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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. 


 Is Western democracy coming apart at the seams? A decade ago, only paranoid alarmists would have posed that question.

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

On both sides of the Atlantic -- from the fires that raged in large stretches of London, to the political chicanery that brought the U.S. economy to its knees in early August -- the institutional framework that came to define modern democracy in the 19th century is in deep trouble. 

The principal organs of financial oversight and management are in tatters. Ferociously xenophobic political movements, an entire constellation of Tea Parties, now play important roles in nearly every European nation, as well as the United States. 

Faith in elected leaders and legislatures, the central and defining institutions of democracy, has never been lower.

According to the Pew Research Center, the proportion of the U.S. public expressing trust in the federal government has fallen from just under 80 per cent in the late 1960s to barely 20 per cent today. 

A European Union poll last September found that only 29 per cent of voters in its 27 member-states trust their own national government. Less than 20 per cent believe that their elected representatives are capable of successful action "against the effects of the financial and economic crisis." 

A meagre seven per cent trust the United States, the West's political and economic giant, to address the crisis -- a resounding vote of no confidence a year before the disastrous U.S. Congressional budget struggle. 

These numbers, put bluntly, are staggering. 

Angry, violent civil disturbances, first in Paris and now in London, have revealed enormous tinderboxes of alienation. With the gap between rich and poor -- between philosophical democracy's matchless promise and contemporary democracies' transparent inequities -- expanding at a dizzying pace, more explosions are likely and perhaps inevitable. 

Abroad in the Middle East and Central Asia, and at home in its urban streets, the Western Alliance is increasingly unable to maintain its values or defend them. 

Murdoch affair -- another betrayal of trust

Two factors separate these developments from the periodic lapses that marred democracy's evolution in the past. The first is that they are intimately connected, a systemic malady. The second is that their strains are being felt not in one Western nation or even half a dozen, but in all of them simultaneously. 

The links were strikingly evident in the scandal that erupted over the operations of Rupert Murdoch's News of the World, the United Kingdom's largest-circulation newspaper. 

The story opened with what appeared to be narrow abuses of individual privacy, the hacking by News of the World reporters into the cell phone of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old British girl who vanished on the way home from school and was later found dead. 

Within days, the scandal grew into an expose of byzantine collaborations at the commanding heights of business and politics, leading not only to the firings and eventual arrests of Murdoch editors, but bringing down powerful figures in the British government and the nation's top law enforcement official. 

Then the storm crossed the Atlantic, setting off an FBI investigation and prompting the resignation of Les Hinton, chairman of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Both companies are also owned by Murdoch, as is the Fox News Channel, the chief broadcast voice of the populist American right.

A limited story about the callous treatment of a family tragedy had morphed into a full-fledged allegory on the cynical corruptions of business and politics, all in the name of "the people" -- the mostly lower-middle-class voters who are the principal audience of Murdoch's publications and broadcasts in Britain and America alike.

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