Is free democracy really threatened? The evidence is that this is not the case. Indeed, despite outrage over several issues – not least housing – official data shows how few divisions exist in Irish society.
Since last Sunday’s French presidential election, although the center won comfortably, there has been talk all week that Emmanuel Macron will fight to unite a divided France and that he will face a backlash from angry voters.
In the US, Joe Biden has been told he must reunite a divided country. And Great Britain is also apparently divided, not least over Brexit.
In almost any liberal democracy you choose, you will see claims that there are deep divisions in society and that the next election will present a grave choice between one path to destruction and another to salvation.
Of course, politics – real politics – is more prosaic. France has received too many votes for the extreme right and this country does not seem to be a happy place, but was it ever satisfied?
The French take discontent seriously, and they are good at it.
However, the British and Americans are usually more optimistic, so the election of buffoons like Trump and Boris Johnson was worrying. And we have seen in Hungary that the election of illiberals like Viktor Orbán can lead to the dismantling of liberal democracies.
So there should be no room for complacency. But is liberal democracy really under threat in the West?
The threat comes from populism on the left and right, from people politically alienated from the establishment.
Trump has failed to break liberal democracy. That doesn’t mean someone more competent couldn’t come along and try.
There is a younger generation that might be open to questioning liberal democracy. A study published in late 2020 showed that millennials (those born between the 1980s and the mid-1990s) had much less support for democracy than those born before them. The next age cohort, Generation Z, is likely to be less attached to liberal democracy.
Why shouldn’t they be? If you were born in Ireland in the late 1990s you have no experience of the 1980s recessions or the violence in Northern Ireland. Putting an end to this was two of the great successes achieved by politics.
What has the policy delivered if you are Irish and in your late 20s? or early 30s?
You’re remembering a spectacular economic crash — and while we’re getting over it, you may be spending a good chunk of your salary renting a room, or still living with your parents. Going out is becoming too expensive and the prospect of buying a home is endlessly out of reach.
Politically you have come of age as liberal democracy has won some significant victories on abortion and gay marriage. That probably whetted your appetite for more change, and you might be frustrated that it didn’t come sooner — forget the literal decades of groundwork others have done to achieve Eighth Amendment repeal and same-sex marriage.
Then there is the view that younger generations are much more intolerant of people who differ from their own opinions.
Last week one Irish times The columnist asked what could be done to prevent a senator from expressing views on surrogacy that the columnist does not condone. Detachment from liberal values seems real.
This is part of the alleged culture war that is dividing countries. If young people are angry, less attached to democracy, and intolerant of others, we could see the emergence of a left-wing populist party that could threaten democracy.
The obvious candidate for that in Ireland is Sinn Féin – but despite its questionable attachment to parliamentary methods, it and every other major party is a coalition of many people of different generations and backgrounds, representing many political views.
I looked at data from the Irish National Election Study 2020 and one thing was clear how few divisions there are in Irish society.
Despite last week’s turf wars, rural and urban dwellers are almost equally likely to side with the green side when asked whether we should prioritize environmental protection or economic growth.
And that despite howls of outrage that rural Ireland will never put up with it. In fact, they probably will. The country is not so divided.
No matter what question you looked at, it was difficult to find two different groups fighting over it.
Most people are the focus of most issues. There are many people with different opinions, sure – but there are not two Irelands.
And that doesn’t mean there isn’t general dissatisfaction. Housing is still a big problem and it is not being solved as quickly as people would like.
I had a conversation with a student last week who expressed the view that she “doesn’t think Sinn Féin will be any different, but we have to give them a chance”. These are not radicals, but it will frustrate young people if their vote is never translated into a change of government.
In 2020, Sinn Féin portrayed itself as being locked out of government by interest groups — although it never had an interest in the compromise that would come with it.
Macron feels he is defending the interests of the elites. And many of those who voted for Le Pen last week are not racists, they are just frustrated.
Sometimes people just want change.
Eoin O’Malley teaches Politics and Public Policy at DCU
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/people-wanting-change-does-not-put-liberal-democracy-at-risk-41603936.html Those who want change do not endanger liberal democracy