In defense of democracy

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - January 14, 2021 - 12:00am

Globally, the political world today is focused on what is happening in the United States. At stake here is not just a political battle between the Democratic and Republican parties. The bigger contest is whether the democratic model for society is still viable in today’s world which is facing several existential crises like climate change, technological revolutions and several man-made crises like the pandemic which is challenging the march towards globalization.

For a while, it seemed that the China model of totalitarianism as a means of achieving material prosperity and the sacrifice of human rights in favor of a controlled and “disciplined’ society was beginning to be accepted as the model for the world’s future. This was a terrible choice for those who valued human rights and the reliance on institutions rather than rule of personalities. Xi Jinping, in his efforts recreate another Mao Zedong, was beginning to be praised rather than condemned. Even China’s persecution of its Muslim minorities and its harsh treatment of dissidents were being considered as a worthwhile price to pay for massive infrastructure and material prosperity.

There are people I know who are religious and yet accept the persecution of religions in China as an acceptable price for its beautiful highways, bridges and skyscrapers.

Before we talk of the global significance of what is happening in the United States, we need to have a quick review of contemporary history. The ’30s and the ’40s was a time of a world war that resulted in millions of deaths and destruction unparalleled in human history. It was a struggle against fascism and democracy was perceived to have won with the surrender of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

However, it gave birth to communist controlled countries, especially Russia and China. The result was a Cold War and several wars erupted like in Korea, Angola, Cuba and Vietnam. In 1991, communism collapsed and the ideological war between democracy and communism resulted in the overwhelming victory of liberal democracy.

Democratic politics, human rights and free market capitalism seemed destined to conquer the entire world. Even Russia under Gorbachev and China under Deng Xiaoping seemed prepared to join the world community and lead their countries into peaceful co-existence with the rest of the world. Less than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the world is back again to ideological struggles.

History took an unexpected turn. After fascism and communism collapsed, we saw a resurgence of populism – one-man rule. There are several reasons for this sad phenomenon. The most important reason is the widening gap between the rich and the poor. Income inequality has never been at its worst level as it is now. Less than 70 individuals own as much wealth as the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population. The masses seemed to have come to the conclusion that democracy and free market economies benefit only the very rich. Even Pope Francis has said, in several writings, that the “trickle down” theory does not work. This is the economic theory that as the rich get richer, their wealth will trickle down and benefit even the poor.

In the last decade, there was a worldwide process of de-democratization, which means a gradual decline in the quality of democracy. There arose the practice of state-led weakening of democratic institutions. Populist leaders gained power in countries like Russia, China, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary and Thailand. Then came the worst blow to democracy in the world – the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

Trump became the symbol of populism all over the world. He befriended dictators and disregarded human rights and tried to destroy respect for a free press. Even noted futurologist Yuval Noah Harari became very concerned about the future. He wrote:

“So where are we heading? This question is particularly poignant because liberalism is losing credibility exactly when the twin revolutions in information technology and biotechnology confront us with the biggest challenges our species has ever encountered. The merger of infotech and biotech might soon push billions of humans out of the job market and undermine both liberty and equality. Big Data algorithms might create digital dictatorships in which all power is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite while most people suffer not from exploitation but from something far worse – irrelevance.”

The Biden victory has been seen as a global victory for liberal democracy. This is not one populist being replaced by just another populist. When Trump won the American presidency in the so-called model of democracy, the question was whether it could happen anywhere else in the world. The answer, of course, is that a populist leader can gain political power regardless of a country’s economic status or level of income.

This means that it could happen in the United States, it could happen anywhere else. On the other hand, the Biden-Harris victory proves that democracy could be regained.

Trump reacted like most fallen dictators. He threatened martial law and is encouraging armed protests or uprisings. The lesson here is that would-be dictators will not easily give up. Even here, after more than 34 years, the Marcoses are still trying to get back into power.

The other significant datum is that Trump the populist, despite his dictatorial and racist language and his failure to lead his country through this pandemic crisis, still got 73 (or is it 74) million votes. This is happening in a developed economy with a supposedly educated people.

The Trump story is not finished; and we should be closely monitoring events in the USA and try to learn lessons from what is happening there.

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An invitation to young writers:

Young Writers’ Hangouts via Zoom will resume on Jan. 16 and 30, 2-3 p.m. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com.  0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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