Now & Next: Is democracy under attack?

Posted on 27 September 2019

It could be said that democracy is suffering from a crisis of confidence, with falling levels of trust in leadership occurring across the world. From the gilets jaunes protests in France, the rise of populism in the US, and the political upheavals in Turkey, learn more about democracy's place in the modern world and the threats that it is being exposed to.

Now & Next

A Gender For Change

The Economist

Supported by Mishcon de Reya

The 20th century’s most successful political idea is under attack.  Democracy is facing a crisis of confidence. 

The quality of democracy is in decline.

A gap is growing between people and the political elites elected to represent them.

Here is no democracy – it does not exist

Powerful interests have corrupted the ways people are governed.

It was very frustrating because people were dying.

And fledgling democracies are increasingly succumbing to the lure of autocracy.

Tayyip Erdogan is a powerful leader.  We are behind him all the way.

But how deep is this crisis and how worried should the world be?


Democracy Under Attack


Distan has become a young voice of the Gilet Juanes - the nationwide protest movement against the French Government.  At his height in 2018 the movement made headlines around the world.


Distan’s music videos have had millions of views online.

I talk about what is going on with simple words that speak to everyone.

At the heart of his music is a strong sense of dissatisfaction with France’s governing class.

I believe that there is a class that thinks it is above the rest of the population and this gap has been created.


Friday night in Distan’s home town of Toulouse in South West France.  Distan is about to start a gig.  The crowd are up for it.


Most of the people here are members of the Gilet Juanes.  Everyone here lives in one of the world’s oldest democracies.  But you won’t find anyone who thinks elected politicians represent them.

France for a long time had a system in which a group of very highly qualified technocrats and politicians were entrusted to run the country for everybody’s benefit and they did very well out of it but the whole country did well out of it.  That system started to break down as early as the 1990’s.  It came to a head more recently with the Gilet Juanes.

Every Saturday Distan and the other Gilet Juanes take to the streets to voice their frustrations.

Saturday’s are ours. We block the roads.  We spread our message high and loud.  We have signs.

Between October 2018 and April 2019 the Gilet Juanes protests caused major disruption in cities and towns across France. 

We protest peacefully but it is tense behind us.  There are policemen on motorbikes.  They wear balaclavas.  They can charge at us at any moment, throw grenades at us.

Initially a rebellion in rural France against a hike in fuel taxes the movement grew into a wider protest against the entire political class.

Liberty, equality, fraternity is rooted in France but it isn’t happening for many people because they’ve created a system that divides us a lot.

After the Government abolished the fuel tax the Gilet Juanes movement declined and is now dominated by political extremists.  But Distan insists that here in Toulouse they still reflect the feelings of ordinary people who feel shut out and unrepresented by the political system.

These people don’t have a voice.  These people are French citizens, workers, disabled, retired people, young students.  We all fight for the same cause.

In recent years the strength of anger towards the governing class in France has risen. Amidst a climate of growing resentment and extremism.  Today in France almost 70% believe their politicians are corrupt.  Research suggests only 32% of the population trusts the Government while the global average is 47%. 

My project is not to gather the left, is not to gather the right.  It is to gather the French people to step into the future.

In 2017 France’s President, Emmanuel Macron game to power at the head of a brand new party, promising a new and more representative kind of politics.  But two years in and Emmanuel Macron’s critics say he is just another fully paid up member of France’s traditional political class.  It doesn’t help that he studied here at the College that most symbolises the aloofness of France’s political elite.

We are in the old ENA which is the national school for administration.  It’s the school dedicated to the civil servants

Orale Filippetti used to be a Government minister and also studied at an elite college or Conde D’Ecole as they are known.  ENA is the most elite of the Conde D’Ecole.  Where France’s leading civil servants come to learn their trade.  Many later become politicians.  Four of the last eight Presidents of France studied here.

ENA has become a symbol of inequality.  In ENA you have only a few persons of the students will come from working class.  That is why the people in France have developed a hate regarding ENA because in fact they feel as if it was something inaccessible for them or for their children.

In April 2019 President Macron proposed shutting down ENA.  But Miss Filippetti believes this will only paper over the cracks of a deeper problem.  She says there is a perception that politicians become sucked into a remote metropolitan elite that puts the interests of the capital above the rest of the country. 

The closing up ENA would not be enough to solve the problem.  The way politicians live when they are in Paris is very different to the way they live when they are in their constituency.  But sometimes it’s a kind of schizophrenia because our country is very centralised, too much centralisation is killing France.  Macron when he arrives he tried in fact to say that he wanted to get people from everywhere and to change that but the people he choose in fact they all come from the same social classes.

But the disillusionment of French voters is not about to lead to the death of French democracy.  83% still believe it is still the best form of Government.

In France and in the western countries are really attached to democracy. They think it is the best system.  They have made some studies about the trust in democracy and in every study you find that people think it is the best system.  They don’t want a dictator and that’s very important.

