3 minute read

It is the mid-1990s… the USSR has collapsed, a new globalised economy is beginning to ramp up and a hunger for political cooperation and possibly integration has taken hold within the European political class. The world has entered a period of relative stability with President Bill Clinton as the trusted figurehead.  

Fast forward twenty-five years and the scene is quite different, Donald Trump were almost elected for a second term, the global economy has still not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crash and a pandemic is rampaging through much of the world. Politics seems an unstable and uncertain place, and perhaps even democracy is a broken system that is fracturing around the edges. However, while the world may seem more uncertain and unstable than it has ever been, this article will try to explain how instability is a natural cycle within politics that can be used by leaders to forge the change needed for the future. 

But why does the world seem so uncertain now? Twenty-four-hour news, instantaneous communication and digitalisation have made everything seem more immediate especially with a focus on negative news reporting. Although arguably our only comparative experience of the world is the late 90s and early 00s, where a flourishing economy led by competent and moderate politicians and relative stability in the western hemisphere created a sense of direction and certainty. The economy, heavily supported by the expanding financial system ran by ‘Casino Bankers’, accelerated growth and maintained a system that felt fair and stable. Following the financial crash, the system began to fracture with many feeling left behind which culminated in our present uncertainty. 

Historically, however, the world has always had cycles of stability and insecurity, fragility and strength. The post-WW2 period appeared reasonably stable and calm with short crises quickly solved by political leadership; even the Cuban Missile Crisis at the time seemed to be solved with speed and it was only forty years later that the true scale of the potential nuclear disaster became known. The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to come quick and precipitated the collapse of the USSR but our leaders remained respected. 

In the modern period every ‘behind closed doors’ conversation is reported and dissected by the media no matter how insignificant or late at night the conversation might be which, for better or for worse, often highlights the shortcomings of our leaders. All of this fuels the feeling of distrust between the electors and the elected which, as with Brexit and Trump, makes poorly thought through political choices appear the only option. Therefore, in comparing different periods of history it can be seen that cycles of crises are inevitable, possibly even necessary, within a democratic system. Every past crisis has been solved by our leaders and has helped to develop the system we have now. However, authoritarianism is on the rise; a number of political parties within in EU now have growing footholds on the continent, President Erdogan of Turkey appears popular and China, despite a recent and gradual change in foreign policy from the USA, is an extremely economically developed country. So perhaps it is that democracy is being stretched to its limits and is losing the PR war to the allure of economically prosperous authoritarian politics. 

The allure of authoritarianism in difficult and uncertain times is no new story in Europe, the echoes of the 1930s and 40s are still felt, but a growing number continue to be drawn. The questions around immigration, in particular cultural influences, the uneven growth delivered by globalisation and a broad erosion of trust are difficult for politicians to quantify and explore in open discourse. So while the political consensus formed over the last forty years may now be shifting and appear uncertain, it is important that leaders recognise the instability and respond not with authoritarianism but a renewed strength and belief in democracy. 

Instability in politics is inevitable and we as political enthusiasts and voters should not be afraid but embrace the uncertainty to create change. Change within the global order allows forward thinking leaders to glimpse the future to build a new order and shape a new democratic system that engages with voters. Commenting on the last four years of the Trump presidency venerated Journalist John Sims said, “A system that can absorb the most uncontrolled and disruptive President ever elected is surely the sign of a robust and strong democratic infrastructure. Democracy is a fragile and an imperfect system of governance”. Leaders should recognise what the electorate vote for not as ‘aberrations’ but as an indication on how they feel about the direction of their countries.