Media have helped create a crisis of democracy – now they must play a vital role in its revival

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne. In May 2020, with the world still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, Margaret MacMillan, an historian at the University of Toronto, wrote an essay in The Economist about the possibilities for life after the pandemic had passed. On a scale of one to ten, where one was utter despair and ten was cautious hopefulness, it would have rated about six. Her thesis was that the future will be decided by a fundamental choice between reform and calamity. She saw the world as being at a turning point in history. It had arrived there as a result of the conjunction of two forces: growing unrest at economic inequality, and the crisis induced by the pandemic. It was at such times, she argued, that societies took stock and were open to change. Such a time, for example, was in the immediate aftermath of the second world war, which resulted in radical reforms to international political and economic frameworks. She was writing against a backdrop of a larger crisis – the crisis in democracy. The most spectacular symptoms of this were the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States and the Brexit referendum. Both occurred in 2016, and both appealed to populism largely based on issues of race and immigration. In the four years since, many books have been written on this crisis, among them Cass Sunstein’s #republic, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die, and A. C. Grayling’s Democracy and its Crisis. Then, somewhat surprisingly, in May 2020 a new spirit of what might be called “economic morality” announced itself. This came from within the Republican Party of the United States. It happened while Trump, that most amoral of Republican presidents, was in office, and reasserted some of the […]