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2024: The year of elections

In his classic 19th-century work Democracy in America, the politician-cum-philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville looked to the democratic system in America with deep envy. In this system, he perceived a largely egalitarian society in which the virtues of industry and social cooperation contributed to America’s functional democracy; a state which contemporary France could only aspire to with its deeply divided society and disempowered citizens. If Tocqueville thought that democracy worked – and he was certainly sceptical – it had to be based in liberty and equality, and connect self-interest with the interest of the whole.

As more than four billion people in countries across the world are preparing to vote in elections this year, Tocqueville’s tenuous democratic ideal is in real jeopardy, not least in the country which he deeply admired, the United States. The presence of a Republican party dominated by politicians who brazenly flout the key tenets of democracy, such as election integrity, suggests that there is much at risk. To be sure, the ideological draw of democracy remains strong, especially as it is threatened; in America that imperative was the driving force behind Joe Biden’s victory. Yet in 2024 the stage is set to see whether the kind of liberal democracy that has characterised the post-Cold War order, and in some cases even democracy itself, can survive.

The deeply divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, selected by Republicans for the third time as presidential candidate, is an anathema to the sort of civic unity that Tocqueville prescribed. On a more tangible level, his threats to dismantle NATO and the FBI, and persecute political enemies must be taken seriously. The best picture we have of how a second Trump term would materialise is in the Project 2025 of the conservative Heritage Foundation; New York Times writer Carlos Lozada has argued it ‘portrays the president as the personal embodiment of popular will and treats the law as an impediment to conservative governance’.

Calling the Republicans the ‘Grand Old Party’ now seems an anachronistic misnomer for an organisation whose senators and congressmen are increasingly uniform in their support for explicitly anti-democratic claims that Joe Biden’s 2020 victory was stolen. This was made clear in the 2022 Midterm elections, where according to a study by FiveThirtyEight, 60% of Americans had an election denier on the ballot, including 119 Republican nominees who fully denied the 2020 election results. But the sort of political malaise which is empowering once-fringe extremists certainly does not suffer from American exceptionalism. As goes the old saying, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold: if the unprecedented third place finish of the far-right Chega party in Portugal’s March election, led by sports commentator turned demagogue André Ventura, is any indication of the results of June’s European Parliament elections, it is a decidedly ominous one.

The recent surge in popularity of far-right movements in Europe and the United States reflects the increasing disillusion of electorates on both sides of the Atlantic  with the political status quo; and in 2024 it appears that the traditional political establishment will be forced to compromise with them to govern. This includes figures such as Herbert Kickl, leader of the Austrian far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), who at the party’s 2024 New Year’s rally was hailed as Austria’s “future Volkskanzler”, a phrase first applied to Adolf Hitler in 1933. Kickl’s condemnation of what he calls the Systemkanzler (the system’s chancellor) and Systemmedien (the system’s media) in Austria is highly reminiscent of ’deep state’ Trumpian rhetoric, and while it may not present such a direct threat to Austrian democracy, it certainly serves to undermine people’s faith in the institutions that are so central to democracy, such as an independent judiciary and media.

The emergence of far-right politicians across Europe will also have the effect of undermining the strength and unity of the EU. Born out of the European Coal and Steel Community, and the desperate need for post-war reconciliation and reconstruction, the EU’s grand founding ideals are being tested by the language of, among others, the leader of the German party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) Alice Weidel, who has called for Germany’s own ‘Dexit’. Even if the chances of that are slim, it still represents a startling shift in discourse from just ten years ago, when AfD were much more marginal.

Anti-establishment populist movements which are shunning compromise and moderation across the world, put the social and political underpinnings of democracy under great strain. Crucially, in Europe, far-right fortunes have been buoyed by serious economic stagnation, including in Austria where GDP contracted by 0.5% in 2023 and inflation remained above the Eurozone average. This is providing the impetus for disillusioned voters to buy into the rhetoric of radical politicians such as Kickl or the Netherlands’s Geert Wilders.

At the same time, polls seem to suggest that an increasing number of European voters might be fed up with other aspects of the liberal politics that have been so dominant in post-war Europe. Widespread farmers’ protests at the start of 2024 were fuelled by what Lancaster University professor Renaud Foucart has identified as major opposition to the European Green Deal and environmental measures farmers see as disproportionately targeting them in the move to net zero. It is this profound alienation from the state that leads such rural voters into the arms of the far right; it is no coincidence that Weidel’s AfD is involving itself in German farmers’ protests.

The incursion of the political far-right threatens to have tangible political ramifications. The potential effects on policy are clear. Consider the EU’s Nature restoration law crucial to the European Green New Deal, a landmark set of legislation approved in 2020, which aims to support the EU’s transition to net zero by 2050. Whilst the NRL was passed in the European Parliament in July 2023, Simon van Teutem, DPhil candidate in Politics at Nuffield College and columnist at De Correspondent, noted that with “current projected faction seats, it would have faced defeat.”

