The good news was well disguised in the anonymous cry of warning against the “amorality” of Donald Trump. A senior administration official, writing as an unnamed columnist in the New York Times, described how he and like-minded colleagues “are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of (the U.S. president’s) agenda and his worst inclinations.” The message is that democratic habits – and, crucially, civic decency and responsibility – can, in step with free journalism, win out over degraded administrations.
Democracy worldwide is in need of a fillip – and this column, if properly understood, delivers it. A shelf full of fluent, convincing and pessimistic books lamenting the decline, even the end, of democracy has been published in recent months. This includes Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s “How Democracies Die,” Jonah Goldberg’s “Suicide of the West,” and Edward Luce’s “The Retreat of Western Liberalism.” American liberals, writes Luce, believe that the march towards freer societies will resume “after a brief interruption. How I wish they were right. I fear they are not.”
I hope they are. And the as-yet-unidentified Washington official gives me a basis for that cock-eyed optimism, for he or she illuminates the existence of a powerful countertrend. It shows that when there is a great challenge from such as Trump, there is great pushback. Democracy does not simply reside in governments, and the behavior and policies of their leaders. It has taken root, and still takes root, in the actions and aspirations of citizens.
These citizens, crucially, include civil servants. These are servants of governments, but are also civil, belonging to the civis, to the citizen, the Latin root given early democratic power by the status of a Roman citizen in its republican incarnation. Thus there is a tension in the phrase “civil servant,” which expresses the tension inherent in being part of a state bureaucracy. Government bureaucrats serve presidents, or prime ministers – but not at their whim. Civil service is not servitude; it implies reciprocity. In return, there must be observation, by those in power, of the democratic limits. It is one of the many features which distinguish democracies from authoritarian states – where service is servitude.
Essential to these states which are not authoritarian – especially those with an authoritarian past – is that politicians are able to fulfil at least the minimal responsibilities of their calling. These are to protect the democratic mechanisms and civilities which brought them to and sustain them in power. They also serve: they have the huge privilege of serving the citizens.
As populist politics continues to thrive, the tensions inherent in the position of civil servants will continue to grow. Some of this will be conservatism on their part. The new politicians are deliberately crude in their pronouncements, since they want to burst open the settled policies and habits of mainstream politics, both right and left, and replace it with what they interpret as the will of the people. And that can, indeed, be what the people want.
But populists also tend to act like Trump. Populist leaders tend to see themselves as the sole embodiments of popular power, and as thus empowered to trample checks and balances – the division of competing powers, which mature democracies have erected over many decades (in some cases, over centuries).
This is evident in the world’s second-most prominent case of populist government, in Italy. The two parties – the 5-Star Movement and the Lega (League) – which uneasily coalesce to form the country’s administration now face the exacting and tedious duty all successful politicians must undergo in the months after an election victory: squaring their promises with the country’s reality. In Italy’s case, this is a public debt of just under 132 per cent of GDP, and very low growth. Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the Lega, huddled with economic advisers earlier this week, and came out to announce that the annual budget, now being prepared, will not break the limit of a three percent deficit agreed with the European Union, arguing that “we can make this country grow and make Italians feel better without irritating those who look at us from above.” This reverses the trend of statements from the administration since the March election.
We’ll see. Salvini has bought time. Whether or not the tug between rules freely agreed and pledges over-freely dispensed results in a win for the former depends on how the budget will be framed. Salvini can claim a greater democratic mandate from Italian citizens than the European Union can, and may yet break the EU’s limit. For the moment, the bureaucratic economists have prevailed. So did school principals in Italy this summer, defying a measure which rendered vaccinations administered at schools voluntary rather than compulsory and forcing a reversal of the measure, in spite of its approval by parliament.
Politicians can also oppose a leader seen to be un-civil. Earlier this week, in yet another debate within the British Labour Party’s ruling executive committee on anti-Semitism, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition was finally fully accepted, but not before the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sought approval for a statement affirming that it should not “be regarded as anti-Semitic to describe Israel, its policies or the circumstances around its foundation as racist.”
Corbyn’s politics align him with the Hamas terrorist movement, whose charter describes Israel as a “racist, anti-human and colonial” endeavor. So much does it mean to him to be able to say this, that he was prepared to be, at least temporarily, a pariah to his own people. So much did it mean to them that they at least be seen to care about not siding with anti-Semites that they, at last, squashed him. (He may, however, have a little last laugh. On Thursday, signs declaring “Israel is a racist endeavour” went up at several London bus stops.)
There is still, when tested, vigorous life in democracy and civil society. Populists do express popular frustrations, which have strong foundations. They are right to seek power to address them. But democracy demands responsibility: to explain the down- as well as the upsides of policies, to work through the institutions which maintain necessary checks on supreme power, to separate legitimate remedial action from mere (even if popular) prejudice. Civility, civil servants – and powerful administration officials – can save us from an eventual abyss, and give us hope that a decline is not irreversible.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.
The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.