A sweeping exploration of how voter apathy, distrust of government, ideological extremism, and economic inequality point to a crisis of democracy.
Along with many contemporary political analysts, such as William Davies and Timothy Snyder, Reid-Henry (Geography/Queen Mary, Univ. of London; The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World is Better for Us All, 2015, etc.), a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, is alarmed about the erosion of civic engagement and “loss of moral legitimacy” in Western democracies. Democracy, he asserts, is struggling to live up to its core value: a “commitment to reconciling pluralism with political justice.” In a capacious, hugely ambitious study of the last 40 years, the author chronicles when and how this crisis began. In the 1980s, tension between freedom and equality, individual demands and common needs, intensified under the “laissez-faire market economics” of the U.S. and U.K. Tax cuts undermined publicly funded mandates, regulation and oversight were rolled back, and public entities such as schools and prisons were handed over to for-profit businesses. Social welfare programs were “defunded, outsourced, means-tested,” and the family, rather than the community, was touted as “the central unit” of society. By the end of the 20th century, Reid-Henry asserts, “the reigning liberal blueprint was that of societies governed at a distance”; “collective thinking” was subsumed by individual interests. Moreover, wealth gained outsized influence, with public policies increasingly enacted not “to safeguard democracy” but, with great vigor, “to save capitalism.” In the current climate, politicians focus on how to win support from “powerful business lobbies, corporate managers, and international finance” rather than on promoting and publicizing a democratic political vision. Instead of debating issues, politicians now rely on “charisma” to win over voters. The author’s cogent analysis is undermined at times by convoluted prose, and although his evidence is abundant and compelling, the book might well have been judiciously honed. Nevertheless, he conveys an important message: Individual political action must become accountable to society’s interests.
A persuasive argument that democratic values can be revived.