Amid the global outrage over events in Washington on Jan. 6, it is important to understand that there was a growing malaise at the heart of many Western democracies long before an angry mob stormed the US Capitol building, and that their discontent has deep roots.
Democracy is based on the principle of one person one vote, the most egalitarian of philosophies. Growing inequalities, everywhere on the globe but particularly in Western democracies, threaten that egalitarian principle.
Globalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but it has also cost many in developedcountries their jobs and deprived them of their livelihoods. When the social contract between the state and its people is based on the premise that everybody is equal, it is inevitable that those who view themselves as the victims of globalization feel disenfranchised. Add the unfiltered dissemination of extremist views via social media and you have a toxic mix. When people feel disconnected from the state and its elites, they are ripe for the plucking by populist demagogues.
The coronavirus pandemic has magnified and accelerated inequality, and fueled conspiracy theories. The alt-right has cleverly capitalized on these growing levels of discontent, and not only in the US; Germany has Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD), France has Marine LePen’s Front National, and in the Netherlands there is Gert Wilders’ Freedom Party. These movements share an alt-right philosophy and a highly xenophobic outlook.
Our democracies are worth preserving, because they are built on inclusion and fairness. Let us not give despots an excuse to claim that they don’t work.
The consequences of these developments are evident. Walter Lübcke, a German politician who had campaigned against ill-treatment of refugees, was assassinated in his home by a far-right extremist in June 2019; and two people were shot dead when a German neo-Nazi gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle in October that year. This prompted Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, to identify right-wing extremists as the biggest threat to national security.
The US Capitol was not the first seat of government in a Western democracy that extremists have tried to seize. Last August a hotchpotch of QAnon, alt-right proponents and anti-vaxxers tried to storm the Bundestag in Berlin, and had to be fought off by a handful of policemen. In November, AfD members invited-right wing sympathisers into parliament, where the visitors harassed members from mainstream parties.
Germany is a prime example, but every country needs to be vigilant in protecting their democracies. When so many people feel disenfranchised, mainstream politicians must seriously think about what they can do to ensure that their democratic and economic processes are not only inclusive, but are also perceived as such. As Winston Churchill observed: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”
What happened in the US should serve as a shot across the bow for elites in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Our democracies are worth preserving, because they are built on inclusion and fairness. Let us not give despots an excuse to claim that they don’t work.
• Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources