My Take

Crisis of democracy is inevitable in ‘post-consensus’ world

Even little Hong Kong has been condemned to endless ‘partisan political combat that will pervade every aspect of life’ – at least until the tanks roll in

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 11:41pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2016, 11:41pm

You live long enough, you see history repeating itself.

In the mid-1970s, Samuel Huntington, late author of the famous if controversial The Clash of Civilisations, co-wrote an influential report on the crisis of democracy in the United States, Europe and Japan. Its diagnosis of the political ills plaguing American society was “an excess of democracy”.

The 1960s youthful rebellion and counter-culture, the authors concluded, had led to a profound and widespread distrust and discrediting of “central government institutions”, and that for political stability and governance to be re-established, the “prestige and authority” of such institutions had to be restored.

From Brexit to the US election, 2016 saw a march towards universal distrust

That Trilateral Commission report was often taken as a clarion call by the US ruling elites against a populist rebellion from the left. Today, we hear similar calls for action from mainstream establishment intellectuals against another populist rebellion, this time, though, from the right.

Thus Fareed Zakaria, the influential author and CNN current affairs host, has diagnosed another crisis of democracy in the aftermath of the “Western” financial crisis.

Similarly, blasting the “post-fact/truth” politics that is sending Donald Trump to the White House, Francis Fukuyama, Huntington’s most famous pupil, wrote in a similar vein as his mentor about the erosion of trust in governing institutions in Western democracies.

“American democracy, all democracy,” he wrote, “will not survive a lack of belief in the possibility of impartial institutions; instead, partisan political combat will come to pervade every aspect of life.”

Such critics who warn against “post-fact” or “post-truth” necessarily imply they know what the facts are or what the truth is. But do such philosopher-kings exist?

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What they really mean is that Western doctrinaire consensuses formed by the ruling and intellectual elites – for example, the independence of central banks; the impartiality of the judiciary; the universal benefits of globalisation; and the universality of human rights – needed to maintain the legitimacy of governing institutions have been broken. It’s not “post-truth” they worry about; it’s “post-consensus”.

Whether it was the Vietnam war or the Western financial crisis, public faith in democratic institutions was deeply shaken.

People start to challenge the elites. Some even think they or one of their own should rule.

Hong Kong, of course, knows all about post-consensus politics. We, too, have been condemned to endless “partisan political combat [that] will pervade every aspect of life” – at least until the tanks roll in.