DEMOCRACY is not in a good way across the West and developed capitalist world.

Since the Soviet bloc collapsed, Western triumphalism opined that this represented the inexorable march of democracy, freedom and liberty, all tied to free-market capitalism, and that 1789 and the French Revolution were equivalent to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It hasn’t turned out the way it was promised.

Instead, we have seen increased global inequality, grotesque concentrations of power and wealth, and instability all related to an unapologetic capitalism with little social conscience or constraints.

This has led to the rise of authoritarian populism on the right which has increasingly influenced and displaced the traditional politics of conservatism. Filled by a politics of hatred and xenophobia, stigmatising minorities and women, it is running roughshod over what were once seen as core democratic norms.

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This is the subject of Gideon Rachman’s new book – The Age Of The Strongman: How The Cult Of The Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World – which looks at this phenomenon in relation to Putin, Trump, Orban, Erdogan, Xi, Modi, Johnson, Brexit and other contexts.

Rachman lays out a set of criteria for “strongman” politics, identifying five main characteristics of individuals and the approaches that they take. First is the cult of the leader – a charismatic, national hero who will stand up and say what needs to be said and take on the “elites” who have run the country in their own interests too long.

Second, tied to social conservatism, is the idea that society has gone wrong and that authority needs to be reasserted with few or any constraints.

Third, is anti-globalisation, believing this has undermined national prosperity and security and in so doing links an agenda of class (which the centre-left has mostly abandoned) to racism and anti-immigration.

Fourth, the old ways of national checks and balances are replaced by the belief in an omnipotent centre – even an imperial or quasi-imperial one in the cases of Russia and Trump’s US. The strongman is more than prepared to trash the rule of law, curtail the judiciary and suppress or overturn election results all in the name of an abstract “will of the people”.

Fifth, there is a nostalgic nationalism – a belief that not only has society has gone wrong, but that our best days are behind us. Hence women, minorities and “woke” liberals have been undermining the West and democracy from within, “feminising” and “enfeebling” men and wider society.

Underpinning all of these is gender politics, with strongmen leaders asserting that feminism, sexual politics, LGBT equality and trans rights are threats to society. This has led to a turbo-charged masculinity, openly sexist, misogynist and homophobic, and deeply discriminatory and reactionary, attempting to row back a host of reforms and gains from the 1960s onward, seen most obviously in the current attempt to overturn Roe v Wade on abortion in the US.

These forces can be seen across the West, and are evident in Brexit and parts of Boris Johnson’s chaotic administration, and in the cluster of right-wing ideologues and demagogues associated with The Spectator and Daily Telegraph in the UK.

One example is neo-con Douglas Murray, connected to the right-wing Henry Jackson Society, whose recently published The War On The West lays out the threat from the cosmopolitan left and liberal forces. Not only that, in so doing he shares much common ground in his criticism of the West with Putin, and at the same time gives the actual authoritarian populist assault on democracy by Trump a complete free pass.

There are two big factors behind this wider shift. One is the abject failure of the right-wing economic model of capitalism of recent decades that promised to make us wealthier and prosperous via economic freedom and choice. Instead, the explosion of wealth created by technology, innovation and globalisation has been expropriated by a tiny capitalist class with little restraint or shame, who think the world should be run for and by them.

Connected to this is the decline of traditional politics of the left and right; most relevant here is the degeneration of conservatism aided by the weakening of its previous anchor points such as the influence of churches, deference and authority.

The long descent of conservatism can be seen in the changing nature of its outlook. In the mid-1980s, Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall and implored Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down the Berlin Wall”. Today, the forces of the right are the ones that want to put up barriers and build physical walls, whether the most mythical Trump barrier or Orban in Hungary – all to keep out undesirables, but more to toxify the domestic debate.

The Age Of The Strongman is not just about globalisation’s economic failures. It also encompasses the reaction to the hubris of Western imperialism which took it to the killing fields of Iraq, led to Brexit and Trump, and even played a role in Putin thinking he could get away with his disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

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The foreseeable future will not see these authoritarian populist forces and age of angry men go away anytime soon. Instead, they will be railing against the imaginary “enemies within” and invoke a mood of national unity which is deeply reactionary, oppressive and attempts to turn the clock back while launching ideological conflicts against “culture wars” and “cancel culture”.

This will be one of the fault lines of the coming decade and cannot be ducked by the left and liberals. It cannot be met with a defensive response – one which retreats and accommodates itself to these forces – that has been the hallmark of such forces as the UK Labour Party, US Democrats and the likes of the BBC.

Bourgeois liberalism informs most of these institutions and is itself part of the problem. Our limited political democracy has to be defended but has to be expanded. Even more, we have to talk about the economic and social powerlessness that people feel in the face of a repugnant capitalism, and dare to think about a real economic and social democracy that looks at how we can collectively hold meaningful power over the decisions which affect our lives.

This will require us to defend Ukraine’s right to self-determination, while recognising that the capitalism of the City of London and Wall Street has also to be opposed, and the atrophied and truncated democracy which has become the norm needs to be transformed. If we fail to oppose these new forces of reaction, then it is likely we will live with the consequences and an age of darkness for a long time to come.