Those of us in the affluent West hold to the belief that certain political realities remain sacrosanct. Rule of law, political representation, will of the people, elections, civic duty – these have become so entrenched in our thoughts that we believe them immutable. And situated at the peak is that one great word that encompasses them all – democracy. For all its many flaws, it remains our preferred method of government.
The problem is that none of that is certain anymore, as the decades have introduced complexities that confound even the most stable governments. When Alan Moore, in his V is for Vendetta, wrote that, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people,” it was assumed that only one of these could exist in a single moment. But we are now learning that our modern democracy is furthering both at the same time. Rampant populism is only the most recent example of how the great democratic experiment of the last two centuries has slipped its moorings and sailed into troubled waters.
The term democracy can now mean many things, not all of them true to its original intent of citizens being granted certain rights regardless of who is in power. Indeed, the protection of these liberties by way of constitutions, civil rights, and separate branches of government was democracy’s greatest responsibility.
Yet while most countries call themselves democratic today, a good number of them use force and coercion to keep their people in submission to their autocratic rule. By delinking government from its responsibility to the individuality of its citizens, these rulers – most of them ironically elected – have taken democracy off in new directions for which it wasn’t intended. For a century, Western governments attempted, often crudely, to persuade less-developed nations to extend more liberties to their people. Leaders of those receiving nations most often justified their need for Western resources in order to free their nations from the more brutal practices of history. They then used those tools designed to enhance democracy and drove their people back into the shadows of a despotic past.
Efforts to export democracy to struggling nations were frequently mixed with ulterior motives and an almost complete lack of understanding of a region’s history. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, El Salvador, Guatemala, South Sudan, Rwanda, are but some of the more recent examples of naïve foreign policy run amok.
Troubling as these developments were, Western governments necessarily drew a certain comfort by comparing their advanced democratic institutions with the perceived crude efforts of those they were attempting to assist in other corners of the world.
Now such comparisons are often moot. It remains a very difficult thing to assert you have the political and economic solutions the developing world needs when you tolerate growing poverty levels, increases in violence, gender inequality, and the blind disregard of your own indigenous people. This becomes a democratic nightmare when it is your own citizens that express their disenchantment in huge number. Political instability becomes the present companion in every election and politicians adopt the torturous process of trying to be all things to all people, while ending up as bland versions of their former principled selves.
Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia this past week revealed just how confounding this whole democracy definition has become. The sight of a constitution-avoiding Western leader leveraging military and economic deals with a Saudi leadership that has turned civic oppression into something of an art only further blurs the lines between true democracy and it’s many modern pretenders. The result is confusion and hypocrisy. Or as the Washington Post reported: “Trump has preemptively made many more concessions to the preferences of Arab regimes in the hopes that they will respond with financial and political support.” So much for democracy’s moral high ground.
You can’t just unpack democracy as if it’s a “one-size-fits-all” bromide. It remains the most arduous political task in the world today, involving dedicated effort by citizens and those they elect. Professing democracy while denying people their democratic rights shouldn’t be fooling anybody. Voting has little effect when your only emotion towards the political order is one of fear. Mark Twain wasn’t just joking when he said, “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” The essence of democracy is turning that vote into the most powerful political act by a liberated and protected people.