Home Analysis Observations of an Expat: How Did We Get Here?

Observations of an Expat: How Did We Get Here?

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Observations of an Expat: How Did We Get Here?
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How did we get here and where are we going? It has been a bad week for democracy. In fact it has been a bad year for democracy. The rise of the populist far-right just about everywhere else is dominating the world’s headlines.

By Tom Arms

It has been a bad week for democracy. In fact it has been a bad year for democracy. The only exception is the UK. But don’t worry Britain’s time will come.

Now, however, the rise of the populist far-right just about everywhere else is dominating the world’s headlines. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally is knocking on France’s gates to power. A conservative-dominated US Supreme Court has granted serial law breaker and liar Donald Trump immunity from prosecution. A cognitively-impaired Joe Biden is endangering democracy by clinging to power. A far-right anti-immigrant government has been formed in the Netherlands.

And those are only the most recent examples. In Israel, Hungary, India, Slovakia, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Austria, and Germany the far-right is either in government or growing in power and influence.

So how did we get here and where are we going?

Back in the naughty nineties everything looked so different. The collapse of the Soviet Empire appeared to be a great victory for liberal democracy, globalism, free markets and capitalism. We won, and countries around the world flocked to democracy’s banner.

First in the queue were the members of the old Soviet system, with Russia right at the front. That was the first problem. The transition from a Soviet-style command economy and from dictatorship to democracy was more difficult than envisaged.

A broken system was replaced not with capitalist prosperity but with hyper-inflation, economic breakdown and mass unemployment. Life expectancy in Russia fell with up to five million excess adult deaths between 1991 and 2001. Birth rates collapsed and organized crime grabbed the levers of power.

A conflict quickly emerged between two groups of reformers—those who supported strong executive power and those in favour of parliamentary or representative rule. The former won. Disillusionment with Western-style democracy became so widespread that Vladimir Putin was able to win election in 2000 under the slogan “the dictatorship of law.”

The Soviet experience was mirrored in most of its former East European satellites. Hungary’s Viktor Orban founded Fidesz as a radical liberal student movement backed by George Soros. But the political and economic chaos of the 1990s moved him from the center left to the center right and finally the far right. The liberal philanthropist George Soros who helped jump start Orban’s political career became a hate figure as Orban embraced “illiberal democracy.” His prototype of elected strong-man rule became the model for the world’s right-wing populists.

On September 11, 2001 Islamic terrorists flew their hijacked planes into New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon. Overnight the West’s attention shifted from the problems of Eastern Europe to the “War on Terror.” The result was fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan which lasted 20 years and cost more than a 10 trillion dollars. The cupboard was starting to run bare.

Then came the 2007-2009 world banking crisis. Greedy bankers are estimated to have cost US taxpayers $12.8 trillion. In Europe the banking crisis led to the Eurozone Crisis which brought the Euro to the brink of collapse and several European countries fell to their economic knees. The world financial system has yet to fully recover.

The banking crisis was immediately followed by the 2011 Arab Spring which sparked off civil wars in Syria and Libya. These combined with the consequences of climate change and spurred millions to risk their lives to cross the seas to safety in Europe. Growing economic and political problems elsewhere in the world provoked even more migration. In the US an estimated 650,000 illegal immigrants crossed America’s southern border between 2016 and 2023 alone.  The numbers of migrants in both Europe and America can only grow as at the end of 2023 the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there were a record 117.3 million displaced people in the world.

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Populist politicians feed off fear and hate. Now they had the perfect scapegoat—migrants. Especially Muslim immigrants with a different religion, language and culture which the far-right claimed threatened to overwhelm their societies. In Britain, ruthless exploitation of the immigrant issue led to Brexit which, according to the London School of Economics, had by December 2021 cost UK households $7 billion in higher food bills alone.

Then on 17 November 2019 the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. By May 2022, the World Health Organization reported that 15 million had died from the resultant pandemic. The financial cost was enormous. In America alone the price of lost business from lockdowns and support payments totaled more than $14 trillion. Governments around the world were being forced to borrow and debt as a proportion of GDP rose to alarming levels everywhere.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was the final ingredient in a perfect storm. It radically increased the prices of the basic commodities of grain, fertilizer, oil and gas. Inflation took off. In Britain the problem was compounded by the short, disastrous premiership of Liz Truss whose abrupt budget put the pound into a tailspin and raised interest rates to unaffordable levels.

Centrist governments and those marginally to the left and right appeared powerless to deal with events. More importantly, they were unable to invest in education and public services. Increasingly young people either turned away from politics altogether or towards extremism. In France on Sunday the political center is being squeezed out by the extreme left and right. In America, Donald Trump is storming ahead of Joe Biden in the opinion polls.

On the surface, Thursday’s British general election, bucked the trend as the electorate ejected an increasingly right-wing Conservative government and handed power to a center-left Labor Party. But a closer look reveals a darker picture. Voter turnout was at a 20-year low and 4 million voted for the far-right Reform Party whose leader—Nigel Farage– is linked to Putin, Trump and Viktor Orban. On top of that, there are insufficient funds in the British exchequer for the hoped for increased expenditure on public services after 14 years of conservative austerity. If Labor fails to deliver then there is a real danger that the British electorate will follow the example of the French, Italians, Americans, Germans, Dutch, Hungarians, Russians… and—in desperation–turn to the populist far right.

