Democracy is not a new concept, but it certainly has only gained widespread recognition recently. Over the last century or two, 76 countries have gained and maintained their democracies, and only 19 of these are complete, according to the EIU’s Democracy Index. But, despite the lack of democracy around the world, political scientists and analysts are now beginning to uncover that politics is more of a science than anyone believed. There are many exact truths in politics and laws which govern how it works. One of these is that there are unavoidable “cycles of ideology”: over time, the political stage in every country, and, indeed, on a global stage, shifts from either nationalism or globalism to the other.
Currently, we are in the throes of a nationalist era, with Britain, Hungary, and the US succumbing to this with Brexit, Viktor Orban, and Trump respectively. Germany also has issues, with Alternativ für Deutschland winning 13% of the vote at the 2017 election, and thus taking 13% of the seats in the Reichstag due to the country’s proportional system. While some countries hold out — with Macron in France and Trudeau in Canada — many are now falling to this new nationalist feeling, and far too many countries around the world are coiling in on themselves, with protectionist policies re-emerging in the US and elsewhere.
The last real push to nationalism of this magnitude was in the 1930s, as many turned to the ideology after the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. Most focus on Hitler’s Nazi Germany in this period and, but few give much credence to the growing movements in Latvia, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Japan, China, the US, the UK, and France. Almost every country on the continent was intensely protective of their own interests, and, eventually, war became inevitable.
After the war, there was a push for international cooperation in the name of liberal humanist values, with Eleanor Roosevelt’s incredible, uniting speech on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1945. Europe wanted to bind together, and create closer cooperation so as to deter war on the continent, and, with the exception of the Yugoslav wars, it succeeded. The creation of the EU, NATO, and the UN saw widespread progress across the world. In the years after the war, the US saw the signing of the Civil Rights Bill into law under President Lyndon B. Johnson, and many other countries created such pieces of legislation. Democracies were created, empires disbanded, and independence gained. Put this alongside the rapid technological revolution at the time and it is easy to see why many historians believe that this era was the golden age, the high point, of humanity.
So what happens to change these cycles? Why do ideologies appear to cycle on a large timescale? And is this set to continue?
One important thing to understand is that nationalism only ever punctuates long periods of liberalism and globalism. The main periods in the past were 1912–1918 and 1930–1945, two relatively short cameos for the ideology, especially when one takes into account that democracies truly began around 1870, with the 1867 British Reform Act and the 15th Amendment being signed into law.
The main reason why these cycles occur is in our DNA. Our genome is such that we always believe our lives are poor, but not that we can improve through the current system. We long for change, despite very apparent resistance to it, and when someone appears to offer a very simple solution to all your problems, you jump at that proposition. When unemployment was at 6,000,000 in Weimar Germany, Hitler offered its people a solution: Jews are the problem. He then intertwined the supposedly criminal activities of the Jewish people with other enemies such as Communists or the “November Criminals” (Hitler’s name for the politicians who surrendered in WWI and signed the Treaty of Versailles). It was not the people’s fault that nationalism rose, but their inability to see past the weak ideology and to a moderate, liberal way forward cost them. They were so blinded by their impoverishment that they made a poor democratic decision, and within 19 days, their democracy ceased to exist.
In reality, poverty only exists, in liberal countries, in people’s minds. In a true democracy with plentiful economic opportunities for its people, those very people trap themselves with criminal activities or laziness. And this is not to say that people in poverty are at fault — most of the time it is due to human instincts and natural actions that people trap themselves, or, worse, it can be due to other people trapping them.
After the shock of the war, people quickly realised that nationalism hadn’t worked (although Japan needed a bit more telling off before it finally ended its Asian conquest). And, as such, we began to set up the aforementioned institutions and many others to guard against radical policies rising up once more. This had happened after WWI too, but the Treaty of Versailles took the wrong approach to this issue — it simply blamed all the problems on one country, financially crippled it, and then expected that very same country to not experience economic and political turmoil. The approach to maintaining liberalism is togetherness and cooperation — and this saw the latter half of the 20th century see rapid progress, with the exception of the USSR.
Recently, though, politics has swung to the far right (with the far left reappearing in response). Once more, the world’s third period of nationalism has been caused by an economic crisis disguised as a debate around the issue of immigration. The global fiscal irresponsibility and subsequent crash of 2008 brought down governments and caused austerity to be brought into place in many countries. Those who did not introduce austerity -namely Spain and Greece — now face worse economic crises in their countries, and are regressing into incredibly poor economies.
Obviously, the crash caused unemployment at unprecedented levels, and the borrowing of money caused soaring debt to GDP ratios in many countries. As such, people are looking for aid, and the far right was the first responder on the scene. The right has blended in the debate over Islam and refugees, but they would not be able to harness the emotional power of messages necessary to win elections and referenda if people didn’t feel disgruntled with their quality of life. It is that simple. If everything is fine, then liberalism continues. As soon as an economic downturn occurs, then all manner of people, religions, and ethnicities are blamed for a poor quality of life, and the global political debate begins to descend the slippery slope of nationalism.
Once economies are re-established (which Britain, among other nations, was doing a fantastic job of until Brexit), and one or two ethnic cleansings or wars are complete, then the world will default once more to a calm, peaceful situation, and set up, no doubt, similar institutions to those from the past. And the colour of this new stable coalition of countries may well be green, as the world turns to the biggest problem affecting the planet at present. At some point in the future, nationalism will erupt once more, and the cycle will carry on.