31 July 2013

The conservatism of 'established democracies'

Here's a thought for the day, found in the current issue of The New Yorker. John Lanchester is reviewing some books about the late Margaret Thatcher, one of which is a general history of the global upheavals of the year 1979, when Thatcher first became Prime Minister. Lanchester appears to agree with the author's premise that Thatcher, a conservative parliamentarian, was as radical a figure as the Ayatollah Khomeini, who took power in Iran that year, and Deng Xiaoping, who consolidated his control of China that year the better to steer the country toward economic reform. The reviewer assumes that some readers will think this strange company for Thatcher, but Lanchester argues that, on one level, hers was a more radical challenge. Here's the thought:

Established democracies tend to be more stable than autocracies, and, as a result, change direction with greater difficulty.

An American, whether Democrat, Republican or other, might think Lanchester was writing about the United States, and perhaps he is. In fact, he describes a condition that some observers often see as a virtue of liberal representative government, but in a way that presents it as a problem. Reading that sentence over again, you wonder why it should be difficult to change direction when necessary, but the historical liberalism from which nearly all American political opinion derives doesn't really envision a need for the sort of dramatic course changes Lanchester has in mind. Instead, liberalism presumes, if not perpetual stability, then a gradual, regulated evolution, the orderliness of which should make radical course changes unnecessary if not impossible. Along with that bias, American liberalism burdens the state with an obligation to respect the interests, if not always the objections of minorities. That burden grows the more people identify themselves with threatened minority interests of any sort. The hurdles are built high to ensure that minority interests are not trampled by abusive majorities, or simply to force second thoughts before rash action. This becomes a problem when radical change seems to become necessary yet also seems to burden minorities (however constituted) unfairly, from the minority perspective. "Established" and "stable" democracies, i.e. liberal ones, don't allow majorities to dismiss minority objections as easily as radicals might like or as "autocrats" can elsewhere. Whether this is a flaw of liberal democracy depends on whether you judge government by its cultivation of stability or by its responsiveness to crisis -- not to mention how you understand crises as political events.

For Lanchester, Thatcher's triumph is that she "managed to bring about a dramatic change of direction, and did so by democratic means." She did not become a dictator, regardless of what some labor unions might have thought. When her own party turned against her, she left power meekly.  What did she accomplish? In the words of the author under review, the U.K. was "reduced to the status of a banana republic" economically before she took over. In Lanchester's words, "Britain became a more prosperous country under her leadership, but they also show that it became a more unequal one." That qualifier didn't bother Thatcher, and her inegalitarian attitude may be related to what Lanchester sees as her particular virtue, practically speaking, as a politician. "She didn't merely dislike the idea of consensus," Lanchester writes, "she despised it." She explicitly rejected the sort of "we're all in this together" rhetoric Americans identify with President Obama. As another biographer relates, Thatcher struck out a line from her party's 1979 manifesto that read in part: "[T]he interests of all classes within the nation are ultimately the same." Lanchester again: "She didn't flinch from the idea that we are not all in it together." Enough were in "it" together, as she understood "it," for her to win three elections before her own party deposed her. Perhaps those who weren't in "it" with her had less power to make mischief than they do in the U.S. She may not have faced the same procedural obstacles American leaders face, her most potent adversaries being striking workers who could simply be ignored and outlasted, not compromised with. There are degrees of stability and establishment in representative government, which is what Lanchester really means when he writes, "democracy." The U.K. might be as "stable" as the U.S. while allowing leaders a clearer path to enacting their agendas. On the other hand, American leaders already hobbled by the Constitution or legislative rules may handicap themselves further by fetishizing consensus in a way Thatcher scorned. In his heart and mind President Obama may believe that we're all in this together, but President Clinton might tell him that it depends on what "this" is. In a democracy we have choices, and choices can exclude. It may even be necessary to exclude to include, to show the undecided in stark contrasts what their actual choices are.  Would a Thatcherism of the left, polarizing yet honest about its intentions, succeed in the U.S.? Should someone attempt it, that would be a real test of the stability and flexibility of established democracy, and of whether what we have here is worthy of the name.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think an easier way of understanding this is by applying basic laws of physics.
Newton's First Law of Inertia states that "an object in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force". If you look at a society as "an object in motion", the larger the society, the stronger the outside influence must be to radically change direction.

Of course there are far more variables active within any given society which makes statistical analysis far more difficult, but not entirely impossible. This was understood by mathematician Adophe Quetelet back in the 19th century when he first proposed his idea of "social physics". These ideas have been expounded upon by others such as Ilya Progogine (Order Out of Chaos) and Stuart Kauffman ("At Home in the Universe" and "Redefining the Sacred").