December leader – If we don’t have good arguments to keep democracy, we’ll lose it

As support for liberal democracy plummets across the West, we could all do with asking ourselves whether we have the arguments we need to keep authoritarianism at bay

Do you know why you believe what you believe in?

I realised recently that I don’t. I had come across an op-ed in Jyllands-Posten newspaper by professor emeritus Helmuth Nyborg, entitled Fear for Denmark’s future. It was barely concealed racism, suggesting that immigrants posed a threat to Denmark because of their alleged low IQ.

“Immigrants from the south with low IQs will unknowingly undermine the existence of European people,” he writes.

Pointing to so-called Cold Winter theory, he argues that northern European people had to be intelligent to survive the cold winters after leaving Africa. He says this demonstrates why democracy arose in the north, and not in Africa.


I was appalled. When I searched his name I then came across another op-ed from November in which he suggests that the low intelligence of immigrants from the Middle East explains why they have difficulty integrating and finding work.

His ideas were outrageous, but he quoted lots of facts and studies. I spent some time online and couldn’t really find anything conclusive to refute him. Intuitively I knew he was wrong, but I didn’t have the facts, or the time to find them.

Jyllands-Posten eventually published two replies to Nyborg’s pieces. They were co-authored by 14 different academics who laid waste to Nyborg’s ideas. Democracy, the Bronze Age and philosophy all arose in the Middle East and Mediterranean, which are rather warm. Living in a warm climate isn’t always easy – there is drought and predators to contend with. And while they acknowledge that there are studies that show differences in IQ between ethnic groups, there is far more evidence to suggest that IQ is primarily influenced by our environment and not our genetics.

While it was distressing to read Nyborg’s op-eds, I was gratified that he had been so resolutely shot down by other experts with clear and nuanced arguments. And now I had the evidence I need, if this subject ever does raise its head again.


Because there is no reason to believe that racism won’t return or that any of our other hard fought liberal values won’t be threatened in the future. People support illiberal values not necessarily because they are evil, but often because they don’t have all the information. Very rarely to people justify their position by saying, “just because.” We are compelled to seek truth and the most logical answer.

Given the same facts, people can still disagree. But that’s because we aren’t perfect logic machines who share the same biases, inferences and facts. Not because we aren’t compelled to understand the world and societies we live in.

At any rate, I think we could all do with brushing up on our arguments for preserving the liberal democracies we live in. Because according to Yascha Mounk, a lecturer in government at Harvard, liberal democracies may be at risk of decline. His research found that the percentage of young people in the West who say it is essential to live in a democracy, has plummeted. Around 75% of Britons born in the 1930s say it is essential, compared to only around 30% of Britons born in the 1980s. The same trend was mirrored in the Netherlands, New Zealand and the USA.

I find it hard to believe that Millenials are inherently illiberal. I would prefer to believe that they simply don’t understand how incredible Western democracies are compared to the alternatives. And this must be because we haven’t given them the arguments, without which the prospect of a military dictatorship doesn’t seem so awful (the same study found 80% of Americans think the military could legitimately take power).

So my request to you, dear reader – on the occasion of The Murmur’s 30th issue – is to start paying attention to your beliefs. Ask yourself whether you have the evidence to support those beliefs. And when you come across someone who believes something different, listen, ask questions and discuss. The future of Western civilisation depends on it. M

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By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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