Derek Mooney: Democratic Threat Levels?


From top: Irish Times’ New Year’s Eve 2018 message; David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends; Derek Mooney

A well-known Irish politician once allegedly opined that: “Irish Times editorials read as if they were written by an auld wan sitting in a bath of lukewarm water”. He may also have suggested, a little more colourfully, that the bathwater reached less than halfway up the tub.

The bath water must have been on the chillier side of lukewarm December 29th’s editorial entitled: “Democracy in Retreat” was being written. It expressed an almost dystopian concern that democracy is now under threat across the globe.

It cited a range of phenomena and political shifts to support its claim, including: Trump, Brexit, the rise of populism of nationalism and of xenophobia and the gains made by the both the far-left and far-right.

Even as I sit down to start writing this piece more evidence, which would seem to support the Irish Times line, is appearing with videos of the vile and nasty abuse Tory MP Anna Soubry endured on Parliament Square yesterday at the hands of a gang of ultra-hard-line brexiteers.

The irony of a group of aggressive and loutish middle-aged men trying to intimidate and bully an elected representative who is doing nothing more than expressing her sincerely held views, while calling her a Nazi and fascist is doubtless lost on them.

More worryingly it also seemed lost on the band of pundits and commentators who took to Twitter to suggest that Soubry was responsible for what was happening.

Though not the worst of them, the Conservative blogger and columnist Tim Montgomerie, who usually makes a virtue of his liberal democratic credentials, wrote:

“The abuse is unacceptable and I condemn it but a parliamentarian who advocates overturning a referendum result she promised to respect should not be surprised at unleashing such ugliness.”

The rough translation into plain English of these weasel words is:

I should be deeply embarrassed by some of my fellow brexiteers and should be finding a way to see how we can unite to tackle the extremists but, instead, I want people to blame Soubry and others for not going along with us and persisting in having views of their own

Are these all threats to very existence and continuance of democracy or are they the challenges that we cyclically face that serve to knock us out of our complacency and remind us that democracy can be fragile is at all times worth protecting and defending.

Is there a really and systemic threat to democracy today, or is what we are seeing with Trump, Brexit, populism etc., a worrying but manageable response to the climate of uncertainty following the 2008 global crash?

Indeed, has there ever been a time in modern history when, in the aftermath of an economic crash, there hasn’t been a group of people sitting in lukewarm baths thinking that the world outside their immediate social circle was going to hell in a handcart?

We should not be surprised that many people question the competence of their democratic and political institutions when the events of the past decade suggest that world of finance and banking has more sway than democracies.

Neither should we be complacent about the future of liberal democracy when the claim can be made that some banks are a bigger source of repression than extremist regimes.

Yes, there are very worrying signs and trends across Europe and the Globe.

Yes, far too many people feel that governments serve the vested interests of others and are not responsive to them, but all is not yet lost.

As the pro market economy academic Johan Norberg has argued:

”Contrary to what most of us believe, our progress over the past few decades has been unprecedented. By almost any index you care to identify, things are markedly better now than they have ever been for almost everyone alive.”

On almost every single metric life is better now than it was in the past. The world is now a safer, better educated and more peaceful place than it was.

It is a trend that continued in 2018.

Global poverty is falling steadily with more people being lifted out of poverty worldwide – at a rate of about 125,000 per day – than fall into it.

While there are still wholescale atrocities being carried out in Syria, Yemen and Sub Saharan Africa (Sth Sudan Mali, Chad etc), according to the Global Terrorism Index 2018 deaths from terrorism declined by 27% last year and are now 44% below their peak. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) the number of war fatalities is dropping and is now half of what it was four years ago.

At 3.9% the global child mortality rate is still far too high, but it is half what it was in 1998. According to UNESCO there are now 99.7 girls in primary and secondary schools for every hundred boys.

Democracies own numbers are also on the rise. According to any of the four academic ratings systems used to classify political systems in various counties around the globe, the proportion of democracies is at an all-time high. The Polity measure says the percentage that are now democratic is 59% compared to 50% in 2000.

