Across the world, democracy is under pressure. According to one set of experts, the world entered a ‘democratic recession’ in 2016 and is yet to recover. Russia, Peru, Turkey and Myanmar are among the nations whose democracy scores have slumped.
While democracy is down, populism is up. According to a recent study, populism is at an all‑time high, with more than 25 per cent of nations now governed by populists. Populists tend to erode democratic institutions and undermine economic growth. Fifteen years after populists take power, income per person is 10 per cent lower than it would otherwise have been.
Worst yet, populists make catastrophic risks more likely. Confronting dangers such as nuclear war, bioterrorism, climate change and rogue AI requires mobilising our intellectual powers, strengthening institutions, cooperating internationally and remaining calm. Yet by definition, populists are anti‑intellectual, anti‑institutional anti‑international and anti‑calm.
The populist business model is to sow chaos – which can make it harder to avert catastrophe. Just think about how poorly populists managed COVID, and then imagine what might happen if they were faced with an even worse disaster.
What is to be done? In his book On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder sets out 20 lessons from the 20th century about how to defend democracy. Studying how fascism and communism took over, his lessons include defending truth, strengthening institutions and being wary of paramilitaries. But he also emphasises the value of civil society.
Snyder reminds us that a strong democracy isn’t just about parliaments and elections, but about community. Czech dissident and poet Vaclav Havel knew a thing or two about resisting autocrats. He knew how important it was for a democracy to have a strong social life.
Havel gave the example of citizens who join together in a beer‑brewing club. By taking pride in their beer making, and coming to know others who do it well, they are creating civil society.
After the fall of communism in 1989, Havel became the first democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia (and later, the Czech Republic). He never lost his love for beer‑brewing and community building.
Australia today is suffering a crisis of disconnection. The past generation has seen Australians become less likely to play a team sport, less likely to join a community group, less likely to volunteer and less likely to donate to charity.
Compared with the mid‑1980s, Australians today have only about half as many close friends. Compared with the era when the television show Neighbours first aired, Australians know only about half as many of our neighbours. Building community will make Australians healthier and happier. Asked about our views of an ideal society, most of us say that we’d like to spend more time with friends and family and we’d enjoy living in a society where more people know our neighbours.
As a government, we’re doing all we can to strengthen charities.
We’ve set a target to double philanthropic giving by 2030 and we’re working to streamline charitable fundraising laws. We’re holding Australia’s largest‑ever charity conversation, and making it easier for charities to get tax‑deductibility status.
But community building is also something that each of us can do in our own lives.
As we come into summer, consider whether you can do more to connect with those around you. Join a team sport. Attend a community meeting. Volunteer your skills. Donate to a worthy cause. Host a summer street party for your neighbours. Join a beer brewing club. Connecting isn’t just good for your neighbourhood, it’s also vital for our democracy.