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Democracy in Peril: Volume 106 | No 423

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Bruce Bradley SJ
‘Is this the end of the west? Or at least of the Anglo-Saxon west?’ That apocalyptic question was raised by Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, some weeks ago in an article in The Guardian. He had in mind German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s misgivings about continental Europe’s ‘traditional cross-Channel and transatlantic allies’, as he commented on the current state of the world and, in particular, the dangerous dysfunctionality of President Donald Trump’s White House and the disastrous unfolding of Brexit in his own country, two stories which now seem to dominate the airwaves and fill our newspapers on a daily basis.
Present generations in this part of the world, at least, are having to get used to the idea that the stable political environment we have known since the end of the Second World War cannot be taken for granted and, by history’s standards, is anything but the norm. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the abortive ‘Arab spring’ which began in 2010 were not, after all, decisive stages in the march towards the inevitable triumph of western-style liberal democracy, as was hoped at the time, much less harbingers of Francis Fukuyama’s imagined ‘end of history’. Seen in the longer perspective, explored in some of the essays in this issue of Studies, devoted to the topic of democracy and the perils to which it has always been exposed, successful experiments in this form of government have been the exception rather than the rule and there is nothing to say that such a fragile and vulnerable system, for all its merits, shall prevail. Certainly, its survival appears to be in some peril at the present time.
Professor Thomas Mitchell sets the scene in his lucid presentation of democracy’s origins in fifth-century bc Athens and the remarkable legacy to which it has given rise. He highlights the uneven passage of this novel form of government and the hazards to which it was vulnerable from the beginning and by which it was finally done down. He writes,
The Athenian story shows that a system that gives power to the people can be susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous power-hungry politicians who court popular favour with often fanciful pledges to improve their lot, coupling that with an ultra-nationalist rhetoric designed to stir pride in the nation and generate a sense of superiority and an urge to be first and best. This can lead to a dangerous form of chauvinism, jealous of the nation’s superiority and fixated on visions of power and primacy. It can also lead to an ultra-nationalist, isolationist mentality leery of foreign influences, reluctant to extend citizenship and open its borders to non-nationals, and liable to resort to war rather than negotiation. More damaging still, it creates an aversion to international unions or alliances that in any way threaten to curtail the nation’s sovereignty or its right to determine its own best interests, blind to the obvious benefits of the peace, stability and increased prosperity that such collaborations can bring.
A historian of the contemporary United States might have written that.
The Roman res publica was not a democracy in any true sense, even before Augustus established the empire under the veneer of a republic restored, falsifying the basis for any real democracy in the process. After that, there followed a long hiatus until what Dr Mitchell calls its ‘second coming’, in the wake of eighteenth-century revolution in Europe. This later history looms large in Dr Martin Mansergh’s presentation of democracy’s merits, limitations and alternatives. He writes not only as a historian, but as someone who has front-line experience of almost every level of democratic government: as a civil servant, as a parliamentarian, as a junior minister and as a senior adviser to several Taoisigh on Northern Ireland, in which capacity he was involved in the high-level negotiations which eventually produced the Good Friday Agreement. His own reflections cover a wide range and reach, from ancient theocracies to the present day. His own rich experience, and his expertise as a historian, leave him few illusions about democracy’s limits and he casts a cold eye on the dangers of populism and the role of plutocrats, especially in possession of the media, in undermining democratic society. Such salutary scepticism notwithstanding, he is happy to agree with some recent speakers in the Dáil that, in Ireland, ‘The centre holds, with a limited public appetite for untested radicalism’. In an uncertain world, for this we can be grateful.
Dr Patrick Riordan, whose specialism is political philosophy, treats the topic of democracy at another level. He raises the question as to whether what we are currently seeing is a crisis of democracy itself, as is commonly supposed, or, rather, a crisis of meaning. Is a widespread failure to grasp what democracy is for at the root of many of the difficulties we experience in practice? Misunderstandings about the function of politics and the proper operation of the checks and balances between the different elements that make up a truly functional democratic polity and sustain its freedoms, contribute to a situation where politics is represented, or exploited, as a zero-sum game of winners and losers, instead of a quest for compromise in aid of the common good. This is a concept which, unsurprisingly, occurs in a number of the papers here, and has been a central intellectual preoccupation of Dr Riordan’s throughout his career, one to which he has made valuable contributions, some of them in this journal.
He refers to a 1998 study by Michael Schudson, ‘Of how the forms and practices of citizenship have evolved through the history of the United States […] in which the direct political contestation for power through the ballot and in Congress is circumvented by the capture of judicial authority.’ There is, accordingly, ‘Emerging emphasis on the citizen as rights holder, with the accompanying phenomenon that the law courts became as much the arena for the citizen to pursue her goals as had been the local and national institutions of legislation and government. Opportunities for citizen participation now include public campaigns conducted by lobby groups as much as membership of political parties.’ These observations have considerable pertinence to the situation in Ireland and the current campaigns relating to repeal of article eight of the Constitution. A view of the voter as merely a litigant in aid of sectional causes is liable to lose sight of the common good.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton, a vastly experienced and authoritative observer of events in this part of the world, delivered the Grattan Lecture in the Irish Embassy in London on Monday 12 June 2017, one year on from the Brexit referendum. Reproduced here in very slightly modified form, it offers an unappealing prognosis of what the outcome is going to mean – for Britain itself, in the first instance, but, more worryingly from our point of view, for Ireland too. He examines in some detail what implementation of this watershed decision by a very narrow majority of British voters in June 2016 – but freely described without qualification by its advocates as ‘the will of the people’ – is going to mean for relationships with the EU and Ireland. He highlights the semi-detached attitude which has tended to characterise the country’s relationship with the continent. ‘Having our cake and eating it’ is the phrase made notorious by at least one leading Tory politician and adopted by Mr Bruton as an apt description of the situation, in terms of the EU, ‘Sufficiently “in” to exercise influence on the EU, but sufficiently “out” to maintain the sort of freedom of action that befitted its historic role’. In a decision that, in his view, goes beyond the mandate of the referendum, the possibility of such freedom has now been abandoned, with very uncertain consequences on both sides of the Irish Sea and further afield. He foresees a very messy divorce, not least in its impact on Northern Ireland, and urges that this country do its best to mitigate the worst effects of the break-up.
