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The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2016
Revenge of the “deplorables”

demands a wide-ranging investigation of its causes. In recent decades, political elites have become
unused to having their worldview challenged and have largely assumed that the values represented
by the liberal democratic consensus are shared by the vast majority of the electorate. The events of
2016 have proven that this is definitely not the case in the UK or the US and the populist advance
elsewhere suggests that it is probably not true for many other democracies in Europe.
Shock at the results and fear of the changes that they denote may help to explain the reluctance
of some opponents of Brexit and Trump to examine fully why they lost the political argument. Instead
of seeking to understand the causes of the popular backlash against the political establishment,
some have instead sought to delegitimise the Brexit and Trump outcomes by disparaging the values
of those who supported them. Even when they acknowledge that Brexit and Trump supporters had
legitimate reasons to be unhappy with the status quo, some commentators suggest that their views
and/or their choices are illegitimate. This negative interpretation of the seminal political events of
2016 fails to see anything encouraging in the increased political engagement and participation of
ordinary people.
The two votes captured the contradictions besetting contemporary democracy. They were
symptomatic of the problems of 21st-century representative democracy and, at the same time, of the
positive potential for overcoming them by increasing popular political participation. Insofar as they
engaged and mobilised normally quiescent or absentee voters—and the UK referendum campaign
was especially successful in this regard—the votes were a vindication of democracy. In their different
ways, both events expressed a desire, often inchoate, for more democracy, or at least something
better than what has been on offer in recent decades. The same can be said to a great degree of the
increasing support in Europe for populist or insurgent political parties which are challenging the
mainstream parties that have ruled since 1945. Of course, one referendum campaign or one populist
victory at the polls does not change anything in and of itself. Popular engagement and participation
need to be sustained to make a substantive difference to the quality of democracy. Populist victories
may raise expectations of change that end up being dashed (the recent experience of Greece is a
case in point), demoralising those who voted for it and encouraging more popular cynicism with the
functioning of democracy.
The predominant response among political elites to the events of 2016 has been to rue the
popular backlash against the democratic order and to interpret it as a threat to the future of liberal
democracy. Some have even questioned whether ordinary people should be trusted to make decisions
about important matters such as the UK’s membership of the EU. Yet the popular backlash against
the established order can also be seen as a consequence, not a cause, of the failings of contemporary
democracy. We explore the various factors that led to the 2016 backlash in the section entitled The
roots of the contemporary crisis of democracy.


© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2017