitating causes”, can be found in shattering the myth that democracy is a Pareto optimal process that brings prosperity for all. While it’s a myth it has been part of the political narrative, at least since the post-WWII recovery years. Yet, democratic health is dependent on economic performance and the absence of huge income gaps.
Feeling stuck, without many options, many in Western democracies, and in particular young voters, came to experience life as if they were living in a glass maze. They witnessed others moving up and down, living whimsical lives with dream jobs, while they themselves were stuck in slow-sinking quicksand. For many of them, in face of the failing myth about open opportunity and “from rags to riches” you-can-do-it society disrupting the system is the only left viable option. On their computers and smartphones, they watch how seemingly random individuals are transported via invisible suction tubes and catapulted over the top – others, yes, but never them.
Bringing the three types of causes together, we have growing, quite amorphous groups in our societies. Some, are couch potatoes who prefer to sit let others expend the effort to vote while others see voting as an opportunity to express their well-hidden preferences without the fear of being ostracized.
And, finally, we have those who have become suddenly motivated by an immediate disaster and who are willing to vote for something risky, utopian and unrealistic, only because it is radically different. The number of such candidates grows all the time: Beppe Grillo, Alexis Tsipras, Errejon Iglesias, Bernie Sanders, Jean-Luc Melenchon, and Jeremy Corbyn (and yes, I realize he is the leader of the second largest party in the UK, but that makes him no less delusional than the other ones), among others. These voters are willing to hand over a blank check to the one who offers them the new utopia.
As a result, all of us - including the amorphous social groups described above, the traditional voters, the traditionally apolitical never-voters, the pollsters, the commentators, the pundits, etc. - seem to engage in this new form of casino democracy. It is no longer a form of deliberative democracy, or a liberal democracy, but a betting democracy, one in which we sit around a roulette table and blindly bet on unlikely numbers hoping to beat the odds when the ball stops spinning round the roulette. And, like with any casino game, the greater the odds of a surprising outcome, the greater the commotion and the payoff to the small chance-takers who betted on an unlikely number. Like any such activity, it is momentous for those touched by fortune, tragic for most other players who see their wealth diminished, and entertaining for all spectators, who enjoy the suspense. Only, that unlike in a casino, here the stakes for the spectators are mixed, although they don’t always recognize it.
The suggested model above is not one that explains the rise of populism. But it is one that incorporates elements of populism. What we saw recently in the UK elections was the rise of those, who sat on their couches when the Brexit referendum took place. What we saw in Austria in December 2016 and again in March 2017 in the Netherlands was the rise of those, who saw not just the Brexit outcome, but also Donald Trump’ ascent to the presidency. What we saw in France in May with the rise of Marine Le Pen, was the empowerment of those who felt the need to reconcile their internal, deemed unacceptable, preferences with their public expression. And, what we saw in the vote for Sanders, Corbyn, and spectacular rise to the presidency in France of Macron, was the public manifestation of a new social cleavage, for which is yet to appear an adequate explanation, let alone political representation.
It may be unclear what will come out of the rise of this casino democracy. It seems as though we are about to recognize the emergence, the shadowy materialization, of a demand for a new social contract, one whose shape and content are as dynamic as the digital world in which we live. For now, the only certain conclusion is that the ascent of casino democracy is a passing stage, which marks the end of the “end of history”.
This is not as bad as it may seem at first glance. A casino democracy is a dynamic one, which promises more active citizen engagement. Unless, one prefers the old elitist type of the “permissive consensus” democracy, of disengagement and giving politicians blank checks. This last one, for sure, is now gone and dead.