With much attention being paid to the gyrations of the Trump administration in America, and what seems like its shameless pitch to populist isolationism, the huge Brexit challenge to the political culture of our nearest neighbour, another sign of the same trend, as well as the efforts by Hungary and, especially, Poland to disengage from certain aspects of what European Union membership entails, not to mention the alarming rise of authoritarianism in Recep Tayipp Erdoğan’s Turkey, it is something of a relief to read Stephen Collins’s more hopeful analysis of the current state of Irish politics and the strength of the centre here. He echoes the judgment of Martin Mansergh in praising the essentially balanced and moderate record of Irish governments since independence in preserving democratic values here and strongly rebutting the self-serving efforts of extremist interests – ‘the peddlers of outrage’, as he calls them – on either wing of the political spectrum to portray our history and our present condition in a more negative light. Despite ‘the constant barrage of negativity that dominates the airwaves day in day out’, which ‘conveys the impression that we live in a dysfunctional society, wracked by division and inequality’, he argues that, far from decrying and disowning our past, including the part played by the now often-derided Catholic Church, and ascribing to it many of the ills we supposedly or actually suffer from now, we should be grateful to those who have gone before us for the condition of the country they have passed on to us in such relatively good health.
Contemplating the uncertain state of democracy in the world at large, description and diagnosis is easier than prescriptions for recovery. Fr Edmond Grace, who has been working in the field for more than a decade, reports on interesting initiatives he and a group of collaborators have been developing in a small but visionary way at the local level in Ireland. His paper traces the slow but steady evolution of what has come to be known under a partly self-explanatory title as ‘PeopleTalk’. The involvement of senior politicians and other serious participants in national life in the process gradually began to germinate and bear fruit, along with his own very recent appointment to the government’s National Dialogue on Climate Change Advisory Group, may mark a breakthrough of sorts for such grass-roots efforts, aimed to promote what he refers to as ‘the dialogue between state and citizen in this and other areas of public life’. As other writers in these pages point out, the absence of such dialogue is one of the serious challenges confronting democracy in our day and partly explains why it is in some disarray.
Dr Fáinche Ryan’s essay on John Henry Newman’s famous 1859 paper, ‘On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine’, was originally delivered in June 2016 in Trinity College, Dublin, at the Loyola Institute conference, ‘The Role of Church in a Pluralist Society: Good Riddance or Good Influence?’, of which she was one of the principal organisers. It is not strictly part of the earlier discussion on democracy in this issue of Studies and ‘consulting the faithful’ is not quite what Edmond Grace refers to as ‘the dialogue between state and citizen’ in his account of ‘PeopleTalk’, However, there are analogies to be drawn, but – in its own proper context – it is a rich concept, rooted in patristic sources and open to fruitful development in the Church, as Dr Ryan’s discussion of its legacy in the Second Vatican Council and some later theological thinking clearly illustrates. ‘The body of the faithful’, Newman wrote, ‘is one of the witnesses to the fact of the tradition of revealed doctrine’, and ‘their consensus through Christendom is the voice of the Infallible Church’. For Newman, the fideles, as Dr Ryan puts it, ‘must not be passed over’, but rather, as he says, ‘made much of’. This is not because of any notions of democracy but simply because, as Petavius, a sixteenth-century French Jesuit said, ‘let us pay attention to the judgement of all the faithful, because the spirit of God breathes into every faithful – quia in omnem fidelem Spiritus Dei spirat’. A passive lay faithful, it might be added, is arguably no less deleterious for the Church than an apathetic demos in the political realm.
Dr Damian Howard’s article on the Jesuit founder St Ignatius Loyola and the apostolate to Islam in his day and among his followers in the centuries since is not part of the discussion on democracy in these pages either. Dr Howard, a specialist in Islam and recently appointed Provincial of the British Jesuit Province, has written learnedly in an earlier issue of Studies (Autumn 2016) on the topic of Christian-Muslim relationships in Europe in the future, with the challenges to democratic politics these will inevitably pose. His present paper throws interesting light on the often-neglected question of how Ignatius saw Muslims in his day and the legacy of his attitudes in the later Society of Jesus.
Finally, retired Irish ambassador, John Swift’s, characteristically thorough and illuminating review of the late Professor Ronan Fanning’s book, Éamon de Valera: A Will to Power, throws an interesting light on the practice of democratic politics in twentieth-century Ireland, whose history as an independent country de Valera undoubtedly bestrode like a colossus. What he would have made of what John Swift refers to as ‘the Brexit world’, in which ‘Ireland faces the most serious challenge to its independent foreign policy since World War II’ is a thought to be pondered. To coin a phrase, we’ll never know now.

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