This article is an excerpt from
V. M. GOPAUL
The forces of our time are blasting in all directions; the cry of gloom and doom is getting louder. Will the fierce tempest shred our safety net to pieces?
Towards the end of 2018, philosophers, authors, filmmakers, politicians, and academics have become wary of an impending calamity. Some publications that show the stress of our time are Growing Pains: The Future of Democracyby Gwynne Dyer,21 Lessons for the 21st Centuryby Yuval Noah Harari, and How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.
Furthermore, forty-four former Republican and Democratic US senators wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post with the warning that “we are entering a dangerous period” and urging current and future senators to be “steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy.”
Are we getting tired of dystopia predictions? I am. But many readers love to read gloom and doom scenarios. Who would have thought that Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale first published in 1985, would become popular in 2018? This dystopian fiction later became an award-winning TV series.
In these publications, one theme that runs deep is the attack on democratic institutions.
What is democracy? Briefly, it is a society for the people and by the people as opposed to one run by a monarch, dictator, or an elite group (communist party). This system of governance first appeared in the 5th century BC to denote the political systems then existing in Greek city-states, notably Athens, to mean “rule of the people” in contrast to rule by the aristocracy; it spread its wings after WWII. After this catastrophic war, former empires, namely the British, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese, and French, embarked on the process of decolonization. In 1950 there were only a handful of democratic countries, but amazingly, by 2007 there were 123 electoral democracies.
Power to the people through fair and free elections became the foundation of this modern life. With the active participation of citizens in politics, democracy quickly became part of civic duty. Also, protecting the human rights of all citizens, and a rule of law in which laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens became essential.
Democracy thrives only through the proper functioning of institutions, such as the judicial system, policing, freedom of expression, equality, freedom of religion, marriage, education and so on. These edifices of modernity are near and dear to many around the world. Their significance cannot be underestimated. Social activists around the world have devoted their lives and resources to preserving the integrity of these pillars of our social lives.
Universally, these institutions are also associated with values of modernity. Though liberal democracy started in western countries, it is spreading across the globe. For example, these institutions are deeply rooted in India or Mauritius (where I was born).
In contrast, in the Middle East, where Spring Movement started, hope bloomed in hearts and minds that people would enjoy the same freedom and prosperity as Europe and North America. Their hopes were quickly dashed. The success of modernity requires certain mindsets, such as respect for the rule of law and institutional processes. When trust in authorities is established, the results, whether electoral or judicial, are respected, and everyone abides by the decisions even though some of the population may not agree. This kind of respect shows the maturity of a country. For example, the United Kingdom, which fought hundreds of wars in the past, decided to break away from the European Union after a referendum held in 2016. The voice of the majority was respected, and the breakup, called Brexit, proceeded without violence. In days past, such a desire to separate would have resulted in war. Not anymore. It is a sign of a new consciousness.
In my opinion, what will guard the integrity of these institutions are the values enshrined in the constitutions of each country. The charter of each country is a unique configuration reflecting its own national historic and cultural flavor. But by and large, they all have some common values such as equality in the eyes of the law, minority protection, religious freedom, and human rights.
Alarm bells ring, according to the books mentioned earlier, when politicians come in to destroy these institutions to gain or maintain their own power. Cunning folks declare war on the ills of society by promising to protect workers’ rights, tax corporations, kill the drug dealers, help the poor—all are part of the campaign to elicit the sympathy of the majority and get the populist votes. Once in power, abuses follow. Have you noticed some presidents getting 80% of the vote during many successive elections while actively crushing opponents, demonizing the media—all in the name of democracy? They have all the characteristics of dictators. Some stay in power for decades.
According to Freedom House, “starting in 2005, there have been eleven consecutive years in which declines in political rights and civil liberties throughout the world have outnumbered improvements,as populist and nationalist political forces have gained ground everywhere from Poland to the Philippines.”
It is true that in many parts of the world, say the Middle East, people are yearning for democracy, but one has to recognize that institutions alone cannot build democracies. Strong values embedded in people’s consciousness make true democracy happen. For example, Spain’s history shows that this country underwent many traumatic events until the population demanded true freedom.
To save the world from opportunists, I did two things: killed apathy and voted for the right candidate. For years I did not participate in elections. In the last five years, I voted in every municipal, provincial, and federal election. Though very keen on politics, I do not belong to any party. I do not vote for candidates based on their political parties but rather on their character. When it comes to the oneness of humanity, building the right institutions is essential. Inclusivity, harmony, justice, and prosperity will slowly but inevitably envelop the world. No winds of calamity will prevent it from happening as long as the right institutions and values spread their wings over all of us.