However, the growing disconnect between people and elected politicians in France is part of a wider trend in the west.  Since the failed Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan politicians have increasingly been viewed as incompetent.  After the global financial crisis bankers in the City of London and Wall Street had to be bailed out.  Ordinary people on the other hand were expected to pay for it by enduring austerity. 

The problem in countries in the west is that the quality of democracy is in decline.  You see people less satisfied that the democracies they live in are producing the goods.  You see people more cynical about their politicians, less ready to believe the politicians are working on their behalf.

In the world’s most powerful democracy that sense of cynicism towards elected representatives is growing.  Today only 17% of Americans say they can trust the Government to do what is right compared with 40% in 2000.  In a representative democracy the electorate mostly only get a say at the ballot box.  That means the system relies on voter’s interests being effectively protected by those they elect.  In American politics lobbying plays a central role in helping politicians make informed choices.

Mary Bono

Republican member of Congress

1998 - 2013

Lobbying in itself you know it is part of the American way and generally speaking it works okay.  It is hard to explain that, it sounds pretty seedy and bad but you can’t pick and choose who should lobby what is good and what is bad that’s up to the politician to figure out.

The idea is that the senator or congressman takes an enlightened and broad view of his or her constituent’s interests.  It is important that they hear from business and they hear from you know, non-profits, you know, from a lot of interest groups who have their own perspective.

The problem in American democracy today is that the interests of business often drown out those of citizens.  In 2018 3.5 billion dollars was spent on lobbying in Washington, up from 1.6 billion in 2000 and of the 100 organisations that spent the most on lobbying, 95 represent business.  That can have a real impact on ordinary people.

The nation is in the midst an unprecedented opioid epidemic.

America’s opioid crisis is rampant with an average of 115 opioid deaths each day.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death in our country and this is a total epidemic.

The opioid crisis is one example of how lobbying by wealthy companies has clashed with the interests of the electorate.  While some pharmaceutical companies sought to push opioids as a miracle cure for pain, millions of Americans became addicted. 

My dream was to join an Olympic team some day.  So I went to gymnastics practice for 4½ hours every day of the week.  I never thought in a million years that this is where my life would be.

Elena is one of the victims of the opioid crisis.  She now does Outreach work helping other drug addicts on the streets of San Francisco.  In 2010 aged 16, she was injured in a car crash and prescribed opioids to relieve the pain. 

I thought I was dead, you know and I woke up some days later in the hospital.  I was on a drip and I remember saying to myself you know I really like the way this feels.

Elena soon became addicted to the pills she was given and found doctors were only too happy to keep on prescribing.

They were writing scripts for opioid painkillers like candy.  Addiction is like being in jail.  You can’t just like open the door and walk out of it.  You can’t.  You are in that and it holds you there.

At the time this was a pattern sweeping across America. In Washington most politicians were slow to tackle this growing opioid crisis.

Mary Bono

Republican member of Congress

1998 - 2013

When I was in Congress I became acutely aware of the opioid epidemic as it hit my family and my son became addicted to pills in high school.  He felt that they were the safe drug to party with and he became addicted.

Mary Bono was a Republican member of Congress between 1998 and 2013.  During the height of the opioid epidemic. She co-founded the Congressional Group on prescription drug abuse in 2010 and quickly discovered that pharma companies were keen to play down the crisis.

Mary Bono

Republican member of Congress

1998 - 2013

We had some industrial opposition every step of the way.  We had a lot of you know pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors and folks saying that we were wrong and that we were making this up and that we were over stating the problems.

Miss Bono believes that politicians failed their constituents by falling prey to the influence of pharmaceutical companies.  She says she experienced the unhealthy influence of the pharma lobby first hand.

Mary Bono

Republican member of Congress

1998 - 2013

By the time this hearing is over, ten Americans will have tragically and I believe needlessly died from prescription drug overdoses.  Purdue Pharma had sent in a lobbyist and a former member of Congress with the explicit reason to politically threaten me that if I continued my work on the opioid epidemic that they would defund a prescription drug monitoring database in the state of Florida.  That actually sort of became a little legend on the hill about being threatened like this by a former member of Congress.  Now if you go back and they have been interviewed about this and they deny it but it happened.

We have a solemn obligation to tackle this growing epidemic head on and I am going to keep beating the drums until Congress, the FDA and the DEA come up with a comprehensive plan for action.

Since 2000 pharmaceutical companies have spent over 4 billion dollars lobbying and funding election campaigns in Washington.  Although not all of this relates to opioids it compares with just 4 million dollars spent by groups lobbying to limit opioid use.  This huge disparity meant that pharmaceutical companies were able to limit attempts to change opioid prescribing patterns for years.

Mary Bono

Republican member of Congress

1998 - 2013

It was very frustrating all along because people were dying.  There is no question that the lobbying efforts by pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors stalled the response.

When legislation was passed in 2016 hundreds of thousands of addicts like Elena turned to alternatives on the black market such as heroin and fentanyl.

