Waiting for Franklin

This year Independence Day falls on a Sunday so the associated bank holiday in the US will be held on Monday (5th). This is not wholly unusual. Benjamin Franklin celebrated the first Independence Day with a dinner for close friends (including John Adams) in Paris. Franklin’s dinners were part of his diplomacy as America’s man in Paris, and the American Club in Paris has continued this tradition (as I am on the topic of Paris, visitors and residents alike should visit the superb, newly restored Hotel de la Marine which will give a taste of the magnificence of the ‘Franklin era’ in Paris).

Franklin is a good example of a political figure who is associated with food, Churchill being an obvious one (Cita Selzer’s book ‘Dinner with Churchill’ is good) and I suspect nearly all the French Presidents (see Jean d’Ormesson star in ‘Les Saveurs du Palais’ for example). By comparison, the post Brexit squabble over sausages is banal.

Franklin, one of my favourite historical figures, also reminds us of many other things, the first of which is that we will rarely see his like again – he was a writer/publisher, physicist, diplomat and politician, amongst many other accomplishments and hugely influential in setting the values and codes that shaped America.

Politics is now such a cruel and demanding ‘sport’ that it is unlikely that someone of Franklin’s many talents (the same is true for the other Founding Fathers) would or could rise to the top (note that the positive trend of rising female participation in top level politics is accompanied by the fact that relatively few European leaders have children illustrating that it is difficult to have a family life in politics).

The other aspect of Franklin’s great life that is worth commentating relates to his time in Paris and the very close ties between America and France. It is very likely that few of those who stride up and down Lafayette Avenue in lower Manhattan know of the contribution of the Marquis de Lafayette and also of the writer Beaumarchais to American history. France and America entered the 18th century as the lynchpins of the democratic world and together with England, Ireland and a host of other European and Asian nations, are still its flag bearers.

What is worrying however is that democracy and much of what Independence Day represents is under steady attack. Some years ago, the American political scientist Larry Diamond wrote of the global ‘democratic recession’ and in recent years think tanks like Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit have remarked on a broad based decline in both the number of democracies and in the quality of democracy.

Almost 70% of countries covered by the EIU’s Democracy Index recorded a decline in their overall democracy score, while the global average score fell to its lowest level since the index began in 2006. The EIU’s database shows that the leading democracies of the world are largely small advanced countries, which contributes to a sense of the vulnerability of democracy vis a vis larger countries, while some of the ‘freedom’ maps from Freedom House show how (geographically) polarised democracy is across the world.

If asked ‘what worries you most about the world’, my response is that democracy withers away and with it the rule of law and the role of credible institutions. We can see the effects of this in countries like Brazil, Hungary and Turkey but we could just as easily dismiss these as emerging markets.

That’s wrong on two fronts – what will shape the world in the 21st century is the form of governance that populous fast growing countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rwanda and Vietnam. Second, in countries like the UK that were hitherto regarded as bastions of democracy, the quality of government is visibly deteriorating.

Moreover, to return to Larry Diamond, he has recently written in Foreign Affairs magazine that the world may face the prospect that American democracy would die out, leaving the international political economy directionless and shapeless. To that end, the politics of states like Georgia may be more meaningful than what happens in domestic politics across India.

The worry is that ‘fake news’, voting restrictions and a radicalised Republican Party lead the US further away from democracy and in the absence of a unifying figure of the mantle of Hamilton (beyond President Biden it is not clear who the obvious next candidate will be given the poor performance of the Vice President) there is a leadership vacuum.

It may be, unfortunately, that such a threat is required to bring forth the next Benjamin Franklin. Happy 4th of July.

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