Saving democracy from democracy itself


democracy-under-test

First and foremost, I hope that everyone reading this post enjoy a merry Christmas (or, if you are not a Christian, at least a good holiday). I am sure that 2016 has been a tough, strange, sad, and maddening year, given the occurrences of many ‘weird’ events throughout this year. As we are welcoming 2017, which is only a few days ahead of now, it may be worthwhile to spend a little bit time to reflect stuff that has occurred in the last 12 months.

There is one inconvenient condition, at the least, that we must all acknowledge on the first hand: democracy is not working well. I do not know to which extent you deeply support the notion of democracy or its ideals, and I do not even know if you support its very essence at all, but the first precondition that we must be aware is that there is something wrong with how we implement democracy across the world.

We even need to start asking ourselves: how do we actually define a democracy? If we think democracy is no more than voting, protesting, and changing governments, then something is wrong with our conceptual framework about this idea. Even China, all that we know as a one-party authoritarian state, regularly holds direct elections (although constrained on the village level) and experienced almost 100,000 protests in 2015, although the nature of these protests was mostly about grievances against local governments. Is it a sign of democratization? Assuming ceteris paribus, I do not see its democratizing prospects in the long run, given that majority of the middle class in China still support the Communist Party regime.

That’s the case for China. Then we have the populist-wave phenomenon in the Western world. People in this hemisphere have experienced the refugee crisis, suffered from terrorist attacks, seen worsening inequalities, and undergone stagnant income gains with sluggish economic growth rates. We’ve seen the impacts of ‘Brexit’ (even though the real Brexit has not really taken place), and the biggest amplifier of all, the fact that we will see Donald Trump (and all the brouhaha that we have known) becoming the 45th President of the United States.

Perhaps the world is preoccupied with the Brexit and Donald Trump phenomenon, but do not get entrapped in such common knowledge bias: the quality of democracy is in decline worldwide. Stanford-based political scientist Larry Diamond, in his January 2015 research paper, has highlighted that since 2005 onward, the growth of democracies has stagnated, and even slightly declined. Looking at the current context, we’ve seen quite a number of these illustrations. The increasing centralization of power in Turkey under Erdogan. Putin’s continued dominance in Russian politics, despite economic crisis and stagnation. The victory and ongoing rule of hard-line populist parties in Poland and Hungary. Excluding 25 other cases that Diamond listed in his paper.

Remember one thing in the first place, though: they gain power not through illegitimate means, but through elections, many of which are actually competitive.

I am not saying that democracy is going to collapse anytime soon; indeed, both Larry Diamond and Dan Slater (another renown political scientist based in University of Chicago) concurred that democracy will stay in the long run. Rather, what they (and also I) worry is that certain political forces may hijack the very purpose of democracy for their own advantages. That, I argue, may lead to the subsequent decline in the quality of the democracy itself. After all, differentiate the concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’; the former relates to what ideas are best accepted by the majority in a polity, while the latter relates to the checks and balances of the former. The current tendency, nevertheless, is that democracy has been so seriously misused that we all begin to see the unexpected – and oftentimes unwanted – consequences: clientelism, political corruption, populism, demagoguery, tyranny of the majority, polarization, and ‘manipulation of the game’; or, to put it in layman’s term, the fact that any alternating government will not be able to change the existing flaws in the political system.

This is not to say that other alternatives are necessarily better than democracy; Przeworski et al., in a signature 2000 paper, has argued that economic development bears little (or even no) correlation with a country’s political status as either a dictatorship or a democracy. That said, it does not matter whether a country is still ruled by an authoritarian regime or has already democratized; as long as the government can deliver outcomes as promised to the people, there should be a degree of stability. What I am saying here, in this regard, is for us to experience ‘a rude awakening’ of the current flaws in the implementation of democracy.

Here are some personal suggestions that I can think of in how we can save the benefits promised by democracy from its debilitating disadvantages, especially as we are welcoming 2017:

First and foremost, acknowledge that democracy does not make us ‘live in paradise’.

Our ‘obligation’ to preserve democracy has been largely ceremonial and superficial: we go to voting booths to vote for candidates, and end of story. I don’t care whether you have ever voted or not, but I get the feeling when people express their dissatisfaction and voice that ‘whoever becomes elected, nothing has ever changed’. Presidents or prime ministers come and go, but some problems are becoming worse. In the 2016 US election alone, over 100 million eligible voters did not cast their support to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump (let alone Gary Johnson or Jill Stein). I may understand the prevailing sentiment among these people about these candidates, and acknowledging that, on the first place, is a first step to deconstruct our thought processes about the notion of democracy.

