It’s not too late to save liberal democracy
3 Feb 2020|

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s The end of history and the last man declared liberal democracy and capitalism to be the pre-eminent systems of government and the pinnacle of social evolution. This was it. Liberal democracy and capitalism as practised in the West was as good as we could get.

Fast-forward a little over a quarter century and Fukuyama may wish he’d never made that claim. He can hardly be blamed for it though, particularly because he wasn’t alone in thinking it. The evidence for that can be seen in the decades of drift Western democracies engaged in from the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. They became internally focused and preoccupied with day-to-day politics, while larger opportunities went unmet and long-term risks built up all around them.

Now, these countries, Australia among them, find themselves in what is arguably the most complicated strategic environment they have ever faced. That may seem a big call given the scale of World Wars I and II, or the Cold War, with its ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation.

But climate change, unchecked, also threatens civilisation as we know it. And it isn’t just a possibility: it’s happening. And yet it’s not the only complex strategic challenge that liberal democracies now face.

China’s rise poses a challenge to Western planners that is in some ways familiar—an authoritarian state in ideological competition with liberal democracy. But the world trades with China on a scale that it never did with the Soviet Union. It has made us all richer, but it also exposes us to Chinese influence and adds a layer of complication to balancing economic interests with national values and international norms.

But wait, we’re not done yet. Technological advances are outpacing the capacity of society to adapt. One possible outcome is winding up with a world in which there isn’t enough work for people to do—and while that doesn’t have to be a bad place to be, it does need extensive forethought on alternative economic models that don’t depend on people working for a living, or else we could be headed for a dystopian future of mass unemployment and inequality.

This is a rare, if not unprecedented, convergence of major trends. It remains to be seen if the Western democracies can adapt their traditional, hierarchical and risk-averse bureaucracies to guide their societies through it.

To be fair, the US, Australia, and their democratic partners are not the only countries facing these challenges. These are global issues with worldwide ramifications and every country has a stake. But until recently, the Western democracies were largely alone in the wealth and capability they could bring to bear to seize opportunities and solve problems. And that’s the real tragedy behind this unprecedented strategic environment we face—that it didn’t have to be this way.

Circling back to climate change as an example, it’s possible to imagine how the advanced democracies, in many ways the most capable actors in the world, could have worked together to take the lead on addressing it far earlier. That they chose not to do so, especially in their moment at the ‘end of history’, has been a dereliction of duty and opportunity for which current and future generations will pay the price.

Bringing liberal democracy out of its funk needn’t require wholesale change, however. Relatively easy reforms could create enough space for some long-term ambition, while also helping to change the conversation between citizen and government.

First, we need to bring optimism back into the narrative. Not the sort of superficial, throw-away optimism that the political establishment is often guilty of using, but an optimistic agenda connected with tangible, specific and inspirational national and international goals that transcend individual life and that citizens can connect with.

Second, liberal democracies will need to engage in hard choices. In a more crowded and disruptive world, policymakers will increasingly need to get comfortable with turning off existing activities so resources can focus where they have best effect. Opportunity cost needs to become a stronger feature of planning, while strategic planning in government needs to be strengthened and given real authority.

Third, the liberal democracies have a competitive advantage that is uniquely available to them: alliances and partnerships based on more than convenience. Taken together, the liberal democracies have formidable resources, talent and authority. Faith in collective action could be restored if ‘coalitions of the willing’ among the liberal democracies come together on specific grand and inspirational challenges.

Finally, but importantly, we need to look for ways to bring citizens into decisions of government beyond the election cycle. There are a number of possible models for this—some jurisdictions are experimenting with citizens’ juries, others have involved voters directly in questions on budget and service delivery. The most intriguing expose citizens to the trade-offs inherent in government and allow them ownership of specific decisions.

Done right, this can build citizen support for new revenue and activities, freeing up government to be potentially more adventurous, and it can build trust between the government and the public. It could turn one of democracy’s current weaknesses—the fraying relationship between government and citizens—into its greatest strengths.