Liberal democracy will not survive if inequality keeps growing

More than any other political system, Liberal democracy requires people to feel hope for the future. Liberal democracy asks a lot of people. It asks people to be inclusive of difference, to accept reasonable wealth divides, and to peacefully accept the loss of their favoured party in elections and the passage of laws they may disagree with. Sustaining this requires people to believe that the future will be better than the present, and that the underlying system is fundamentally fair.

With income inequality rising to unprecedented levels, the basic system of liberal democracy is under severe threat. Hope for the future and belief in the fairness of our system is receding. As a result, around the world authoritarian leaders are coming closer and closer to power, running on platforms that are decidedly at odds with liberal democracy.

In Austria, the far-right Freedom Party lost the presidential election by only 0.6 per cent. In the UK, the referendum on EU membership is dead even, with opposition driven by heavy nationalistic sentiment. In the United States, Donald Trump – running an authoritarian campaign – is now tied with Hillary Clinton in the aggregate of polls.

This was inevitable. Because it allows open debate and the free exchange of ideas, liberal democracy creates space for its own opponents. There are always people who challenge the openness and inclusivity of liberal democratic societies, but their appeal is limited when people feel the system works for them. When that feeling is replaced with a feeling that the system is rigged, support for liberal democracy will crumble.

This is starting to happen, and unless the growth of inequality starts to reverse, it’s only going to get worse. The more inequality grows, the larger the audience modern day authoritarians will have. Democracies have shifted from freedom to facism before. It can happen again.

I’ll be writing much more about income inequality, as I believe it is the biggest issue of our time. If we can address it, there is incredible potential for a bright and hopeful future. But if it keeps getting worse, everything that seems solid, including our relatively open and free society could be lost.

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Photo credit: David Drexler (Flickr)

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