Joyce McMillan: The clear and present danger to democracy

Lost in translation: Donald Trump makes a gesture that does not have the same connotations in the US as in the UK (Picture AFP/Getty)Lost in translation: Donald Trump makes a gesture that does not have the same connotations in the US as in the UK (Picture AFP/Getty)
Lost in translation: Donald Trump makes a gesture that does not have the same connotations in the US as in the UK (Picture AFP/Getty)
An idealistic younger generation may not listen to these two greats of Western democracy, but they should, says Joyce McMillan.

This week, two great women of Western politics spoke out in warning against the age of bigotry, hate and anti-enlightenment that now seems to be threatening our word. Neither woman is young – one is in her 80s – and both are arguably past their political prime; nor is either exactly an icon of the liberal left. One is Angela Merkel, the 63-year-old centre-right chancellor of Germany, struggling to hold her governing coalition together, in her fourth term in office; the other is Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and the first woman ever to hold that office, much reviled by the left for supporting many of the uglier aspects of American foreign and military policy. Because of their long history in the grubby business of Western politics, the words of these two women are likely to have little traction with the idealistic young or the committed left, and of course will mean even less to their opponents on the hard right.

Yet they have something vital in common, these two. Each grew up under the shadow of the great tyrannies of the 20th century, Albright’s family fleeing Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s while many of their relations died in Nazi death camps, and Merkel moving into centre-right politics because it seemed the strongest alternative to the authoritarian communism under which she grew up in East Germany. Merkel and Albright therefore know what they speak of, when they talk about the rise of illiberal and authoritarian attitudes, or the collapse of the rule of law and judicial independence; and they should be heard because they have lived that experience, as few citizens of north-west Europe or North America have done for more than two generations now.

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So what did they say? A few simple things. Albright said that Donald Trump’s habit of ripping up international agreements, alienating US allies, and trampling over legal precedents both internationally and in the US, represents a clear and present danger to the culture of democracy, and to peace between the world’s major powers. As for Merkel, she rose in the Bundestag yesterday to speak of immigration, and of the need – unarguable, by any rational measure – for the EU to step up to its responsibilities as the world’s wealthiest trading bloc, and agree a common policy for a secure, civilised and compassionate response to the current global refugee crisis. She added that this could be a “make or break” issue for the EU, since there is clearly little point in a law-governed union of democracies that cannot develop a shared democratic response on such a major global issue, and that will not meet its obligations to under international law.

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Now it is surely self-evident that Merkel is right about this; that an EU agreement on future refugee policy would be better for every member country than the current murderous melee of uncertainty, illegality, death in the Mediterranean, and blatant xenophobic hate-mongering all the way from Italy to Poland.

Yet somehow, we have allowed ourselves to drift to a place where the rational words of Albright and Merkel seem improbably idealistic, while the fantasising buffoons of the far-right – from Trump with his blatantly false claims about the German crime rate, to Viktor Orban of Hungary with his obscene “Christian” laws against helping refugees – somehow succeed in presenting themselves as the men of the moment, riding a wave of righteous public anger to an inevitable ascent to power. In truth, these far-right movements are not so popular as some in the Western media like to imply. Trump lost the US popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a margin of three million, Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen hands-down in last year’s French presidential election, and Merkel’s coalition – even after 13 years in power – won four times as many votes last September as the much-vaunted far-right AfD, which barely scraped 13 per cent of the vote. Yet history tells us that once far-right ideas are unleashed and legitimised, they always tend – thanks to cowardly politicians and indifferent voters – to have an influence far beyond their actual support.

And against this toxic rush towards bigotry, hatred and “endarkenment”, what are our best weapons? First, a deep and vigilant understanding of the methods and attitudes of the far-right. Secondly, the kind of patient, long-term grass-roots community activity that brings people from different backgrounds together, and overcomes alienation and hate through ordinary human co-operation. Third, realism about just why our own liberal institutions have become so weak – watch Tony Blair defend his own neo-imperialism abroad, and his undermining at home of the Labour movement that once gave British working people serious representation, and you will see exactly why so few, across the planet, remain invested in the institutions through which centrist politicians like Blair once worked.

And finally, a clear understanding that the abuse of those institutions – by neo-imperialists, neoliberals, and other defenders of first-world privilege – is not an argument against the institutions themselves. Nothing that is wrong with the UN, or the EU, or any other international institution, will be improved by its complete destruction; and the only way out of our current crisis is through the steady social-democratic reform of those institutions, so that they develop real muscle in helping to provide a hope of peace, better times, and a sustainable economy to all the people of our struggling planet.

It may be, of course, that we in the West are now irrevocably bent on a path that leads inevitably to closed societies and profound decline; we may have to turn elsewhere – to Africa, South America or Asia – for the true civic voices of 21st century co-operation and enlightenment. That those values will re-emerge though – early or late, and for whatever fragment of humanity survives our current crisis – is as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise. The struggle for peace, social justice, basic rights and inclusive government has been the hallmark of human progress since the dawn of history; and will remain so, long after Trump and the current generation of hate-mongers have ranted their last.