A sign encouraging people to vote is seen in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 5 ahead of the US midterm elections. Photo: Getty Images / AFP
Inside Out
by David Dodwell
Inside Out
by David Dodwell

With US as standard-bearer, democracies must first fix their faults to deserve their good name

  • Democracies in action might be so dysfunctional that it is conceivable that some other forms of government might not be worse after all
  • China’s model of economic and political management, often criticised in the West, has undeniably brought substantial benefits to its people
Winston Churchill’s thoughts on democracy – “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried” – have over the decades been quoted so often they have become clichéd. But as we sit on the eve of the midterm elections in the United States, we must pause for careful thought.

The current reality seems to be that democracy, as it is evolving in some countries, might have become such a hopelessly dysfunctional form of government that it is conceivable that some other forms might not be worse after all.

As President Xi Jinping cruised unopposed into a third term of office last month, there might have been some liberal thinkers on the mainland who were turning Churchill’s famous quote on its head: “Communist Party rule is the worst form of government except for all those others that so many Western countries have tried.”

Criticism of China’s political system and its undemocratic qualities would be more valid if Western democracies were more credibly democratic. Perhaps more importantly, they need to do a better job of managing their economies, dealing with their deepening social problems and contributing effectively to solving global problems on which we share a common destiny – think multilateral cooperation on trade, management of climate change, and avoidance or mitigation of global pandemics.

The US might be the most obvious target of criticism. There is the egregious awfulness of some of its shortcomings, as well as its importance as the global standard-bearer for our democratic and free-market principles and the extent to which its domestic decisions have significant collateral effects worldwide.

How credibly can Americans claim to live in a democracy when many Republican candidates for federal or state-level office in this week’s midterm elections still believe the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump in 2020? How credible is a democracy in which a significant number of candidates and their supporters insist “If we lose, we were cheated” and threaten the use of violence in response?
A woman takes a photograph of a man holding the hand of a giant cutout of former US president Donald Trump outside a house known as the “Trump House”, painted red, white and blue ahead of the 2022 midterm elections in Unity Township, Pennsylvania, on November 5. Photo: Reuters
Beyond the US, other democracies are producing embarrassing messes. In Brazil, outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro had appeared tempted to rip a leaf out of Trump’s anti-democratic handbook by challenging the narrow victory in last week’s presidential election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Bolsonaro’s supporters had blocked highways to demand a military intervention to keep him in power, but those protests have thankfully dwindled.
And then there is the almost comic political chaos in the UK. A de facto civil war within the ruling Conservative Party, compounded by comprehensive political ineptitude, has seen three prime ministers and massive ministerial churn in just three months – all without recourse to British voters, and at the expense of any focused attention to urgently needed policy initiatives.
The recently formed government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rests not on a mandate from the British people but on a vote among the Conservative Party’s 172,000 card-carrying members – about 0.25 per cent of the British population. It has to make one wonder on what basis Britain’s government can claim a superior democratic mandate than that of China’s paramount leader, who did not win any national election but has forged endorsement from a Communist Party membership of more than 90 million members.


Outgoing UK prime minister Liz Truss joins ranks of shortest-serving world leaders

Outgoing UK prime minister Liz Truss joins ranks of shortest-serving world leaders

Such deep-seated disorder has eroded respect for democracy and democratic institutions. It has also taken attention away from serious policy challenges while a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and economic disruption induced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have taken the global economy to the brink of the gravest synchronised recession seen in five decades.

Enlightened international cooperation is urgently needed to prevent catastrophic global warming and reduce the risk of a future pandemic inflicting the same multitrillion-dollar harm on the global economy that we have seen during the past three years. Instead, we have seen an inward turn as democratic institutions have faltered.

As the usually sober Martin Wolf noted in the Financial Times last week: “Under the leadership of psychopaths and the influence of nationalism and other dangerous ideologies, we are capable of grotesque follies and horrific crimes. … We depend on a high level of enlightened cooperation to sustain an inhabitable planet.”

Can things get worse as US-China common ground shrinks over Taiwan row?

It is arguable that during the past seven decades, a general respect for the institutions that underpin democracy has contributed strongly to the peace that has prevailed, and this period of peace has also contributed strongly to the strong and steady economic growth that has lifted so many hundreds of millions out of poverty worldwide.

But it is also arguable that this period of peace and growth has not been entirely inspired by democracy and its institutions. Whatever some people’s discomfort with the authoritarian opacity of China’s political system, there is an argument to be made that its model of economic and political management can bring substantial benefits to its people and is capable of interrelating with our own democratic, free-market economies to the benefit of us all.

China’s position of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs deserves attention and respect, and there would be merit in paying keener attention to the disorderly malfunctioning of Western democracies. China’s political system has its uncomfortable shortcomings, but so do our own.

David Dodwell is CEO of the trade policy and international relations consultancy Strategic Access, focused on developments and challenges facing the Asia-Pacific over the past four decades