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2018: The Year of Misgovernment

2018: The Year of Misgovernment

Saturday, 29 December, 2018 - 07:15
The dictionaries have decided on their 2018 words of the year. Oxford picked “toxic.” Merriam-Webster went for “justice.” Collins chose “single-use.” I’d zero in on “misgovernment.” Surely, 2018 saw a staggering number of misruled countries.

The most egregious examples are in the news every day. US President Donald Trump tops the chart as he runs out of straws to clutch in trying to convince Americans that his election has been good for them. The stock market bump of which he was so proud is disappearing. The fiscal deficit is the highest since 2012. Trade wars notwithstanding, the trade deficit is at a 10-year high.

The turnover on the presidential staff has reached catastrophic levels: 65 percent of Trump’s “A Team” had been replaced since his election as of Dec. 14, according to the Brookings Institution, and that doesn’t even include cabinet members (12 of the 24 officials in the cabinet have been replaced and now a 13th, Defense Secretary James Mattis, is leaving). Trump is having trouble filling once-coveted positions, and the officials he fired and those who have resigned are sometimes unconstrained in criticizing him — a situation that, were it to occur in a corporation, would have tanked its stock.

All this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Trump has done. The damage he has wreaked on the US role in the world is only beginning to manifest itself. Almost everywhere (with a few exceptions such as Israel and South Korea) favorable views of the US are declining, and people are becoming convinced that the US doesn't care about other countries’ interests. Alliances are loosening and the multilateral world order is creaking.

Almost as obvious is the misgovernment of the UK. Blind to the reality of disappearing economic growth, slowing business investment and a growing trade deficit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has persevered in trying to pull the country out of the European Union and in fantasizing about withdrawal terms that the EU rejected from the start.

Even beyond these two most obvious examples of mismanagement and incompetence, things aren’t looking much better. Last year, Emmanuel Macron of France looked like the Western world's great hope with his sweeping reform plans and a grand vision for a tighter-knit EU. He ends the year in retreat before what’s looking like the most effective Facebook-driven revolt in a Western nation to date, the Yellow Vest movement that started as a protest against a small increase in fuel taxes but grew into a violent anti-elite rebellion. Macron has undermined his reform ambitions by making concessions to the Yellow Vests worth up to 11 billion euros ($12.5 billion) a year, and his popularity hasn’t recovered, remaining at a dismal 27-percent approval in public opinion polls.  

Another potential leader of the west, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, spent most of the year hobbled by an open revolt within her party, the Christian Democratic Union, and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. The conservative rebels paralyzed the government demanding tougher immigration policies and forcing Merkel into exhausting backroom battles that left her drained, sometimes even apathetic. The Union performed badly in two important state elections, and Merkel was forced to give up the party leadership. 

This was a year of chaos in other democracies, too.

In Spain, Mariano Rajoy's center-right government buckled under the weight of corruption scandals and the outgoing prime minister spent a whole day at a restaurant as Socialist rival Pedro Sanchez unseated him in a kind of parliamentary coup. 

The shortage of competent, clear-headed, hubris-free leadership in today's world may be a freak accident. But if it's the new normal, living in this world will require new skills from ordinary people, too. Vigilance and easy mobility in case a country deteriorates intolerably are two of them; a capacity for constructive protest is a third. Bad leadership isn't just something we read about on news sites. It could signal the deterioration of institutions, both global and domestic, that shape our lives.

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