First Published in the Irish Times 6 April 2022
The conflict in Ukraine has united democracies around the world, just as it has pushed Russia further into authoritarianism, if not totalitarianism. However, this reinvigorated alliance inevitably evokes questions about the state of the democracy governments are defending. What does the re-election of Viktor Orban in Hungary, regardless of gerrymandering and media control, and the renewed appeal of Marine Le Pen in France say about the democracy citizens want?
In his remarks after the onset of the invasion in February, US president Joe Biden remarked that, “Liberty, democracy, human dignity – these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression. They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies. They cannot be erased by people – from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation. They endure.” In response, commentators were quick to point out that while Republicans in the US are lining up to condemn Putin and calling for increased military support for Ukraine, they are also busy attempting to suppress votes and raising unjustified alarms about election fraud.
Though he recognised its flaws, the Tánaiste also praised democracy after the invasion. He said in early March, “We’re a liberal democracy. We believe in the rule of law. We believe in market economies. We believe in multilateralism, and our system is far from perfect. We have lots of problems, as everyone knows, but there’s nobody climbing over walls or climbing into dangerous boats to get into Russia or China or Cuba or Venezuela or North Korea or these kinds of places."
"Fuel costs cannot be separated out from the climate emergency highlighted again in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
He added that, “We need to once again understand how fortunate we are to be in a liberal democracy, and how precious that can be and we need to defend it.”
How should we defend democracy then, especially considering the potential political fallout from rising inflation and higher costs for basic necessities like energy and food? European governments have admirably opened their borders for Ukrainian refugees, but how will they cope with the demands of both a new population, probably highly traumatised and lacking basic goods like clothing, and citizens struggling to pay bills?
Policymakers in Ireland, and elsewhere, are considering conventional measures like reducing taxes and one-off subsidies to alleviate financial pressure on households. They are also, like international agencies, advising consumers on how to reduce energy costs. The International Energy Agency has suggested actions like not driving on Sundays, working from home at least three days a week, riding trains instead of taking flights, car-sharing, and making public transportation cheaper and more accessible. Recently, Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has encouraged shorter showers and driving more slowly in order to use less fuel.
Though any measure to relieve economic stress should be welcomed, one-off payments, capping gas prices or even lowering taxes will not necessarily resolve the problems the Tánaiste refers to, here in Ireland or elsewhere. To give an obvious example, fuel costs cannot be separated out from the climate emergency highlighted again in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released this week, and thus any response has to involve long-term, most likely public, investment in renewable energy.
That said, prioritising long-term investment may not be politically attractive now, and not just because the immediate financial pressures on households are benefiting far-right leaders like Orban and Le Pen. Their popularity echoes repeated surveys in democracies that show declining confidence in the political process. For instance, an international survey funded by the Pew Research Centre in 2021 found that the majority of citizens – some in countries now mobilising against the Russian invasion in the name of defending democracy – want changes, if not complete reform.
Dissatisfaction with work
Another Pew survey, conducted in 2019, highlights the influence of economic factors on faith in democracy. The survey found that a significant predictor of political distrust was negative perception of economic opportunity. Similarly, a recent survey conducted by the Hans Böckler Foundation in Germany showed a correlation between anti-democratic attitudes and dissatisfaction with working conditions, status, income and perceived stress on maintaining a standard of living.
"The Government should raise the minimum wage, expand opportunities for workers in low-paid jobs to reskill
European Social Survey data on political trust in Ireland from 2019 found far greater distrust in politicians, the Dáil and political parties than in the Garda and the legal system. Only Germany, France, the UK, and Italy (all leading Nato countries), conveyed greater distrust in politicians. Tellingly, trust levels decreased dramatically after the financial crisis, only slowly rising with economic recovery.
How, then, in the current context, can policymakers generate greater trust in democracy, especially democracy as defined as open, respectful of diversity of opinions, and fair electoral processes (eg not the “illiberal” democracy propagated by Orban, Trump, Le Pen and others)?
Irish policymakers should heed the connection between perceived economic opportunity and trust in the political system. This means thinking broadly about needed economic, educational and health support for low and even middle-income households, and where the government can fast-track initiatives.
For instance, the Government could accelerate the implementation of community health networks, provide more funding for community health workers, invest in community-based childcare schemes, push for more compulsory purchases of derelict properties and expand public transportation networks. At the same time, the Government should raise the minimum wage, expand opportunities for workers in low-paid jobs to reskill, and reinvest in community-based employment-support services that personalise job searches and career development, unlike target-based approaches for job placement.
By being ambitious and far-reaching, the Government would demonstrate how democracy offers hope, especially for those who could easily have none.
Dr. Shana Cohen is the Director of TASC.
She studied at Princeton University and at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received a PhD in Sociology. Her PhD analyzed the political and social consequences of market reform policies in Morocco for young, educated men and women. Since then, she has continued to conduct research on how economic policies have influenced political and social identity, particularly in relation to collective action and social activism.
She has taught at George Washington University, the University of Sheffield, and most recently, University of Cambridge, where she is still an Affiliated Lecturer and Associate Researcher. Her areas of teaching have included global social policy, globalization, and human services.
Before coming to TASC, she was Deputy Director of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. In her role at the Institute, she became engaged with interfaith and intercultural relations in Europe, India, and the Middle East.
Beyond academic research, Shana has extensive experience working with NGOs and community-based organizations in a number of countries, including Morocco, the US, the UK, and India. This work has involved project design, management, and evaluation as well as advocacy. She has consulted for the World Bank, the Grameen Bank Foundation, and other private foundations and trusts.