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It’s official: The United States judicial system is no longer independent.

And by destroying its independence the Supreme Court has knocked away one of the main pillars of American democracy and left the constitution’s carefully structured and revered system of checks and balances heavily politicized and largely controlled by the executive.

Of course, the US judicial system was already heavily politicized. But the Supreme Court took its role as the top court seriously enough to avoid political judgements. No longer.

America’s legal system is based on English Common Law. Many of the structures were determined by the great 18th-century British jurist William Blackstone, whose commentaries were required bedside reading for American legal eagles well into the last century.

In 18th century England judges were appointed by the monarch. So, in 18th century independent America all federal judges were appointed by the president subject to the approval of the Senate.

In the 21st century the president appoints 870 federal judges, these include nine Supreme Courts, 179 judges to the Courts of Appeal, 673 District judges and nine to the Court of International Trade. In all but a handful of cases, judges have been chosen to reflect the president’s ideological and political beliefs.

That is the federal level. The system for choosing judges at the state level varies from state to state and is a reaction to the system imposed on the 13 colonies by 18th century Britain. Back then the lawyers and judges were chosen by the monarch and were basically jurists who had failed in the mother country. To avoid a repetition of that problem, most of the states decided to elect their judges and prosecutors (district attorneys).

Only five states (Alaska, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Rhode Island) select their judges solely on merit. All the other 45 states either directly elect the judges, select them initially on merit and then, after a single term on the bench, by election. Alternatively they are directly appointed by the governor or the legislature.

All but three of the states (New Jersey, Connecticut and Alaska) and Washington DC, elect their district attorneys. This means that it is common for DA candidates to campaign on manifestos to achieve elected office—such as prosecute Donald Trump.

Back in the mother country the judicial system has evolved as the monarch’s political powers have shrunk. All judicial appointments are now made on merit by committees of legal experts. The Magistrates—the lowest court—are selected by a network of 47 advisory committees of serving magistrates and local non-magistrates. Judges for the Crown Court, High Court and Appeals Court are selected by a Judicial Appointments Commission and the 12 members of the UK Supreme Court are recommended to the Prime Minister by a Special Selection Committee of past and current judges. The Prime Minister always accepts their recommendation.

The British judicial system is thus independent of political control. It is an independent judiciary and the 21st century British system is seen by most democratic countries as the gold standard. It is why people take to the streets in protest in Israel, India, Hungary and Poland when the government attempts to switch from a merit-style judicial system to a politically appointed one. America, however, remains stuck in the 18th century. And now, with the recent Supreme Court ruling it has made a giant step backwards to monarchical rule.

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It looks as if France’s hard-right National Rally (RN) will be blocked from an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

In the week between first and second round voting, a “Republican Front” was formed to bar RN’s path to power. 217 candidates pulled out of the three-way second round tests in order to clear the path for whomever is best placed to defeat the RN candidate.

Opinion polls three days before Sunday’s vote indicate that RN will win the most seats—between 210 and 240. But it needs 289 to secure an absolute majority and the right to form a government. Before the 217 candidates pulled out, RN was predicted to win 270-plus seats.

The left-wing broad church New Popular Front will be placed second with a projected 170-200 seats while Macron’s supporters are expected to run a poor third with 95 to 125 seats.  In fourth place will be center-right Les Republicains with an anticipated 25 to 45 seats.

The failure of RN to break through will mean a period of political haggling as Macron tries to cobble together a coalition which excludes Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s ultra-left France Unbowed.

In the meantime extreme politics appear to have led to extreme actions in the run-up to the second round. More than 50 candidates and activists have been attacked according to Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is deploying 30,000 policemen to protect the sanctity of the final round of voting.

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Almost lost in the flurry of this week’s elections and Supreme Court decisions has been Hungary’s assumption of the rotating EU presidency on July 1st.

For the next six months far-right populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will be the face of the European Union. This means he will be representing Europe during the US presidential elections and at a crucial point in the Ukraine War.

The Hungarian Prime Minister wasted no time in attempting to make his mark on Europe’s policy towards Ukraine and Russia. Orban has been a key obstacle in coordinating European aid to Ukraine and this week he travelled first to meet Volodomyr Zelensky in Kyiv and then to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin on what he called a “peace mission.”

His travels a few days before a NATO summit to coordinate additional aid to Ukraine were immediately condemned by newly re-elected Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and a string of EU heads of government. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said: “If you truly seek peace you don’t shake hands with a bloody dictator.”

Orban supports Putin’s peace proposals which are basically that Ukraine hand over the eastern half of the country and forswear NATO membership. Similar proposals have been endorsed by America’s Heritage Foundation which has emerged as the Donald Trump think tank.

There has been a formal link between the Heritage Foundation and Orban’s Danube Institute since 2023. Heritage president Kevin Roberts, has called Orban’s Hungary “not just a model for conservative statecraft but THE model.”

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Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain.”

Read: Observations of an Expat: Uncharted Waters

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