Katherine Deves’s trans women comments ignited another round of culture wars – and added another nail in the coffin of democracy


America’s second president John Adams famously said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” A bit rash, perhaps — and Adams was more philosopher than politician, a man given to bold statements. More than two centuries after he said that, American democracy is still standing, still offering what another president, Abraham Lincoln, called the “last best hope of Earth”. But it is wobbling. Americans have lost faith in their democracy. It is a nation riven with tribal political warfare. Division and corrosive, hope-sapping inequality. It appears, at times, as a nation ungovernable. It is not alone. Democracy is not dead but it is weakened. Freedom House, which measures the health of democracies globally, now counts 15 straight years of democratic decline. At the same time the political strongman, the autocrat and populist have exploited genuine fear and anxiety to govern not over division but because of it. Yes, democracies are committing suicide. We are not immune. Australia is one of the world’s robust democracies but we are falling prey to the American disease of incessant culture wars that inflame passions and obscure reason. As the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke once said: “The wild gas, the fixed air is plainly broke loose.” We have seen that this week with the debate — or is that panic? — over transgender women in sport.

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