How a civil society can protect democracy

Populist leaders may feel empowered to trample checks and balances, but civil servants must not serve them at their whim

The good news was well disguised in the anonymous cry of warning against the "amorality" of Mr Donald Trump.

A senior administration official, writing as an unnamed columnist in the New York Times, described how he and like-minded colleagues "are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of (the US president's) agenda and his worst inclinations".

The message is that democratic habits - and, crucially, civic decency and responsibility - can, in step with free journalism, win out over degraded administrations. Democracy worldwide is in need of a fillip - and the column, if properly understood, delivers it.

A shelf full of fluent, convincing and pessimistic books lamenting the decline, even the end, of democracy has been published in recent months.

This includes Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt's How Democracies Die, Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West, and Edward Luce's The Retreat of Western Liberalism. American liberals, writes Mr Luce, believe that the march towards freer societies will resume "after a brief interruption. How I wish they were right. I fear they are not".

I hope they are. And the as-yet-unidentified Washington official gives me a basis for that cock-eyed optimism, for he or she illuminates the existence of a powerful countertrend.

It shows that when there is a great challenge, there is great pushback.

Democracy does not simply reside in governments, and the behaviour and policies of their leaders. It has taken root, and still takes root, in the actions and aspirations of citizens.

These citizens, crucially, include civil servants. These are servants of governments, but are also civil, belonging to the civis, to the citizen.

Thus there is a tension in the phrase "civil servant," which expresses the tension inherent in being part of a state bureaucracy. Government bureaucrats serve presidents, or prime ministers - but not at their whim.

Civil service is not servitude; it implies reciprocity. In return, there must be observation, by those in power, of the democratic limits. It is one of the features which distinguish democracies from authoritarian states - where service is servitude.

Essential to these states which are not authoritarian - especially those with an authoritarian past - is that politicians can fulfil at least the minimal responsibilities of their calling.

These are to protect the democratic mechanisms and civilities which brought them to and sustain them in power. They also serve: they have the huge privilege of serving the citizens.

As populist politics continues to thrive, the tensions inherent in the position of civil servants will continue to grow.

The new politicians are deliberately crude in their pronouncements, since they want to burst open the settled policies and habits of mainstream politics and replace it with what they interpret as the will of the people. And that can, indeed, be what the people want.

But populists also tend to act like Mr Trump. Populist leaders tend to see themselves as the sole embodiments of popular power, and as thus empowered to trample checks and balances.

Populists do express popular frustrations, which have strong foundations. They are right to seek power to address them.

But democracy demands responsibility: to explain the down- as well as the upsides of policies, to work through the institutions which maintain necessary checks on supreme power, to separate legitimate remedial action from mere (even if popular) prejudice.

Civility, civil servants - and powerful administration officials - can save us from an eventual abyss, and give us hope that a decline is not irreversible. - REUTERS

The writer co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.