I’ve been using heroin for close to 8 years now. It’s maintenance now I don’t get, I don’t get high anymore.

Drugs now kill about 70,000 Americans every year.  More than car crashes or guns.  A complex web of factors underlies this but the crisis has highlighted how far the powers of corporations have risen relative to elected politicians.  Since the early 2000’s the gap has widened between spending on corporate lobbying and the overall funding of the United States Congress.

Lee Drutman

Political Scientist

The attitude of corporations towards Government as a threat to seeing Government as a potential opportunity.

Lee Drutman is a political scientist and a leading expert on political lobbying in America.

Lee Drutman

Political Scientist

What we’ve done is we’ve really hollowed out Congress.  Congress is de-invested in its own knowledge and capacity for four decades and its dumber as an institution now and corporate lobbyists are much more powerful as a result.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

One of the things you can ask yourself is why do businesses spend what they do?  The extraordinary large sums that are being spent is an indication of just what they expect the political system to give them in return.  It constituents feel that their voice is completely drowned out and that Washington is producing bad policies because in effect it is being bought then that is a failure of democracy.

We are going to Washington DC and we are going to drain the swamp.

Spending on lobbying has increased by 9% since Donald Trump moved in to the Whitehouse despite him running on the promise of cleaning up Washington.

You know that phase started about a week ago and I thought it was terrible, I didn’t like it at all, I said I don’t know I just don’t like it.  The people like it, that’s much more important.

President Trump won the election by playing on the sense of dissatisfaction with the political status quo.

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

Playing on grievance is a more sure way to power and that is otherwise known as populism.

President Trump is part of a wider trend.  Since the 1990’s 46 populist leaders or parties have in power in 33 democratic countries.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

The worry about populism is that playing on people’s grievances and exaggerating their differences tends to make the political system less healthy and that of course is bad for democracy.

Democracies are historically thought to die by the barrel of a gun but today they are just as at risk of being strangled slowly by populist leaders claiming to act in the name of the people.  When Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister of Turkey in 2003 he was a force for democracy standing up to the Army which had launched one coup after another.  Over the years  he has consistently been elected but power has corrupted the President and the country has slipped into autocracy.  In 2016 a faction of the military attempted a coup but it failed and President Erdogan ramped up his consolidation of power.  Today marks 3 years since the failed coup attempt and President Erdogan supporters are celebrating the anniversary.

Tayyip Erdogan is a powerful leader.  We are behind him all the way.

Turkey is now one of the least democratic countries in Europe but the President still retains the support of around half the population.

Whenever a strong leader comes to power in our country there’s always accusations.  That’s a dictator.  It’s one man rule.

The President has claimed to be defending democracy while actually eroding it.  Since the coup attempt he has purged the state bureaucracy and civil society arresting around 80,000 people and censoring the media.

Kadri Gursel


We are in the Kartal District of Istanbul and this is what the free media looks like in Turkey.

Kadri Gursel is a Turkish journalist.  He has just been realised from Prison after criticising the Government.

Kadri Gursel


The regime took advantage of the circumstance to muzzle the press.  I was accused for deliberately and intentionally helping terrorist organisation.

Hundreds of opponents of the President have been tortured in Prison.  While Mr Gursel escaped this brutality he spent eleven months behind bars.

Kadri Gursel


It was a gross injustice, the best way to keep the integrity in Prison is not thinking about the other words.  My formula is simple, you don’t think about things that you love.

But there is a glimmer of light for democracy in Turkey.  In March Ekrem Imamoglu, an opposition candidate won the Istanbul Mayoral Election by a slim margin.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

Erdogan has taken a grip through the ballot box, it means he can still be challenged in the ballot box.  Now it is not a fair contest but as long as there are votes there are always opportunities to have upsets and this is just a sign that Erdogan who’d had everything going his way actually was vulnerable.

An angry President Erdogan insisted that the election be re-run.

I believe sincerely that organised irregularities, abuse and lawlessness took place in the Istanbul elections.

The gamble didn’t pay off.  The re-run was lost by a huge majority.

Kadri Gursel


This was really embarrassing and it shows that Turkish people is a strong dedication to safeguard the last democratic resort which is the ballot box and they like it and they won’t let it be hijacked.

Democracies across the world are suffering from a crisis of confidence but they can renew themselves.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

Democracy is not an all or nothing entity.  People are feeling their democracies are not as healthy as they were, they are less satisfied with them.  Does that mean they are no longer democracies?  Of course it doesn’t, that’s ridiculous.  But it does mean that the quality of their democracies decreased.

Today around 10% less of the world’s population live in a full democracy compared with a decade ago.  Inspiration may come from unlikely places, countries where democracy does not exist.

Edward Carr

Deputy Editor, The Economist

On the streets of Moscow and Hong Kong young people who never lived in a democracy realise that there is something dignified  about democracy and it is something we need to remember is if we are lucky enough to have been in a democracy it is worth striving for.


Supported By

Mishcon de Reya

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