Where there is an issue is the number of those democracies earning the top score. In 2005, 32% scored the top mark, that had fallen 28% by 2016 – though bear in mind that was during the period when the number of democracies significantly increased.

I could go on quoting stats, but you hopefully get the point.

The examples that the Irish Times gave are just as real as the ones I offer. So, where lies the balance?

I am, perhaps, being a bit unfair to Irish Times. I am sure their editorial was intended, on the eve of 2019, as a call to action: a reminder that we all have duty to protect the democracy that ultimately protects all of us.

It’s a call I heartily endorse, but I would strongly suggest that what is now in threat is not democracy itself – and at this point it is worth noting that their editorial was based on the warnings contained in David Runciman’s book: How Democracy Ends – but rather the norms of tolerance and fair play that underpin democratic discourse.

Picking the right target would make be easier to call more people to action – especially if you avoid telling them that the cause you are calling them to is destined to fail. Perhaps the lapping of lukewarm bath water took their mind off this?

Derek Mooney is a communications and public affairs consultant. He previously served as a Ministerial Adviser to the Fianna Fáil-led government 2004 – 2010. His column appears here every Tuesday Follow Derek on Twitter: @dsmooney

15 thoughts on “Derek Mooney: Democratic Threat Levels?

  1. SOQ

    What is democracy anyways?

    The Brexiteers claim another referendum would be undemocratic- double speak at its finest.

    And then there is capitalism, which is far from democratic, as evidenced by its ability to prosper in communist countries like China.

  2. curmudgeon

    Hey Derek maybe look slightly further a field than the local rags for evidence that democracy is on the way out

    March 2018 – Xi Jinping delclares himself president of China for life

    2017 – Erdogan continues to rule Turkey with an iron fist – deletes office of Prime minister and assumes its power.

    2014 – Putin annexes ukraine, 2016 assists Trump and Brexit campaign via social media fraud/sock puppets, 2017 threatens Lithuanian President with annexation ala Ukraine. 2018 gets re-elected and hosts World Cup!

  3. :-Joe

    Still waiting… but not really… for the gory details of what it was like to be an adviser to a ff/fg government when they drove the economy through the centre of the earths core and plunged Irelansd into austerity on the back of lies a.k.a quantative easing for the benefit of bondholders, shareholders and private foreign global corporate finance interests…

    …. In the greatest transfer(HI-JACKING) of public finances into private wealth funds in human history…

    Your argument of the world “constantly getting better, no need to worry so look elsewhere”, is reminiscent of the attitude ot the same political ideology you supported that ruined many ordinary decent people and most likely you still support the same interests.

    Social democracy is under serious threat and in decline as we move further into the third industrial revolution. A revoloution that will excacerbate econim inequality as the undeserved get wealthier and the deserved get poorer. Telling people not to worry is arrogant and irresponsible but typical nonsense of the sort from the flag waving party political pseudo intellectuals that you seem to want to be a part of.

    You should spill the beans on what you know and why the ff/fg party are so corrupt and serve their self interests and the interests of private foreign financial interests at the expense of the society as a whole.

    Otherwise it’s impossible to take you seriously and your just another spin merchant with an idealogical agenda rooted in the self interests of your auld pals in the establishment.


  4. f_lawless

    “what is now in threat is not democracy itself.. but rather the norms of tolerance and fair play that underpin democratic discourse”. I think the biggest threat currently is that neoliberalism – aka global corporatism – has compromised democratic systems, globally, it’s causing vast wealth/power inequality and gravely endangering our very ecosystem.

    1. SOQ


      What happens if (or when) the multi nationals pull out out of Ireland? Which they will do in a heartbeat if it suits them.The tax take halves for a start.

  5. Truth in the News

    The greatest threat to Democracy is Brussells where an elite dictate by directives
    is it any wonder the red blooded Norman Anglo Saxons who relied on subjugation
    to rule took flight:

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