Labelling centuries/eras understandably carries a western bias, since the west has dominated the arts, philosophies, professions, power, and science/technology throughout modern history. The 17th Century saw the state (Louis XIV's "I am the state" dictum) replaces the church as the pivotal institution at Westphalia, and the advent of a cash economy, based on the 'enclosure movement' of the 'long-16th Century' (Immanuel Wallerstein's term); the 18th Century was known for its Enlightenment (both English and French), the Industrial Revolution (England), and revolutions (France); the 19th Century for neo-imperialism (even Belgium, Germany, Japan, and the United States joined the veterans, Britain and France), national unification (Germany and Italy), and the Concert of Europe (a continental power-balance mechanism to preserve the nation-state); and the 20th Century for replacing European great powers by global superpowers (the Soviet Union, United States), regional integration (the European Union), multilateralism (the World Bank), multiplication of states, and the most concerted effort to convert authoritarian rule into democracy.
It may be premature to speak of the 21st Century so soon. Yet, if the past is any guide, no enduringly dominant feature ever falls from the sky: a long past shadow is usually there. Accordingly, this 5-part series posits the following key 21st Century observations: money shaping democracy, based on the country that counts the most for that ideology's future, the United States; ebbing democracy predicting a post-Anglo-Saxon era, with ascendant populism; new West Europe democracy saviours, who are likely to be more continental than insular, and fighting against greater odds; and economic growth hugging quasi-democratic zones, mostly outside the North Atlantic.
Connecting and encompassing these observations is economic competitiveness: not only its passage from where it was anchored from the 17th Century to the present, but with that shift also the crucial socio-cultural and political-economic dynamics associated with the evaporation of the democracy parameter. Since the absence of a democratic anchor leaves merely nationality/religion/race/ethnicity to hang on to for an identity, beliefs and practices, these feed into the hallmarks of the right side of the political spectrum because of their status-quo, exclusive-minded orientation, policy-subordination, and energy-rousing features; whereas on the more adventurous and inclusive left, welfare-enhancing policies more than birthright features stand out as core elements.
Turning to the first observation, US democracy shows two peculiarities, at the least: external money influencing electoral outcomes more than constituency preferences, as dramatised in Georgia's June 20, 2017 replacement congressional election; and the highest vote-getter in the 2016 presidential election being stumped (rather 'trumped') by an ancient electoral college procedure incompatible with modern expectations or a more representative democracy. In the absence of any countervailing pressures, these stumbling blocks will more likely continue haunting future elections. If so, damage will be more on the political left than the right. Only by shifting to the centre could Clinton chalk up more campaign money than Trump; but though to no avail, it would have been impossible for her to even run had her political anchor been farther left. Bernie Sanders, who was there, showed a fan-base there, awaiting their 'Godot', but his elimination exposes how high a mountain Democrats must climb to restore the leftist platform, even worse, to prevent voters there from defecting into populist camps.
More worrisome is the absence of a viable pathway to a third US political party. This may be the critical factor, with disillusioned voters potentially bloating any populist movement. France's electoral outcome suggests that. Emmanuel Macron decimated the dominant parties from the right and left with his centrist anchor, En Marche! (bearing his own initials, no less), a pathway that served to win the legislative election, yet too new and nimble to take for granted immediately. Though Angela Merkel's chances in September does not presently need stepping outside the traditional box (of established parties), a third pathway demands greater attention across Europe (and which is theoretically possible in Germany should the need arise). Neglecting this (as opposed to the right and left) opens populist windows; but even adopting it distributes and lightens the party-weight so much that every party diminishes in popularity and stature, with only the right-leaning capable of profitably
converting this pressure with nationalistic/religious/racial/ethnic appeals.
Left-leaning defectors to the right reflect multiple dynamics: (a) job-evaporation, especially for the educated, possibly fuelling populism; (b) business out-migration, especially to produce low-wage imports that kill their jobs; (c) generous immigrant policies that push wages down, take jobs away, or introduce 'bad apple' migrants challenging the state/society illegitimately; and (d) unusual evaporation of both new thinking in veteran leaders to adjust to changing times and new leaders refusing to yield to new-thinking youths.
Democracy is at bay in the North Atlantic zone, with Great Britain and the United States set to become the biggest losers by virtue of having (a) the strongest popularly projected populist weight in the right places, and (b) no Macron/Trudeau-type youth leader to resurrect old-time democracy while blending past accomplishments with current needs. Though a constraint to politics-as-usual in itself, a populist surge goes beyond being a contemporary aberration: it echoes so much farther down the road that switching gears may not be possible until a crisis is reached, much like France's transition into the Fifth Republic in the tumultuous 1950s, or the German popular preference swaying sufficiently to the Nazi Party in 1933 to bury the country's first democratic experience (under the Weimar Republic).
Europe will need lots of Macron-like leaders to salvage democracy: candidates young enough with both feet, not simply one foot, in the centre (a message the US Democratic Party might profit from since the Republican Party has already compromised its platform by absorbing Trump-triggered populism). Here the demand is likely to remain far higher than any foreseeable future supply (a) until the EU place/position is clarified for each of its members after Merkel's election; and (b) the refugee issue does not inflame.
The refugee issue, rough though it is, still carries an important shining light: not only Canada's embrace of them, but also, being another Anglo-Saxon country, exposing how established parties can still make political mileage by blending, shaping, and accommodating. Justin Trudeau's multi-ethnic/multi-racial cabinet may be the model for an unlikely future democratic peace. And though not rooted in stone, farsighted youthful leaders, like him and Macron, may be the last saviours of the democracy we have come to know, tried to embrace, and proposed to others. The going will be tough, no less for both, with too distant a beckoning light.
Otherwise, the non-Atlantic zone's spotty-democracy and spotty-liberalism may become the 21st Century modes. This may be a milder upgraded version of embedded authoritarianism, but neither should a return to full-fledged authoritarian rule, even if temporarily, nor an entirely different democracy variant, be dismissed from the analytical framework. Their time may arrive sooner rather than later, more frequently than less.
Ultimately, materialism wins, not just in shaping economic policies (distancing socialism further), but also in determining political governance (through campaign finances, for example). With the political left marooned, the last uplifting hope for middle/lower classes also evaporates. Unfortunately, without their presence, democracy weakens, and new questions will arise if equality and egalitarianism remain compatible (see discussion in The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, Summer 2017 issue). That is what the 21st Century currently beholds: a mongrel version of every paradigm explaining our futures.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.