Rightwing rhetoric also carries the threat of geopolitical upheaval. As Ukraine’s war effort hangs in the balance, Trump’s threat to end military aid and even leave NATO will undoubtedly embolden Putin. And nor will the significance of the collapse of the joint European-American military commitment be lost on Xi in China: as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently argued, signs of Western disunity “will invite challenges from those who wish us harm”. He did not mince his words in making clear “It is Ukraine today. Taiwan could be tomorrow”, speaking directly to a GOP increasingly sceptical of America’s role in the transatlantic alliance.

Indeed, it seems that 2024 will prove the ultimate rejoinder to the argument of Francis Fukuyama’s already roundly attacked 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’ – that of the inexorable spread of liberal democracy. While 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2016 Brexit and Trump votes did much to erode that essay’s post-Cold War triumphalism, in 2024 there seems a genuine risk of the very tenets of liberal democracy beginning to crumble, even in those countries once seen as its bulwarks.

India is a case in point. In what has been known as the world’s largest democracy, the near-inevitable victory of Modi’s BJP suggests that the erosion of press and judicial freedoms looks set to continue, or even intensify, whilst the party creates a space for dangerous and violent Hindu nationalism, which comes at the expense of India’s vast Muslim minority.

And while so much hangs in the political balance with the 2024 elections, the rise of AI promises some sort of disruption – and opportunities for states like Russia to cause chaos and spread misinformation. The 2019 Mueller Report made clear the extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election, spreading disinformation and hacking voter registration systems; with deep fakes that are virtually indistinguishable from reality, there is a very real threat of more disinformation in 2024. The potential ramifications of this were made apparent in last year’s Slovakian election, in which a fake recording of opposition candidate Michal Šimečka plotting to buy votes went viral on social media. Once touted as a force for political good, social media threatens to further alienate voters from the establishment, promoting misinformation and extremism at the expense of the truth./ In his L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Tocqueville stated what would become an infamous sociological thesis for the causes of 1789: that Frenchmen, increasingly divided and inward-looking, had lost any reason to compromise or cooperate, and that when the Revolution came French society was ripe for collapse. To suggest that such a situation is comparable to 2024 is of course wrong. But current polling for the 2024 elections suggests that people across the western world are increasingly willing to turn away from ‘status-quo’ candidates such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, towards once-fringe figures like Marine le Pen. That this shift has coincided with the rise of social media, which offers individualised political feeds and an unprecedented means of disseminating disinformation, is perhaps unsurprising.

Of course, we should not be overly downbeat. If there is optimism to be found in assessing democracy’s fate, according to head of the Global State of Democracy Initiative by Sweden’s International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Kevin Casas-Zamora, it is perhaps in the vibrant displays of civic action across the world. In the widespread Israeli protests at highly controversial judicial reforms, or the Syrian protests against the country’s jihadist rulers to mark 13 years since the Arab Spring, there is hopeful evidence that the concept of democracy is still treasured by people across the world, despite attempts to undermine it.

Moreover, even when they have found electoral success, far-right parties have sometimes proved no more than paper tigers: in the case of Georgia Meloni, fears that she would shun Ukraine and act on anti-immigrant vitriol have not materialised, while in the Netherlands Wilders has not found sufficient parliamentary support to become prime minister. And there remains a plausible chance that, come November, American voters will be mobilised by a desire to reject Trump’s intensified MAGA agenda, and the party that overturned Roe v. Wade and the protected right of abortion, according to Democrat strategist Simon Rosenberg.

Yet 2024 nonetheless represents a year in which the global rise of illiberalism could make sweeping gains. If, as Fukuyama hubristically asserted in 1989, liberal democracy is the best political state of being (or that with the fewest weaknesses), the prospect of its universal adoption seems more out of reach than ever as the 2024 election season gets underway. Across the western world, genuine issues of economic inequalities and stagnation are being weaponised by far-right politicians in conjunction with a message of social rebellion, whether against the establishment and its institutions, or foreigners, or both.

While this election year is notable for its global quality, it is in November, with the American presidential election, that political scientists will wait with bated breath. If Trump is re-elected, and if his statements are anything to go by, it seems that he will rule not in the style of Abraham Lincoln’s Grand Old Party, nor of even of his first term, in which he was hindered by overly conscientious Washington staffers, including his own treacherous vice president Mike Pence, who refused to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory. Instead, his intentions for a second term seem to hark back to the anti-constitutional actions of the despot whom Tocqueville most despised, Napoleon III. Whether 2024 proves to be the watershed that 1851 was, when Louis-Napoleon seized dictatorial powers in a coup d’état in France, remains to be seen.

Artwork by Oliver Ray

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