Democracy is built on the values of citizenship and the equal freedom of each and every individual. The rights and duties of each citizen entail recognition of the equal standing of every member of the political community in the democratic process. Recognition of the other is built into the fabric of democratic societies even though the clash of interests, intense political debates and febrile media shapes everyday life. Democratic politics accommodates criticism, rejection and the routine removal of parties from power; it persists in the face of intense daily conflict because there is a broad commitment to the idea of fair rules that apply to each and all and that the political process is better off with these rules than without. Accommodation of difference, in one form or another, is the bedrock of democracy.
Of course, this process is compromised in liberal democracies, especially those dominated by the private funding of elections, interest group politics and lobbying, media beholden to sensationalism, click-bait and lopsided narratives, and the structurally privileged position of capital. Nonetheless, what distinguishes liberal democracies from fascism and authoritarianism is the necessity of compromise and acceptance of accommodation as the sine qua non of politics. Accommodation can be, and most often is, only very thin. This minimum settlement upon which a society rests rarely includes consensus on even a small range of issues, except the minimum rules of the game. Indeed, more often this settlement is the stage on which political contestation and ideological struggle play themselves out. This is nothing new. What appears different about many contemporary challenges facing liberal democracies is that this foundation, the bedrock of accommodation, appears not only to be thin, but cracking.
There is always a risk in times of heightened economic and political tensions that the bedrock of accommodation is challenged and, in extreme cases, weakened. Symptoms of this can include the flare up of violence and the escalation of exclusionary rhetoric. Democracies, just like other forms of states, are not strangers to such developments. Yet there is evidence of a recent intensification of violence of diverse kinds; from terrorism in Paris, Brussels and Nice to attacks against migrants and the incitement of violence at political rallies. Terrorism is by definition the negation of the differences between judge, jury and executioner. The rule of law is collapsed into the murderous will of the terrorist or terrorist organisation. This remains true even though, of course, much of this violence stems from the delusional post-9/11 wars and failed interventions. These were wars of choice: ill-conceived armed conflicts which created a lawless postwar landscape marked by the rise of brutal sectarianism and heinous crimes against humanity. If you enter a war using the principle of cowboy politics – shoot first, ask questions later – it can hardly be a surprise that war triggers instability, lawlessness and the rise of new militant groups.
The pressures on the politics of accommodation do not just come from these diverse forms of political violence, but also from the troubled responses to them as well. Across the United States and Europe there have been extensive attempts to securitise many elements of society through, for instance, the extensive use of surveillance, the suspension of certain civil liberties, the militarization of civilian police forces, and the creation of rules which permit extended detention. Securitisation becomes the catchword for the organisation of a great deal of domestic activity. In short, the exceptional politics of armed conflict – with the necessary suspension of certain citizenship rights in the interest of national security – becomes a standard feature of domestic politics. The military industrial complex, so brilliantly understood in the 1950s for the first time, becomes the entrenched feature of the Anglo-American world, yielding, perversely, the most resilient institutional architecture of the 21st century. In this landscape, America stands out further as the armed camp of the Western world, whilst domestically its social welfare systems, public schools, and transportation infrastructure stumble and weaken. Not only does the US spend more on its military than the next seven largest military budgets combined, but a great number of its citizens are armed and ever-ready to shoot to kill. Headlines and media are drawn to the “mass killings” of American streets but these are only the tip of the iceberg of American gun violence. With an average of more than 35 people killed by guns every day in America, every day is a mass killing.
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Yet even in this fraught and imperfect world, the idea of the politics of accommodation can still just about survive. Compromises are still made, negotiations continue, and rhetoric rises and falls with the ebb and flow of democratic politics. Barring some extreme examples, legislators from different sides of the aisle still talk and have coffee, as do households with intense differences of opinion. However, even this thin common ground is slipping away. All ideologies regard their views as right, but in politics of accommodation opposing views are at least considered valid. This no longer appears to be the case, with opponents and opposing views increasingly delegitimised and discarded, and their advocates mocked, dehumanised and threatened. The clearest examples of the collapse of politics of accommodation come from extremists who see only their views as right and valid. Enter the politics of Donald Trump on the one side, and UKIP and Brexit on the other.
Trump has seized his moment in the current US election cycle by tapping into the rage and grief of disaffected, white, working class, and typically undereducated, American men. His surrogates would, of course, point to other supporter groups but these remain at the far margins of his base. Trump propelled himself to the forefront of nationalistic agendas by initially promising that he would expel 11m undocumented immigrants, build a wall along the Southern border and make Mexico pay for it. At the time this seemed absurd, but today it might be looked back on as one of his milder moments. He has publicly mocked a disabled reporter, proudly offered numerous sexist and misogynist attacks on journalists and Hillary Clinton, sought (albeit inconsistently) to ban the entry of all Muslims into the US, openly criticised ‘Gold Star’ parents, suggested 2nd amendment ‘solutions’ to Hillary Clinton, refused to distance himself from an advisor repeatedly calling for Sec. Clinton’s execution, and most recently appointed Steve Bannon as his third campaign manager – the former head of a website that embraces white nationalism.
