This week’s events in two of the world’s leading democracies reveal that humans have not quite evolved enough. They also exemplify the tension between the two main survival methods of early humans as they roamed the savannah thousands of years in groups of 50 to 100.
One was to cooperate within the group, helping each other with the tasks of food, shelter, clothing and rearing the young – collective decision-making.
The other was to be fiercely loyal to your own tribe and its leader and to be violently suspicious of anyone else – kill them before they kill you. The leaders of these packs were only ever replaced by violence.
Trump’s speech to the United Nations was uncharacteristically enlightening. Trump said patriotism, and therefore nationalism, were more important than co-operation and internationalism. He said it, probably without realising the significance, in the very international hall of cooperation, the United Nations building in New York.
He drilled down to that fundamental conflict of the human condition. He used it to appeal to his tribal base, urging them to kill or destroy those that threaten it. Yes, “kill”. That is the fate he proposed for the Ukraine-phonecall whistleblower who he called a traitor and spy and who in earlier times would have been executed.
Similarly, in Britain, Boris Johnson and his tribe of hard-right Brexiteers use the language of violence to denounce anyone not in their tribe.
We naively thought at the beginning of this century that there was inexorable progress towards liberal democracy, international co-operation and the eschewing of violence to settle disputes. We thought that collaboration and co-operation would improve the human condition.
Sadly, to borrow some of Thomas Hardy’s words, it now seems that liberal democracy has been but an occasional episode in a general drama of autocracy.
Its episodic nature has been seen in the collapse of ancient Greece; the overthrow of the Roman republic by autocrats; the rise of the dictators in the 1930s and now autocrats replacing democratic rule in places like Russia, the Philippines, Hungary and Poland and half a dozen other mid-range countries.
But until very recently, we did not imagine the trend would spread to the democractic Anglo-sphere.
Twenty-first century autocracy is fundamentally one-man rule (and it is invariably a man), but it takes a subtler form than past autocracies. There is a veneer of democracy in that the autocrat gets “elected”, albeit in a system rigged by voter fraud or media manipulation and nobbling of freedom of speech and assembly.
Also there is rule by law, as distinct from rule of law.
In the US and Britain, the “election” of both Trump and Johnson were questionable. Both countries now have tainted electoral systems. Electoral boundaries in the US are rigged by Republican-held state legislatures. The Electoral College system gives more weight to low-population pro-Republican states so Trump won even though Hilary Clinton had more votes.
State legislatures make it far too difficult for a lot of low-income people to get on and stay on the rolls.
In Britain, voluntary voting and the first past-the-post system biases the result towards the Conservatives. This is amplified with a pro-Conservative press.
The rule of law is being abused in both countries. Johnson declares he will move Britain out of the EU come what may, irrespective of the fact that Parliament has passed a law saying he must seek an extension if he does not obtain a deal that Parliament has approved. Johnson says he is going to ignore that law, at least in spirit.
Trump threatens to close borders and inflict unlawful violence on people trying to cross the border.
He flouts laws about campaign finance, seeking help from foreign governments for personal gain and regularly obtains personal gain when his hotels are used by government employees and foreign visitors.
The erosion of the principles of liberal democracy have been gradual, so gradual indeed that many people still regard the US and Britain as prime examples of liberal democracy.
The erosion, though to a much lesser extent is happening in Australia, too. At least our compulsory voting system will be a bulwark against political leaders pursuing extremes and pandering to their tribe.
Another attribute of autocracy is the artful use of propaganda and victimology. From Caesar to Mussolini to Hitler to Trump to Johnson the autocrat is the victim, blaming someone else for their and their nation’s woes, and appealing to their tribe’s sympathy and support. They cunningly use propaganda to turn legitimate accusations of unlawful or immoral by them into almost identical accusations against their opponents in the knowledge that in the eyes of their tribe, the mud will stick.
We have seen Trump accuse his opponents of the very things he is guilty of: corruption and abuse of power.
These are dangerous times for liberal democracies and liberal democrats. We in Australia should be especially vigilant now because Britain and the US have for all of our existence been the prime examples to which we have looked up to and followed. If they lurch to autocracy we will have to be robust enough to say they are our examples no more.
Johnson’s obvious intent to breach the law requiring extension has followed his actual breach of the law with the unlawful prorogation of Parliament.
Australians must also be wary of the gradual transmogrification from the rule of law to the rule by laws. There are laws in China, but that does not make it a rule-of-law country.
Increasingly, Australia is passing laws which breach reasonable standards of freedom under the guise of fighting terrorism. Whereas they are really aimed as intimidating journalists and whistle-blowers who embarrass the government with disclosures of malfeasance.
We are lucky that the states and the Senate can be forces against autocracy, but all too often, the Executive has been all too willing to flex its muscles.
Abraham Lincoln’s words are as important now as they were in 1863 that we should work to ensure “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 5 October 2019.