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Is Democracy as We Know It on Its Way Out?

A decade ago, only paranoid alarmists would have posed that question.

 Today, it may be an expression of cold, brutal realism. 

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The tragedy is that their betrayal, which is precisely what it amounts to, is also a betrayal of their waning faith in democracy. 

A private survey released by the Brussels-based polling firm Burson-Marsteller in June, even before the Murdoch scandal broke, found that Britons' trust in their government had dropped by 51 per cent in just two years. 

Decline of the fourth estate

In the end, another of democracy's critical institutions, a reliable and vigilant press, blew the whistle on the Murdoch empire's shenanigans. The most damning evidence was hunted down by the investigative team at the Guardian, a British newspaper that stands at the opposite end of the professional spectrum from the tabloid sensationalism of News of the World (which Murdoch eventually shut down in an effort at damage control).

Voters need a dependable flow of facts, the kind the Guardian team chased down, to interpret events whose complexities are all too often lost in the braying of extremists. Without a well-informed electorate, democracy is a sham.

But like public trust in government, the mainstream press is caught in a precipitous downward spiral. In the brief span of four years since 2007, more than 25 per cent of all full-time reporters at U.S. newspapers have lost their jobs. In 2009 alone, the toll exceeded 6,000, the largest single year's cutback every recorded. 

The United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and Italy, with a combined population roughly 50 million less than that of the United States, laid off 6,500 reporters that same year.

Meanwhile, the sensationalist tabloids and their broadcast equivalents prosper, scandals notwithstanding, with the nihilistic right as prime beneficiaries.

There is no mistaking its impact. 

The European Union, an extraordinarily ambitious experiment in establishing democratic institutions across national boundaries, has brought six decades of continuous peace to a continent where history was defined by ceaseless wars among the French, British, Germans, Spaniards and their neighbors for two millennia.

Amidst a chorus of vapid nationalistic slogans on every side, the EU now stands perilously close to outright collapse.

In the once-solid heartland of western tolerance, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands, extremist anti-immigrant parties have been voted into every national parliament and exercise decisive power in many. The rhetoric that seized the imagination of Anders Behring Breivik, and sent him on a bloody one-day rampage in Norway that took 77 lives, is heard daily in the very legislatures where social democracy was polished into the globe's most comprehensive health, job-creation and pension structure. 

In Italy, where I live, the most important coalition partner in the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is the Northern League, a party openly dedicated to the dismantling of the Italian state. The League's close American cousins, in spirit as well as in principle, are the Tea Party legislators of the U.S. Congress. 

It also demands the forced repatriation of immigrants, from a country that saw 25 million of its own people leave for abroad in the lifetime of my four grandparents, who were among them.

Frank Viviano is a veteran correspondent based in Barga, Italy. He wrote this for New American Media, an independent online publication based in San Francisco that focuses on multicultural media.

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