Second, when you are presented with contradictory arguments, no matter how uncomfortable or painful they are, ‘do not hide in safe spaces’.

Many of us may find the statement ‘politically correct’ allergic. And sometimes, I personally feel that, too. Nonetheless, most of our time, we have been raised in a way that we can only voice out issues that conform to the ‘politically correct’ notion. Any slight deviation from the general consensus will be immediately ‘shut down’ by tirades of ‘political correctness’, and sometimes with credible threats of coercion. What’s the consequence? We refuse to listen to ‘inconvenient truths’, preferring ourselves to stay within our own comfort zones that we have been so deeply imbued with. I don’t care if you are a liberal, a conservative, or simply ‘an ordinary guy’, but if we, even at the very first place, have begun to censor our mindsets with filters of certain notions or perceptions associated with ‘the other party’, we end up labeling the other side into a monolith. Liberals shutting down the conservatives, conservatives shutting down the liberals, etc. Bubbles proliferate, and when they explode, the outcomes can be fatal. Civil conflicts, riots, uncompromising polarization, winner-takes-all attitude, or even mass casualties, all these outcomes are possible. Why don’t we all minimize our ego and start listening? Not that their ideas may be entirely correct, but at least, we may find a certain degree of ‘virtues’ in their arguments. Unfortunately, this second step may be the most difficult thing to do (given our prevailing dogma, stereotyping, and other biases within our mindsets).

Third, educate ourselves about civic rights. And as long as you have enough resources, do something.

I am sure that most of us have, at least, been engaged in a certain community-themed action, no matter how small it is. Be it visiting elderly people, providing free food for poor or homeless people or refugees, or volunteering for an NGO or a religious or social movement, such actions can already be considered as ‘breeding grounds’ for us to learn more about issues related to our society. We do good things not only to wish ourselves ending up in heaven, or to win more business contracts for our enterprises because of good publicity (ironically, that’s what CSR is all about), but also to understand in further depth about the roots of these problems. Why there are such communities that they may need our assistance. Understanding their issues, listening to their perspectives, and fully discerning their hardships may be another step to make us more aware about the concept of civil society.

Most importantly, if you are parents (I am still a 21-year-old guy, by the way), and your children are still young, educate them about the importance of civil society. Get them involved about these issues. You may disagree with me to a certain extent, but I do believe that the earlier we are exposed to these problems, the more we become aware of what we can contribute to solve these problems.

Fourth, compromise, no matter how unpopular it is.

Compromise often sounds dirty, or something like a C-word. But, again, be aware of the existing reality: society is a set of constantly competing interests, ideas, power, and forces. There are a lot of diverse groups from ethnic, racial, social, economic, religious, and various other defining features. It is correct that we strive to advocate our ideas, and sometimes we may have to compete with others, but when these become winner-takes-all struggles, it poses a danger to our long-term democratic values. After all, one feature of democracy is that it is raucous, noisy, and oftentimes chaotic. However, in the end, still, we must come to the realization that some of our interests do not always overlap with the others, but we can not overlook them, either. They are still part of our society. In the end, there are some painful compromises we must make. I do not ask for us to completely give up our rights, but to trade some issues of ‘minor’ importance, which may be of major importance for the other. This does not sound popular at all, but that is why I ask all of us to make such sacrifices, occasionally.

Fifth, and lastly, remain critical of our surrounding environment.

This may be difficult to apply in certain hybrid or authoritarian regimes, but after all, dissenters still exist everywhere. When we vote somebody to a public office, we entrust him or her with a significant degree of trust that the leader will do something. That we will hold our support toward them accountable. That is why, no matter what policies the leaders do, do not stop being critical. Write our thoughts, ideas, and feedback about certain policies in a civic and restrained manner (especially if you live in a country that does not seem too much like a democracy). If you are afraid to do so with the central or federal government, at least start from the localities we live in. Do not hesitate to criticize when there are things worth raising for.

I do not guarantee whether all these five suggestions are applicable, but if you believe that democracy is the least bad form of political system (as I personally also do), I still believe that these ideas are worth for consideration. Particularly in the age of social media – and the massive flurry of deliberate misinformation or ‘fake news’ – never before has it become so imperative for us to maintain our critical-thinking skills. I choose to believe that this matters, not only for this generation, but for future generations to come.

Additional readings:

 

Is Democracy In Decline? Published by Georgetown University.

Papers citing Larry Diamond’s paper, as listed in Google Scholar link here.

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