Trump has become the poster child of the alt-right movement, who now consoles his crowds with the claim that the only way he will lose is through cheating and corruption. Senior republican leaders have tried to distance themselves from Trump and his firebrand strategies, but their attempts are weak and disingenuous as best. Trump makes sense as the leader of the Republican party, because his candidacy was tailor-made for him by the party over the last eight years, as they stoked xenophobia and embraced the role of grievance party in lieu of compromise and governance. Lest it be forgotten, Trump began to make a name for himself in politics as the leader of the ‘birther’ movement questioning President Obama’s nationality and religion. His rantings earned him primetime TV spots and little to no rebuke from Republican leaders.
While Trump stands out, he is far from alone. Nigel Farage stood next to him at the Republican convention espousing a slew of issues all too familiar to the British electorate. While Farage was not part of the official Brexit campaign, both stoked up fears of being overrun by migrants, of a British society diluted by the cultures of others, of a country almost overrun by a foreign enemy – Brussels – and projected fears into a false utopia of an independently wealthy Britain restored to its former imperial greatness. The EU referendum became a contest about immigration and peoples’ anxieties, particularly of white working class ‘ordinary’ men who worry about a loss of standing in the world. It stoked up xenophobia, nationalism, and mocked European politicians, creating a level of vitriolic rhetoric in which the truth was routinely sacrificed for political advantage. Both Trump and the Brexiteers have a wholly cavalier attitude to the truth, mocking all those that contradict them and ridiculing professionals and experts who might have a contrary view. The reductio ad absurdum in this spiral of deceit was the Brexit battle bus with its promise of £350m a week to be redirected to the NHS if Britain voted Leave. This brazen falsehood, even when it became glaringly apparent that it could never be realised (and accepted as such by Nigel Farage), was still referred to approvingly by figures such as Boris Johnson.
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When the political system becomes indifferent to falsehood and deceit on seismic levels, and even offers promotion to those who champion lies, democracy becomes vulnerable and highly fragile. And when those who oppose this are ridiculed and cast aside, the politics of accommodation has begun to fracture. Add to this the increase in xenophobia and it is hardly a surprise that there has been a peak in hate crime.
Trump and the Brexiteers are just two of the more recent examples of this accelerating collapse of the politics of accommodation. From Le Pen and the National Front in France to Golden Dawn in Greece, to Norbert Hofer in Austria, and to the Danish People’s Party in Denmark, the rise of the far right is a sustained and troubling trend. The retreat to nationalism and militant identity politics is counter to the process of accommodation that has underpinned European peace since the end of the Second World War. It is as if all that was learnt in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust and Gulag risks being undone. And yet, it would be false to assign all responsibility for the erosion of accommodation to right-wing politics. Exclusionary politics can, and does, come from all sides of the political spectrum and has clear manifestations on the far-left in Britain, France and Germany to name a few. The difference between the far-left and far/alt-right is that the former remains at the margins at the time of writing, while the latter has been galvanized and empowered in some critical respects.
A tough test for any politics of accommodation, liberal or otherwise, is how a political community addresses the issue of refugees and migration more generally. Western democracies have jealously guarded the privileges for those inside their borders from those that stand outside. This is not new. What is new is the diminished voice for an alternative, inclusive, more human rights-based treatment of all migrants. The calamitous failure of the European Union to provide an effective and humanitarian solution to the migration crisis bears adequate testimony to this as the EU, like the gated communities of American suburbs, seeks protection behind high walls and barbed wire fences. There are exceptions, of course; the actions of Germany, admitting initially a million migrants in one year, being a case in point. But overall, the story of migration in Europe over the past three years has been indicative of an exclusionary disposition and a deeply hypocritical political stance – championing universal human rights whilst keeping the needy at bay. Even though the politics of accommodation rarely achieves what it sets out to do, it keeps the door open to the search for better solutions, better compromises and better policies. This search is built into the bedrock of democracy both as a foundational principle and a performative requirement; yet it is a search that seems increasingly called off.
Of course, we have been here before. The 1930s saw the rise of xenophobia and nationalism in the context of prolonged and protracted economic strife, the lingering impact of World War I, weak international institutions and a desperate search for scapegoats. The 2010s has notable parallels: the protracted fallout of the global financial crisis, ineffective regional and international institutions, the cumulative negative impact of the failed post-9/11 wars, the intensification of transnational terrorism, and a growing xenophobic discourse that places virtually all blame for every problem on some form of Other. In the 1930s the politics of accommodation gave way to the politics of dehumanisation, war and slaughter. In the 2010s we are taking steps down a dangerously similar path. One question remains: will knowing this help us choose a different route?
The stakes are very high when liberal democracy is no longer played out in a confident and inclusive way but, rather, is driven by insecurity, exclusiveness and fear. At issue is whether and to what extent the equal moral standing of each and all, social and political tolerance, human rights, and the equal liberty of all persons in the democratic process continue to play a constitutive role in contemporary political life. When the politics of accommodation is under pressure, and patience for the protracted world of deliberation, negotiation and compromise runs out, the temptation is to look for short cuts, for political leaders who might impose their charismatic, albeit arbitrary, will. The dangers are all too obvious – a political system, rigged in favour in the privileged, increasingly impervious to opposition and challenge and in the hands of those who would corrupt it further. The alternative is to recover the constitutive elements of the politics of accommodation, the core ideas and concepts of democratic public life mediated by the rule of law and accountable to all citizens. But this alternative seems more insecure than at any point in the post-war years.
This column was first published on OpenDemocracy