Stan Grant: A war is being waged between nationalists and globalists and Australia is not immune

Stan Grant: A war is being waged between nationalists and globalists and Australia is not immune

Stan Grant: A war is being waged between nationalists and globalists and Australia is not immune

Updated 5 February 2018, 15:30 AEDT

MPs are back in Canberra for the start of the political year.

Our politicians are back in Canberra. It is tempting to say who cares?

But the stakes could not be higher.

We begin our political year with democracy under threat globally; identity politics dividing societies; erosion of human rights; rising inequality; a wave of populism shaking up the global order.

People are turning away from politics as usual, and the future in many ways is uncertain.

As political scientist, David Runciman, says: "This is the crisis facing Western democracies: we don't know what failure looks like anymore and we have no idea how much danger we are in."

Certainly, public disaffection is growing here: especially with the major parties.

At the 2016 federal election, up to a third of voters rejected the ALP or the Liberal-National coalition.

Opinion polls indicate nothing has changed.

But disaffection should not be mistaken for voter apathy: If anything, Australians are politically active.

No doubt compulsory voting is a big factor; but Australians seem to know the power of their vote and are prepared to brutally wield it.

At state and federal levels there is increased volatility rewarding more minor parties and independents.

Voters have shown themselves especially keen on shaking up the make-up of the Senate.

The age of democracy is dead?

Overall, our democracy is strong: the Economist Intelligence Unit's Global Democracy Index has placed Australia in the top 10 for the past decade.

We are one of the shining lights in a pall of gloom that has settled over democracy worldwide.

Political scientist Peter Mair opened his 2013 book Ruling The Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy, with this sentence: "The age of democracy is dead".

Political parties, he argues, have become disconnected from wider society: there is a fractured political landscape; crises of legitimacy and effectiveness.

Since it emerged in ancient Athens, democracy's path has been long and bloody.

Philosopher A.C Grayling says in his latest book Democracy and its Crises: "For most of recorded history political power has been held by the few over the many."

The second half of the 20th century was a good for democracy: By 2000 the US think tank Freedom House counted 120 democratic nations: 63 per cent of world.

It had accelerated after the Cold War, when American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was moved the proclaim "the end of history": this was the ultimate triumph of Western liberalism.

The return of the Iron Fist

What has happened since?

Two events stand out: the global financial crisis and the increasing power of China.

On a personal level, economic collapse cost jobs and houses. At a political level it shook the foundations.

In a 2013 essay on the state of democracy, The Economist magazine said: "The damage the crisis did was psychological as well as financial. It revealed fundamental weaknesses in the West's political systems, undermining the self-confidence that had been one of their great assets."

While the liberal democratic West struggled, China continued to grow.

Suddenly, there was an alternative: the Chinese Communist Party could claim it had a better model (NB: there are those who believe China's heavy debt means its day of reckoning is fast approaching).

Some countries have taken an autocratic turn, weakening their democracy: Turkey under Recep Tayip Erdogan is cracking down on opponents and locking up journalists; Vladimir Putin jails his rivals; and Hungary's Victor Orban has transformed from one-time student democracy campaigner to political demagogue.

Freedom House, which once counted the spread of democracy, released a report, Freedom in the World 2015 — Discarding Democracy: the Return of the Iron Fist.

It found an erosion in civil liberties and rule of law, claiming that democracy was "under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years."

Trump, Brexit a 'core values divide'

Since then two more events have shaken global politics: Brexit and the Trump presidency.

In the words of political journalist and author David Goodhart, the two events marked "not so much the arrival of the populists era but its coming of age".

Goodhart says, they were about a "core values divide".

Britain's vote to leave the European Union highlighted a flaw in the EU project and globalisation more broadly: it weakens national sovereignty.

Goodhart has written that the desire to "transcend nation was at the heart of the European project".

Europe political watcher Ivan Krastev, in his recent book After Europe, says the EU "has always been an idea in search of a reality".

Countries lose control of their borders and their economies: blowback is inevitable.

Krastev says Europeans live with a "paralysing uncertainty", adding that "what was until now unthinkable — the disintegration of the union — begins to be perceived as inevitable".

Trump's attack on American democracy

Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump identified similar anti-globalisation, anti-deindustrialisation, tensions to win the White House: campaigning for secure borders; tougher trade: America first.

He has ridden a wave of populism that has seen disrupters win office or strengthen their foothold in elections around the world.

Of course, for some this is not a weakening at all, but a strengthening of democracy: the return of those left behind.

However, Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are concerned enough to have written a new book, How Democracies Die.

Democracies die in war, they write, but they also die at the hands of elected leaders, "presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power".

They worry about Donald Trump's attack on some of the institutions of democracy: judges and the media and fear that the United States will abandon its role as democracy promoter.

But, they write this democratic drift precedes Mr Trump: "The soft guard-rails of American democracy have been weakening for decades."

Mr Trump is a litmus test of our political age: a celebrity non-politician (even anti-politician) whose pledge to "drain the swamp" resonated with an angry, ignored electorate.

Goodhart says "we are in a border war between nationalists, mainly on the right, and multicultural globalists mainly on the left".

Levitsky and Ziblatt worry about a post-Trump future "marked by polarisation, more departures from unwritten political conventions, and increasing institutional warfare — in other words democracy without solid guardrails".

Australians losing faith in institutions

How solid are Australia's guardrails? Comparatively we are doing well.

Compulsory voting inoculates us from the extremes of the virus infecting democracy globally.

But, the potential for contagion exists: it is there in our growing inequality.

According the International Monetary Fund, we are among the country's with the fastest growing rates of income inequality.

Last year the OECD economic survey of Australia found that "inclusiveness has been eroded".

The earnings of the top households grew by more than 40 per cent between 2004 and 2014: the lowest by 25 per cent.

Around the world this has proved fertile ground for populism and the politics of anger and protest.

We are already seeing it here: the Edelman research and PR groups, 2017 Trust Barometer, showed that Australia was among those countries losing faith in institutions.

We mirror the international crisis of immigration, globalisation and social values.

This is the looming battleground as we move towards the next federal election.

These are the big questions we should be asking not being distracted by the political stunt of the day.

It is too soon to write off democracy; around the world people are still drawn to its promise of freedom.

As French political scientist, writer and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in the 19th century, democracies always look weaker than they really are.

The test of leadership will be who is prepared to raise our sights or to exploit fear and anxiety.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt write: "When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperilled."

Matter of Fact is on the ABC News Channel at 9pm, Monday to Thursday.